Robert Atwan's favorite literary genre is the essay. As editor and founder of The Best American Essays series, Atwan has read thousands of examples of the remarkably flexible form.
"Essays can be lots of things, maybe too many things," writes Atwan in his foreward to the 2012 installment in the Best American series, "but at the core of the genre is an unmistakable receptivity to the ever-shifting processes of our minds and moods. If there is any essential characteristic we can attribute to the essay, it may be this: that the truest examples of the form enact that ever-shifting process, and in that enactment we can find the basis for the essay's qualification to be regarded seriously as imaginative literature and the essayist's claim to be taken seriously as a creative writer."
In 2001 Atwan and Joyce Carol Oates took on the daunting task of tracing that ever-shifting process through the previous 100 years for The Best American Essays of the Century. Recently Atwan returned with a more focused selection for Publishers Weekly: "The Top 10 Essays Since 1950." To pare it all down to such a small number, Atwan decided to reserve the "New Journalism" category, with its many memorable works by Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Michael Herr and others, for some future list. He also made a point of selecting the best essays, as opposed to examples from the best essayists. "A list of the top ten essayists since 1950 would feature some different writers."
We were interested to see that six of the ten best essays are available for free reading online. Here is Atwan's list, along with links to those essays that are on the Web:
- James Baldwin, "Notes of a Native Son," 1955 (Read it here.)
- Norman Mailer, "The White Negro," 1957 (Read it here.)
- Susan Sontag, "Notes on 'Camp,'" 1964 (Read it here.)
- John McPhee, "The Search for Marvin Gardens," 1972 (Read it here with a subscription.)
- Joan Didion, "The White Album," 1979
- Annie Dillard, "Total Eclipse," 1982
- Phillip Lopate, "Against Joie de Vivre," 1986 (Read it here.)
- Edward Hoagland, "Heaven and Nature," 1988
- Jo Ann Beard, "The Fourth State of Matter," 1996 (Read it here.)
- David Foster Wallace, "Consider the Lobster," 2004 (Read it here in a version different from the one published in his 2005 book of the same name.)
"To my mind," writes Atwan in his article, "the best essays are deeply personal (that doesn't necessarily mean autobiographical) and deeply engaged with issues and ideas. And the best essays show that the name of the genre is also a verb, so they demonstrate a mind in process--reflecting, trying-out, essaying."
To read more of Atwan's commentary, see his article in Publishers Weekly.
The photo above of Susan Sontag was taken by Peter Hujar in 1966.
30 Free Essays & Stories by David Foster Wallace on the Web
Getty Images – Archive photos | PhotoQuest
I write essays to clear my mind.
– Taiye Selasi
Certainly, Ms. Selasi did not speak about academic essay writer’s block in particular, but essay writers block in general. Have you ever thought how essay writers could influence other people, and how important they could be for events’ coverage in history?
Thanks to these people we have a chance to learn interesting facts and understand the world around us better, and thanks to their works we perfectly know what sources to use as references when we write our academic papers.
A writer’s profession is among the most ancient ones. Great essay writers have been working since the early days of American history, and we can be proud of this fact for sure. Each period of our history has its own famous essay writers, and their works are a great example of what a power words have and how beautiful our speech can be when we express our thoughts consistently and concisely.
Let’s take a look at the brightest representatives of American essayists from the different historical periods and check their most famous essays to understand their originality and importance better.
Early American and Colonial Period: to 1776
A revolutionary spirit was in the air then. So, it is not surprising that this theme is perfectly displayed in all works of famous essay authors of that time. They wrote about laws they considered unjust, they described slavery and were against of it, they criticized authorities and their policy, they disagreed with aristocrats, and they warned what the circumstances of such a situation could be.
It was the period of colonial and revolutionary literature, and the greatest representatives of American essayists there were:
- Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and his work Of Youth and Age, Of Truth, Of Studies, Of Revenge, Of Parents and Children, Of Marriage and Single Life, Of Discourse
- Samuel Sewall (1652 – 1730) and his work The Selling of Joseph (1700)
- John Woolman (1720-1772) and his two essays Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes (1754 and 1762)
Democratic Origins and Revolutionary Writers: 1776-1820
The triumph of American independence influenced the moods and literature of those times. It was a period of early national literature, when essays by famous authors described antislavery, democratic sensibility, American exceptionalism, support of the Constitution, American generations, and relations between England and America.
Moreover, this is the time when essay writers pay publishers to see their works live. Writers perfectly know what hooks to use for their essays, and they have no doubts as for their works’ topicality, informational content, utility, and uniqueness. The best and well-known essayists of that period are:
- Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) and his works Advice on the Choice of a Mistress, The Art of Procuring Pleasant Dreams, The Temple of Learning, The Whistle
- Thomas Paine (1737-1809) and his two works: Common Sense (1776), The American Crisis (1783)
- Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and his The Declaration of Independence
- Washington Irving (1783-1859) and his The Mutability of Literature (1820)
Romantic Period : 1820–1860
This very period is called the American Renaissance, as it was inspired by the Romantic movement originated in Germany but spread to other European countries, such as England and France. The writing representatives here were both poets and essayists, as well as fiction authors, and their ideas centered around spirit, organic growth, inspiration, and the importance of art for society in general and individual in particular.
