“The concluding volume of D’Agata’s massive trilogy of anthologies on the nonfiction form showcases a remarkable array of writers from Anne Bradstreet to Kathy Acker.”—Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
“D’Agata’s pioneering spirit in these volumes offers one of the most broadminded views of creative nonfiction in the persona of the essay.”—Signature Reads
“I would say that out of the twenty some years I’ve been doing this show there are few books that I’m certain will be read well beyond the show’s lifetime, and it’s been an honor to be associated with them.”—Michael Silverblatt, KCRW’s Bookworm
“Ben Lerner and Knausgaard and Davis Means and that whole style/school/movement are intensely pursuing the same sort of track as D’Agata is here arguing for. . . . That may be the strangest aspect of this monumental undertaking he’s now completed: while it’s impossible to guess the full measure of its impact, what it’s already done to contemporary literature is profound. . . . However the contemporary canon ends up being adjudicated and constructed, you’d be wise to put money on D’Agata and this trilogy having a significant presence in its DNA.”—The Brooklyn Rail
“The Making of the American Essay is a book worthy of its grand title. . . . D’Agata is a fervent guide. . . . leaving readers yearning for more.”—The Columbus Dispatch
“An ambitious project that casts far and wide for exemplary contributions to the essay as a risk-taking work of art.”—Lambda Literary
“John D’Agata cements his status as a master curator and champion of nonfiction with The Making of the American Essay, the final installment of his trilogy of anthologies of essays.”—Largehearted Boy
“John D’Agata is a champion of the essay, a crusader for lost forms, a defender of nonfiction as an art. . . . [The Making of the American Essay] shifts his position from expert to shaper; through his curation and introductions to these essays, D’Agata proves himself to be not only a scholar and proponent of the essay but also an artificer of the form. . . . His project—that of reshaping the genre of creative nonfiction—is a bold one. . . . All of D’Agata’s companion pieces prove the intensity of his attention to each author’s legacy; they reveal new textures and fresh angles to each author’s work.”—The Iowa Review
“The trilogy is nothing if not deeply researched: those 121 collected essays are his primary sources. And though he never really sets them in a wider social or cultural setting, preferring instead to nest each essay inside a thin cocoon of events that occurred in the essay’s birth year, they stand among each other in a long intellectual and aesthetic tradition, providing mutual context. . . . The essays don’t simply provide shoulders for their neighbors to lean on; instead, D’Agata chose them and arranged them in his own idiosyncratic way so that they might speak to each other. . . . D’Agata’s collection will tell you that the essay is not a genre—which is why D’Agata never defines it—but something universally human, an action and an orientation towards the world, an attempt to make meaning from the raw material of fact. . . . Facts are metaphors that can be rung like bells, and the essay, a form fabricated from fact, an attempt to strike a fact in such a way that it sets a thousand other facts resonating sympathetically, thereby raising from the cold, rational, dead past a living chorus of souls all in harmony. D’Agata’s brilliance, it seems to me, lies in never unshackling the two senses of the essay from each other.”—3:AM Magazine
“John D’Agata is America’s most intellectually eloquent reader of the essay. His passion for the form has led him to search for and discover a treasure trove of what the genre is capable of. With this third and final volume of his long labor of love he gives us a defining work of reference that will serve generations to come of essay readers the world over.”—Vivian Gornick
“John D’Agata has given our civilization an inexhaustible gift with his three massive compendia of the recent past, the remote past, and the ingenious present and speculative future of the essay. Monumental and intellectually and imaginatively generous, these books are not only absorbing reading but wonderful examples of how, in the right hands, the act of anthologizing becomes an art in its own right.”—Vijay Seshadri
“John D’Agata’s alternative histories of the essay are anthologies in the same way the aurora borealis is actually a bunch of charged collisions; in his books we get to see pieces of art crash against his own restless brilliance. In this third installment, he is once more a stunning curator, giving us the story of the American essay as a strange, nimble creature—vexed and incandescent in its uncertainties, constantly surprising in its negotiations of anguish, mischief, and awe. Here we find ancient varieties of wonder and doubt provisionally fleshed in captivity tales and curiosity cabinets; we find silence and insomnia, blood and swollen moons. This American history is also a history of unknowing itself: a record of the human impulse to metabolize the world and a record of this impulse continually meeting the world’s infinitudes.”—Leslie Jamison
