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The Best American Essays of the Century (The Best American Series) Paperback – October 10, 2001

ISBN-13: 978-0618155873 ISBN-10: 0618155872 Edition: Reprint

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 624 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; Reprint edition (October 10, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618155872
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618155873
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 5.9 x 1.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #9,572 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

The title The Best American Essays of the Century seems transparent enough, but don't be deceived. What Joyce Carol Oates has assembled is not so much a diverse collection as a sonorous march through what keeps getting called the American century. Read this not as a collection to dip into but as a history--a history of race in America. Oates says it best herself in her introduction: "It can't be an accident that essays in this volume by men and women of ethnic minority backgrounds are outstanding; to paraphrase Melville, to write a 'mighty' work of prose you must have a 'mighty' theme." The mighty pens at work here belong to, among others, Zora Neale Hurston ("How It Feels to Be Colored Me"), Langston Hughes ("Bop"), and James Baldwin ("Notes of a Native Son"). Oates has opted not for the most unexpected but for the most important and stirring essays of our time.

Other chords sound repeatedly as well: the problem of our relationship with nature (Annie Dillard, John Muir, and Gretel Ehrlich); the difficulty of identity in disrupted times (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Joan Didion, and Michael Herr). In her essay "The White Album," Didion famously declares: "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." The stories Oates has collected are not easy. Here is the hard-won truth, from writers unwilling to forgive even themselves. Even Martin Luther King Jr. doesn't let himself off the hook, as he writes in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail": "If I have said anything in this letter that is an overstatement of the truth and is indicative of an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything in this letter that is an understatement of the truth and is indicative of my having a patience that makes me patient with anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me." --Claire Dederer --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

"Here is a history of America told in many voices," declares Oates in her introduction, revealing the heart of her intelligent and incisive collection of 55 essays by American writers. Never attempting to capture or replicate a single, authentic "American identity," this collection succeeds by producing a comprehensive and multifaceted look at what America has been and, by extension, what it is and might become. While it's not explicitly political, the volume's multicultural intentions are visible. Beginning with "Cone-pone Opinions," a 1901 Mark Twain essay that uses the wisdom of an African-American child as its central image, Oates has fashioned a collection that calls attention to the way that "America" is made up of competing, and often antagonistic, cultural and social visions. There is not only the apparent contrast between the populist, overtly political visions of W.E.B. Du Bois's "Of the Coming of John," James Baldwin's "Notes of a Native Son" and Mary McCarthy's "Artists in Uniform" and the cultural elitism of T.S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent." Oates has managed to find numerous pieces whose vision and philosophy resonate with one another without becoming homogeneous, so Gretel Ehrlich's meditation on pastoral aesthetics in "The Solace of Open Spaces" contrasts abruptly and ingeniously with Susan Sontag's urban-centered "Notes on Camp." In all, Oates has assembled a provocative collection of masterpieces reflecting both the fragmentation and surprising cohesiveness of various American identities. QPB and History Book Club selections; BOMC alternate. (Sept.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Customer Reviews

Joyce Carol Oates nails it again!
Andrea
Gertrude Stein's essay is closer to her approach to poetry, with the sound of the words being more important than their content and any meaning.
Elizabeth Ashe
This is paradoxical, since the best pieces are those that lay bare the country's worst injustice - racial prejudice.
Lynn Harnett

