John D’Agata is a champion of the essay, a crusader for lost forms, a defender of nonfiction as an art. The recent publication of The Making of the American Essay, the third volume in D’Agata’s essay-anthology trilogy, 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. Rather than merely defining the essay for his readers, he enjoins them to write their own definitions.
D’Agata is a maker, and the act of making can be considered the overarching theme of this new anthology. The first of the series, The Next American Essay, offers a selection of bold contemporary work from 1974 to 2003; the second volume, The Lost Origins of the Essay, excavates the ancient roots of the form; and this third volume explores the act of making—making as creation, creation as process, process as essay. The selection ranges from transcripts of age-old oral histories to postmodern semiotic diatribes to abstract portraits of rainclouds to prose-poem memoirs. Some essays offer direct reportage of early American violence, such as Charles Reznikoff's “Testimony” from 1934. Others render natural phenomena as metaphor for human melancholy, as in Walt Whitman’s “The Weather—Does it Sympathize With These Times?” D’Agata brings together the obscure and the famous, the respected and the forgotten. He opens the collection with an anonymous creation myth, then dips into Anne Bradstreet, soars through Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, and Gertrude Stein, and finally settles in the 1970s with Donald Barthelme and Kathy Acker.
In his elegant introduction to the book, D’Agata claims that, according to the Cahto, a coastal Californian Native American tribe, “the meaning behind ‘creation’ is creativity itself, the power and the pleasure of making.” To D’Agata, the world—our existence and our surroundings—is material truth, and when we take that truth into our own hands and shape it, we produce art. D’Agata preaches to the community of writers, artists, and readers at large to “let floods come, let dreams come, let something unexpected overtake us and make us new…let the essay be what we make of it.” His project—that of reshaping the genre of creative nonfiction—is a bold one.
In this colossal trilogy (the collective page count is 1,787), D’Agata—who directs the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program—scoops out an ambitious chunk of raw material from all existing written language and whittles it down according to his particular definitions. However, the nature of these definitions is not explicit, and rather than answering the question “What is an essay?”, these anthologies propose a new question—“What isn’t an essay?”—that leads a reader to wonder about D’Agata’s limitations in creating the book. Which characteristics of short, creative texts led him to exclude said texts from this selection? He has said that many of the texts in this anthology are not essays, but that they exhibit “essayistic tendencies,” and that a text didn’t make it into the book “if I didn’t like it.”
Indeed, what isn’t an essay? It’s an appropriate question, given that D’Agata considers this not an anthology of nonfiction but rather of the essay, a mode rather than a genre. This mode in D’Agata’s books is more fluid and more unusual than the market categorization and public boundaries of nonfiction. At the end of this volume, in a "A Note about the Title," D'Agata illuminates a paradox in the naming of the genre in which essays so amorphously float: "Because if fiction comes from fictio, the Latin word for "make," then doesn't that mean that non-fiction can only mean 'not art,' prohibiting the genre from being able to do what every art medium does: make?" He emphasizes the essay as process, as evidence of the mind on the page, selecting essays that echo the word’s origins in French: “essayer,” to try.
That leads to an enormous scope, including in form. The texts in this volume range from under ten to over thirty pages. Some are deliberately lineated, while others stretch out as dense, unbroken paragraphs across multiple pages. They vary in tone and subject from whimsy to trauma, meditation to suicide. These selections are so varied in terms of form, style, voice, and structure that it can be difficult to trace the ligatures between each essay.
Fortunately, D’Agata takes this unwieldy variety into account, and like the storytelling spider Anansi of Ghanaian myths, he spins delicate threads of his own writing between each piece. The book opens with three simple gestures that epitomize D’Agata’s curative prowess. He suggests to us, through the voices of our literary predecessors, that in writing, reading, and anthologizing the essay, one must “make it plain” (Whitman), “make it new” (Pound), and above all else, “make it sweet again” (Ashberry). His introductions between essays contextualize each work within time, space, and technique. Some are as brief as a phrase, while others eclipse the length of the essay they introduce. 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. In his introduction to James Agee’s “Brooklyn Is,” for instance, D’Agata suggests that Agee’s description of the Pennsylvania Station is the “literary equivalent of being inside a sentence that is held aloft by language, by a vim of curiosity, and maybe by a little bit of fear of what comes next.” He has selected these essays, arranged them, and housed them in a web of his own revelatory exposition.