“It’s clear that the past fifteen-or-so years saw a rethinking and a rebirth of the essay, and equally clear that John D’Agata’s work was essential in both. He pushed the form forward with one hand and extended our grasp of its roots with the other. He remains as exciting to read as to argue with, and his hunting in the worlds of lost non-fiction has shown me many new writers and texts. The Making of the American Essay completes a series on the subject and brings the achievement of all three books into focus. It is major.”—John Jeremiah Sullivan
“Please, if the world gets blown to smithereens tomorrow, let this series be the one that tells the next civilization all that we thought and dreamt and said. John D’Agata has done something truly remarkable here: as archivist and archaeologist, as artist and impresario of the purest literary form—the essay—he has left a dazzling record of, as he puts it, ‘our human wondering.’ A New History of the Essay is learned and idiosyncratic, addictive and wildly entertaining. It belongs on every shelf.”—Michael Paterniti
“At last The Making of the American Essay completes John D’Agata’s anthology series, A New History of the Essay. Here the crucial middle years—how we got here—have been filled in, and we can understand anew just how the essay, our American essay, has grown and lived and been written and rewritten. This canon-making is a major undertaking and an astonishing act of literary generosity for which we all should be grateful. As D’Agata puts it, ‘The world, we all know, is already a nonfiction. Let the essay be what we make of it.’ Emphasis on the make—these are the essays we have made, and of these essays we are made—but also on the we. The essay may be a solo thing, but these are songs for all of us to sing.”—Ander Monson
“Nothing could be sweeter than another hugely ambitious and visionary gathering of essays from John D’Agata and Graywolf. In the preceding anthologies I’ve sat in my chair and circled the world, sought out the past, and looked into the future. Now set squarely in America, once again the essay, that most humble and solitary of forms, finds its epic account, rising out of a flood and sweeping toward a horizon of ellipses, a leaving off and a farewell that generously makes room . . . for more . . . more of our voices, more of our shapes, more of our secrets and uncertainties, more of the teeming and inventive energy inside the simplest facts . . . and more of us, reader and writer alike, because in the end this wild and wandering epic is our song to sing.”—Charles D’Ambrosio
“For well over a decade now, John D’Agata has been the renovator-in-chief of the American essay. As practitioner and theorist, writer and anthologist, as example and the enabler of examples, D’Agata has refused to yield to the idea of non-fiction as stable, fixed, already formed. . . . Instead, he has pushed the essay to yield more of itself, to find within itself an enactment of its own etymology—an essaying, a trying, a perpetual attempt at something (after the French verb essayer, to try). He has emphasized that the essay should make, and not merely take; that it should gamble with the fictive and not just trade in the real; that it should entertain uncertainty as often as it hosts opinion; that the essay can be as lyrical, as fragmented, as self-interrupting, and as self-conscious as the most experimental fiction or verse. . . . ‘Let the essay be what we make of it,’ is D’Agata’s refrain, and his three large anthologies have made good on that promise.”—James Wood, from the foreword to A New History of the Essay
“John D’Agata is a groundbreaking literary activist. It is due to him and these anthologies that the most exciting writing today is happening in the realm of nonfiction, in particularly the realm of the essay, which he has, near-single-handedly, rescued from the literary dustbin and turned into a vital contemporary art form. A New History of the Essay is essential reading for anyone interested in the future of nonfiction.”—Heidi Julavits
“John D’Agata’s anthologies are always stimulating, provocative and full of surprises. Moreover they invaluably extend our notion of what an essay is and can be. This third volume provides the fitting capstone to a brilliant, insanely ambitious endeavor. There are enough nourishing pieces to munch on for years to come.” —Phillip Lopate
“John D’Agata has provided a wonderful—and useful—map of the vast territory that is the American essay.”—Lewis Hyde
About a month ago, on a trip to Dallas, Texas, I had dinner with a young d.j. whose renown as a producer and engineer is steadily growing. We talked about life and music and art and money, and how he’d arrived at this juncture in his still-short career. Out of the blue, he asked me what I thought about the pastor and televangelist T. D. Jakes, whose megachurch, The Potter’s House, is located in Dallas. I hedged, said something about how Jakes—whose books and cassettes and, later, DVDs littered the bookshelves and bedside tables of the apartments I grew up in—has long struck me as a religious corollary to Oprah Winfrey, a vaguely more devout avatar of that now-pervasive gospel of good feeling and well-directed energy.
“I love him,” the d.j. said, with surprising conviction, and I couldn’t help but ask why.