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

64 of 71 people found the following review helpful By Lynn Harnett VINE VOICE on October 1, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Many would regard the task of selecting "The Best American Essays of the Century" as a most daunting honor, to be approached with much nail biting and trepidation. Whatever you choose, dissenters will howl. Oates, no shirker when it comes to hard work and firm opinions, offers her choices with confidence. "My preference was always to essays that, springing from intense personal experience, are nonetheless significantly linked to larger issues."
Arranged chronologically, the essays lean heavily toward reflections on the human condition within American culture. The writing is, without exception, eloquent and insightful. Race is a pervasive theme and inspires the most powerful pieces. The best essay in the book is James Baldwin's "Notes of a Native Son;" visceral and intimate, full of pain, bewilderment and searing honesty, whole of heart and intellect. Pieces by Maya Angelou, Richard Wright, Martin Luther King, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, and Langston Hughes, no matter how familiar, still shiver the soul with the conjunction of powerful intellect, soul-searing experience and the intimacy of an articulate voice.
My second favorite essay could hardly be more different. John Muir's "Stickeen," has it all: adventure, peril, pathos, the passion for nature and exploration, and the curious relationship between man and dog; a rousing good story.
Other themes place the writer in his contemporary culture; F.
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29 of 30 people found the following review helpful By charles falk VINE VOICE on January 4, 2001
Format: Hardcover
This is a wonderful collection of essays that gave me several hours of reading pleasure. I take strong exception, however, to the use of "Best" in the title. Another Amoazon reviewer says it is the only book of essays one need ever buy. Both claims greatly exceed the load-bearing capacity of the 55 essays included. It is an impossible task to reduce a century's worth of essays down to a handful that are "best". If Joyce Carol Oates and her co-editor Robert Atwan had called it "Some of the Best American Essays of the Century" I would have no quarrel with them. Some of the selections strain the definition of "essay", but are marvelous pieces of writing, nevertheless.
Mark Twain's "Corn-pone Opinions" leads off. "'You tell me whar a man gits his corn-pone, en I"ll tell you what his 'pinion is'". Ms Oates says Twain is making a "ringing denunciation of cultural chauvinism". I read Twain as saying we are all captives of the conformity we accept as the price for the approval of our peers. Either way the editors are as guilty of "corn-pone opinions" as any of us. More than a third of the pieces are by famous authors -- best-known for their fiction and poetry rather than for their essays. Writers who worked primarily in the essay form are badly under-represented, e.g. Hannah Arendt, Dwight McDonald, Roger Angell, Jaques Barzun, AJ Liebling, MFK Fisher, Lewis Lapham, Noel Perrin, Nati Hentoff, Walter Lippmann, VS Naipul, Calvin Trillin, Andrew Tobias, and Gary Wills. Atwan appends a bibliography of 200 "notable" authors excluded from the collection.
Oates says her collection's theme is the "...expression of personal experience within the historical".
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By William S. Shapiro on September 17, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Unlike the collection of short stories published last year, the editors did not have to limit themselves to essays printed in specific publications, leaving them able to pick the cream of the crop. But they aren't just well written pieces of non-fiction from some of the greatest writers like Tom Wolfe, Lewis Thomas, or Cynthia Ozick. Arranged in chronological order, they give a great sense of where we were as a country and how we've developed in the past hundred years. The only flaw is that many of the pieces, such as Martin Luther King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," and Maya Angelou's excerpt from "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" will be familiar to most readers, but it's worth it to have these essays bound in one collection.
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25 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Stephen R. Laniel on June 4, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I don't think I'm alone in viewing essays as members of a somewhat lower caste than novels and non-fiction books. Maybe it's because I associate the essay with newspapers, and people like George Will who pretend to know more than their readers. I think the editors of this essay collection understood that popular conception, and tried very hard to fight it. In line with that fight, one of the organizing themes of this book seems to be ``Essays About Individual Experiences." True, many of the essays take individual experiences and move into a more general realm, but they're always grounded in the author's experiences. Contrast this with George Will - Trinity College undergrad, Princeton grad school in political science - writing essays about poverty and policy. There's more legitimacy - in my mind, anyway - in Richard Wright writing an essay about ``The Ethics of Living Jim Crow."
Many of the essays in this book, like Wright's, are on the subject of race in America. We have Zora Neale Hurston's ``How It Feels To Be Colored Me" (``Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How *can* any deny themselves the pleasure of my company! It's beyond me."); Alice Walker's ``Looking For Zora," on her attempts to find Hurston's lonely, abandoned, unkempt gravestone in Florida; Maya Angelou's ``I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings" (later part of a book of the same name); Martin Luther King's ``Letter From Birmingham Jail"; and so forth. As the editors suggest, race has been one of the longest-running struggles in the United States; it shouldn't surprise us that it has produced works of such power. The autobiographical format of these essays particularly fits with their subject matter.
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