The major theme for every essayist of romantic age was self-development. A man should express himself and find ways for self-awareness and self-expression. The development of society is impossible to imagine without arts. Self and nature are one. Every essayist of romantic period found himself obligatory to describe similar moods in his works.
The names of famous essayists of that period are well-known today:
- Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882): Gifts, Self-Reliance, The Poet
- Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894): The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table
- Margaret Fuller (1810-1850): Papers on Literature and Art
- Joseph Dennie (1768-1812): Jack and Gill: A Mock Criticism
- Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906): On Women’s Right to Vote
- Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849): The Philosophy of Furniture
- Frederick Douglass (1818-1895): The Destiny of Colored Americans
The Rise of Realism: 1860-1914
As far as you understand, all those romantic moods could not last forever. 1860 was a year when realism had come back home and started to flourish in full. Famous essay writers of those times were inspired by the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), and the period of innocent optimism gave its way to a period of total exhaustion.
This is a period of America’s transformation into a huge and strong industrial nation. All these themes (a war, a person’s and nation’s strength, industrialization, urbanization, and alienation) find their output in many books, articles, and essays. Every famous essayist quotes were known by heart and cited, as they perfectly knew how to write an essay that would really work. The greatest works of that time were:
- Mark Twain (1835-1910): Advice to Youth, The Danger of Lying in Bed, On the Decay of the Art of Lying
- W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963): Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others
- Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888): Death of a Soldier (1863)
- Henry Adams (1838-1918): A Law of Acceleration (1907)
- A. Bronson Alcott (1799-1888): “Exercise” essay collection Table-Talk (1877)
- Mary Austin (1868-1934): The Land of Little Rain (1903)
Modernism and Experimentation: 1914-1945
Gertrude Stein, a well-known literary portraitist, has called young people of that time “the lost generation”; and we all know and remember writers of that time on this definition. This period between two world wars had been quite traumatic for American youths, as they were disillusioned with wars, did not like aristocrats, wanted to achieve something special in their lives… Such moods found the output in fiction works and essays of that time.
Writers and essayists were influenced by the Depression as well. They experimented with their writing forms, trying to express their points of view in quite unusual but still catchy and meaningful ways. The names of notional authors and essayists of this time are known by everyone today, and their works can be a great example for those people who want to become successful writers:
- Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961): The Snows of Kilimanjaro
- William Faulkner (1897-1962): The Sound and the Fury
- F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940): What I Think and Feel at 25
- George Ade (1866-1944): Luxuries 1922
American Essay Writers of Postwar Period
Essay writers of 1945-1990 were very reflexive. They observed everything that happened around them, described it and commented on it. Essays of that time have a really big value for us, as they help understand the nature, moods and development of Americans in the postwar period.
As oral genres become more popular and influential now, essayists use speeches, movies, songs to understand situation and people’s moods better and do their best to express them in writings. The literature of that time was extremely multifaceted, as it was influenced by Latin American realism and European existentialism. Such strong personalities as Nelson Mandela with his writings also gave American essay writers food for their works:
- Norman Mailer (1923-2007): The White Negro
- John McPhee (1931-present): The Search for Marvin Gardens
- Joan Didion (1934-present): The White Album
- Edward Hoagland (1932-present): Heaven and Nature
More names of the most famous essays’ authors of that time can be found here.
Contemporary American Essayists
Modern essayists are brave enough to challenge old ideas and adapt them to suit today’s quickly changing world. The fact Americans are one of the most diverse nations influences the writing moods much. Such themes as religion, feminism and post-feminism, various social issues, etc. get their new life now.
The Internet gives a way to a short story’s development. This genre becomes more and more popular: people do not want (and do not have) to spend much time on reading and analyzing long manuscripts, and most of them prefer quick reading online. Such a tendency helped many novice writers declare themselves by simple sharing of their short stories with online audience.
The best representatives of modern essayists are (all they can be found in the list of top 10 contemporary essayists to check):
- Marilynne Robinson: When I Was a Child I Read Books
- John Jeremiah Sullivan: Pulphead
- Stephen King: Great Hookers I Have Known
- Sarah Vowell: The Partly Cloudy Patriot
- David Shields: Reality Hunger
As we can see, the term “essay writing” does not come to college application essay writer’s block only. The best essay writers of all time try to share their thoughts and views for us, readers, to learn the world around us better. Taking a look throughout American history, each of us can understand the importance of these people’s work and their influence on general moods in society.
Keep reading and examining American essay writers, and who knows… Maybe you will have a chance to join them and become an influential and popular essayist one day.
By Lesley Vos, a staff blogger and essay proofreader, who is a big fan of reading as well. You are welcome to join her on Facebook or Google+.