His appreciation, it turned out, was born of a kind of artistic recognition. He loves to listen to preachers, he said, because a great sermon is like a great d.j. set. Each achieves its purpose via a slowly but strategically earned trust. At a party, this is straightforward: you play familiar songs at the outset, stuff certain to get the crowd moving and on your side. If, later on, you plan to play anything newer, or headier, or more esoteric, you’ll need this reservoir of goodwill. The preacher makes a similar calculation—those first tentative movements away from the safety of the text and into the wilds of exegesis and analysis need to be friendly, kind, “relatable.” Any hope of sneaking in some bold or challenging theological notion, or moral proposition, rests on the benignity of this initial encounter.
This made me think about what I do for a living. After all, the essay, in its American incarnation, is a direct outgrowth of the sermon: argumentative, insistent, not infrequently irritating. Americans, in my observation—and despite our fetish for the beauties of individuality and personal freedom—are always, however smilingly, trying to convince somebody, somewhere, of something, and our essayistic tradition bears this out.
Consider, as just one recent example, Claire Vaye Watkins’s essay “On Pandering,” published online by Tin House last November and discussed heatedly for weeks, even months, thereafter. Watkins begins by innocuously, if with a bit of bite, describing the ruralia that surrounds Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, where, “until recently,” as she writes, she taught at Bucknell University. She invites readers to think of Lewisburg as the convergence of a tripartite Venn diagram: “label circle #1 Amish country, label circle #2 coal country, label circle #3 fracking country.”
“During the time I lived in central Pennsylvania,” she writes, “the adjective I used most to describe the place to faraway friends was ‘murdersome.’ ” So far, so charmingly free of argument. Then Watkins weaves an insight about the inherent falsity of the college town—the feeling one gets of its having been created for students and their parents, as a kind of “country-mouse theme park”—into a sly statement of her theme: “I lived in a landscape of pandering.”
Then comes a cascade of anecdotes: a humiliating, sexist run-in with the literary “P. T. Barnum figure” Stephen Elliott; a quick history of what Watkins describes as a youthful pastime: “watching boys do stuff”; and then, least convincingly, her own epiphany that smoking pot might be more dangerous for a non-white friend than for her. Each story inches the reader closer to an understanding of what worries Watkins, what she at first searchingly fingers, and then, with gathering directness, fights against: that “the white supremacist patriarchy determines what I write.” By the essay’s end, Watkins has shrugged off any pretense of disinterest or mere observational curiosity, instead offering “some ideas” that gather a force akin to the preacher’s fire. It is impossible to read the essay’s last sentence—“Let us burn this motherfucking system to the ground and build something better”—without hearing a raised voice, or a chorus of answering amens.
It’s important to note that Watkins first delivered “On Pandering” as a speech, at Tin House’s Summer Writers’ Workshop. The document’s shift in purpose, from one-time rhetorical set-piece to widely disseminated tract, is reminiscent of Ralph Waldo Emerson, to whose famous addresses—secular sermons without exception—every American essayist, for good or ill, owes one thing or another. Emerson’s prose style could only have been developed out loud, and for the purpose of persuading (or, at least, entertaining) an audience—he careens back and forth in playful, liquid, rollicking sentences of varying lengths; he runs cool, then hot, then affectedly bored, sometimes within the space of a single phrase. He’s pushy, impulsive, impetuous, self-refuting, sort of causelessly rebellious and irreverent. If the Internet sometimes seems sodden with argument and counter-argument, with provocation enough to stretch on beyond the death of the republic (which, granted, hasn’t seemed that far off, lately), this, Emerson’s essays remind us, is nothing new.
As much as one might wish to lay claim to the sensibility of, say, Montaigne—the ruminative philosopher’s ideal, the notion of the essay as neutral attempt—most of us Americans are Emersons: artful sermonizers, pathological point-makers, turntablists spinning the hits with future mischief in mind.
Toward the end of the introduction to his latest anthology, “The Making of the American Essay,” published earlier this year, the essay-evangelist John D’Agata recounts the creation myth of the Cahto, a Native American people indigenous to coastal California. The world, in their telling, was meticulously constructed by two deities and then arbitrarily washed away by an enormous flood. “But before they reconstruct the world they lost in their creation story,” D’Agata writes, “the Cahto make a point of lingering on the details of the flood’s devastation, noting how it methodically disassembled the world around them by erasing each part of it, piece by piece by piece: the mountains, trees, birds, people, weather, dirt, and light.” D’Agata reads this chronicle of annihilation as a celebration of nothingness itself, an indication of the excitement of the artist before a blank canvas—in the presence of pure potential. Into this void steps the essay, situated as it is “between the given and the made.” The world, he says, “provides nonfiction, and humans provide the rest.” This—“the rest”—is D’Agata’s definition of the essay, which leaves him room to trace the genre’s American flowering with a striking, and, in the end, unconvincing, breadth.
