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one woman's eloquent collection,
This review is from: The Best American Essays of the Century (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. Scott Fitzgerald wrestling with despair, Jane Addams contemplating the downtrodden old women who comfort themselves with myths, Katherine Anne Porter internalizing the atom bomb, Tom Wolfe escorting a settled man to his rebellious son's slum apartment, Randolph Bourne exploring how his crippling disabilities have shaped his life, Mary McCarthy confronting anti-Semitism in a railroad club car.
Some find a kernel of sharp insight in a childhood memory: James Agee recalling his undefined place in the tableau of a summer night, Eudora Welty on her early reading habits, E.B. White facing mortality while revisiting a boyhood camp with his son, Edmund Wilson taking stock of the old stone house in the bleak Adirondacks only to discover he has carried it with him all his life, Cynthia Ozick devouring books in her parents' depression-era drug store, Vladimir Nabokov probing the awakening of consciousness in his Russian boyhood.
There are literary essays, but they are not the strongest: T.S. Eliot on tradition in literature, Robert Frost on sound and meaning, Susan Sontag defining "camp." And there are gaps. Joan Didion's "White Album" explores the confusion of the 60s, but there are no real political essays. The women's movement, save for a didactic Adrienne Rich piece, might never have happened, ditto for Watergate and even World War I. There are only two war pieces: harrowing Vietnam reportage from Michael Herr and William Manchester's thoughtful response to the Okinawa War Memorial. The immigrant experience is represented by Richard Rodriguez' reflection on the pain and promise of becoming Americanized and Maxine Hong Kingston's poignant story of a shunned Chinese aunt, a long-ago suicide. Science is almost completely absent, save Stephen Jay Gould on the creation myth and Lewis Thomas' famous, brief essay "The Lives of a Cell." There's no political satire and no history, except as autobiography is history. But there are two essays dealing with suicide (William H. Gass, Edward Hoagland).
This is one person's careful collection of a century's important voices. All of the writers are well known, all have published at least one collection of essays, all of the pieces have been collected at least once before. Although there are a few humorous pieces (Mark Twain, S.J. Perelman, James Thurber), this is a sober and reflective collection, each essay the product of long thought.
The book would be a rich and valuable reading experience at any time, but is especially comforting during these somber, grieving days. This is paradoxical, since the best pieces are those that lay bare the country's worst injustice - racial prejudice. I expected to have trouble reading these painful essays, not wanting to feel angry or ashamed about my country right now, but it wasn't so. The unparalleled eloquence, the intimacy of these articulate voices, stand in such stark contrast to the vicious ignorance they've endured, that they hearten the reader by proving the strength and durability of the human heart.