Many of these essays thwart not only genre but also truth and fact, emphasizing instead the fallibility of memory. Where, for example, can we trace John Cage’s philosophical brushstrokes back to reality in his “Lecture on Nothing?” In this piece, phrases like “You have just / experienced / the structure / of this talk / from a microcosmic / point of view” skid across the page over ample white space and punctuation. Essays like Cage’s make no claim to realism or linearity. Although D’Agata has called the essay “an intimate and pure form,” he insists that we must remember that the essay is as “fabricated and forged as any other art form.” The essay reflects the artist’s interface with reality channeled through the pen, twisted and rearranged. The only thing “pure” about the essay, then, is the honest admission of struggle, evidence of thought in action.
This is not the first ambitious anthology of American essays, but its curation is unique; the pieces D’Agata has selected feel more experimental and formally innovative than those selected by his fellow contemporary anthologists. His trilogy is in conversation with The Best American Essays series, a yearly anthology published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, edited first by Elizabeth Hardwick in 1986 and most recently by Jonathan Franzen in 2016. The editors of this series have been careful to consider a broad range of styles, voices, and techniques, but they do not strive to shake the form’s foundation. One also cannot neglect to mention Phillip Lopate’s comprehensive The Art of the Personal Essay, which reaches back to Seneca, catalogues the rise of the English essay, acknowledges the essay’s origins in other cultures, and then categorizes the essays by themes such as thresholds and reportage.
D’Agata’s editorial lens stands out from these equally expansive anthologies. He has included many pieces that could be called prose poems, lists, journal entries, or letters. For example, Joe Brainard’s “I Remember” reads like an autobiographical poem, with the extensive anaphoric phrase that gives the piece its title. Similarly, William Gass’s “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” reads as a series of sentimental object portraits, which are separated by subtitles like “My House,” “Wires,” and “Church.” These essays eschew the form’s unimaginative if traditional expectations, such as the need for a guiding line of inquiry, or for a sense of resolution.
That may leave readers feeling uncomfortable, but here, that’s useful: D’Agata wields discomfort as a tool to teach readers how to read differently. His juxtapositions of unlikely literary bedfellows result in thought-provoking tension. He wants readers to be able to be able to recognize the motor that propels a text. He wants to push readers into spaces that we haven’t yet explored in literature, to stretch our imaginations, to abandon those stiff articles masquerading as essay that we were forced to write in high school English class. He recently insisted, at a reading celebrating the anthology, “An essay shouldn’t have a thesis statement. An essay doesn’t make any promises, and it very often fails to prove anything. That’s what makes the form exciting to read—to watch a consciousness evolve on the page before your eyes, to follow the contours of the speaker’s mind as it works through ideas, emotions, fears, doubts.”
The essay, in its fluidity, is a radical form. If a text alters the reader’s perceptions and displays the human effort of the author, D’Agata would call it essayistic, even if it takes the shape of a poem or presents itself in the guise of a story. This may seem provocative to some, but in these anthologies, the form becomes a spiritual vessel, a portal to deeper truths.
Frances Cannon is a writer and artist currently pursuing a master’s degree in nonfiction and book arts at the University of Iowa, where she also teaches literature courses. She was born in Utah and since then has bounced around living, making artwork, and writing in Oregon, Maine, Montana, Vermont, California, France, Italy, and Guatemala. She received her bachelor's in poetry and printmaking at the University of Vermont, where she self-published several chapbooks of silkscreened prints and poems. She has also worked as an editorial intern and contributor at McSweeney's Quarterly, the Believer, and Lucky Peach. She has recently been published in Vice, the Examined Life Journal, Edible Magazine, Electric Lit, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn.
The Making of the American Essay Series: A New History of the Essay
Edited by John D'Agata
Graywolf Press, March 2016
$25.00 paperback; ISBN-13: 978-1555977344