D’Agata’s liberties are legion: “Blood Burning Moon,” a fictional sketch from Jean Toomer’s modernist work “Cane,” appears in the anthology; so does “The Whiteness of the Whale,” a chapter from “Moby-Dick”; so does “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso,” a poem by Gertrude Stein. None of these is an essay, and D’Agata’s insistence on recasting them—and, in so doing, flouting the interests and intentions of their creators—is evidence of the flawed idea that underpins his effort. Just as telling is the inclusion of harmless belletristic exercises from artists otherwise known for their pugilistic talents. James Baldwin, the most preacherly American writer of the past century, is represented by his pleasant but ultimately aimless recounting of a fight between Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston. Renata Adler, whose lethal essayistic style is best indicated by her famous excoriation of Pauline Kael, appears by way of “Brownstone,” which, again, is not an essay but rather a short story (first published in The New Yorker) that appeared in “Speedboat,” Adler’s first novel, as a vignette. Emerson’s “Nature” is rightly present, as is one of its direct precursors, Jonathan Edwards’s sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”—but amid so much fiddling around, so many exceptions that prove the rule of our nonfiction tradition, the importance and lasting influence of these foundational texts is lost.
All of this has to do with D’Agata’s career-long intellectual project, which has been to “radically redefine” the essay—that phrase is from a recent interview, published in Guernica—by deëmphasizing the form’s fealty to fact, and, instead, insisting on its status as art for art’s sake, equal in its florid otherworldliness to any novel or poem. In the same interview, explaining the apolitical eccentricity of his compilations (“The Making of the American Essay” marks the completion of a triptych, together comprising what he calls a “New History” of the form), D’Agata speaks of his desire to “divorce the essay from being read exclusively as a form that’s tied to its subject matter, or that is propelled by its subject matter.” But what, really, can this mean? Writing is communication, and form is only meaningful—only artful—insofar as it aids and inflects the travel of a thought from one mind to the next. What is literature without the propulsion of a subject: fallen king, Grecian urn, eaten plums, or national travesty? What D’Agata describes, and what “The Making of the American Essay” presents—form unbothered by the roilings of the world, the essay untethered from its fiery American roots—is a beautiful house, unfurnished forever. Nothing political, provocative, or argumentative breaches his walls, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that little fun does, either.
Of course, the relationship between idea and expressive vehicle is looser, if not quite nonexistent, in other arts, especially the visual ones—often excitingly so. It’s interesting, then, to observe the steadily increasing prominence of frankly polemical work within the walls of the museum. In a recent essay,for New York magazine, on how identity politics have come to “constitute a real aesthetic movement,” on the same scale of art-historical significance as Impressionism or Cubism, the art critic Jerry Saltz recalls the still-settling impact of the “so-called multi-cultural, identity-politics, political, or just bad” Whitney Biennial of 1993. The show—which was helped into the world by Thelma Golden, now the director of the Studio Museum in Harlem—featured commentary on contemporary troubles such as the Rodney King beating and the AIDS crisis, and, along the way, earned the ire of the critical class. Saltz regards the show as ground zero in the creation of today’s artistic culture, in which “biography, history, the plight of the marginalized, institutional politics, context, sociologies, anthropologies, and privilege have all been recognized as ‘forms,’ ‘genres,’ and ‘materials’ in art.”
One way to see this sea change is as a final rebuke of later Modernism’s tendency toward solipsistic enclosure: there is, after all, a point beyond which a painting about paintings about painting becomes a symptom of the world’s absurdity, not a tonic or a refuge. Another way to see it is that our visual art has become more essayistic in nature—which is to say: sermonic, assertive, usefully relevant to a polity ever more prone to the bizarre. Perhaps more artists have realized what becomes apparent after leafing through “The Making of the American Essay”: that conflict is elemental to America and to its creative expression; that a well-crafted argument is art, not its opposite; that beautiful, harmless things are best left on the shelf and out of reach; that the more fiercely—and, yes, sometimes annoyingly—our sensibilities clash, the better off our country might be.