The Making of the American Essay
It’s weirdly easy to no longer be quite so shocked by what John D’Agata’s pulled off with his three-volume American Essay series for Graywolf. That first volume, the green one, The Next American Essay, was released in 2003, thirteen years ago and for some of us was the introduction to Jenny Boully, Eliot Weinberger, Thalia Field, Joe Wenderoth. The collection traced essays from 1975 to the then-present, highliting the possibilities of the form (most significantly, for this then-young reader, he included parts of “The Body” by Boully, an essay made entirely of footnotes). At the book’s very end, past the acknowledgements, here’s what’s written under the heading A Note About the Title: “By ‘Next’ is meant those essays that will be inspired by these. By ‘American,’ of course, I mean not the nation. And by ‘Essay,’ I mean a verb.” If you know anything about D’Agata, this sort of trickster-play is the course’s par: this is a guy who would, in 2012, publish The Lifespan of a Fact with Jim Fingal, the Believer fact-checker assigned to his article, which book sparked its own fun little set of skirmishes re: factual accuracy and the duties of non-fiction (a term D’Agata’s vocally not in love with). Plus even if you didn’t get all the way to the Note About the Title at book’s back, if you stopped the page prior, you’d notice the James Wright work in The Next American Essay was originally published in Wright’s collected poetry (and Wenderoth’s from his It Is If I Speak, still one of the all-time great collections), meaning of course it wasn’t really an essay at all, at least not as it was likely to be defined by most.
So you’d be welcome to take sides, and fight about whether D’Agata was staying inside his lines or not, but in doing so you’d have likely missed the next book, the blue one, The Lost Origins of the Essay, which looks backward, to the distant past, Montaigne and Petrarch, Swift and Pessoa. That one came in 2009, and it was harder to see, at least for me, because anthologies of older stuff are always somewhat harder to see; it’s like asking a bystander to say something of significance about a river’s flow; hell, I don’t know is the bystander’s only answer unless the bystander has done some heavy lifting re: river flows. The book was good, and interesting, and its most salient feature was that it furthered an argument D’Agata was having through all of his work: how do we know? Do essays owe us nothing more than factual accuracy, or need they attempt to clear the hurdle of Transmitting Knowledge? Is there even a distinction between information and knowledge? If the exclusive measure of an essay has to do with whether it stays within the lines of Look-Up-Able Veracity, can it still do what D’Agata believes it has always meant to do? These aren’t remotely idle questions, and you’re hugely encouraged to Google yourself silly and see just how seriously people fight and have fought about this stuff (specifically, how often they’ve fought about this stuff because of something D’Agata has done).
And now finally, here, a baker’s dozen years after the series’ start, we’ve got The Making of the American Essay. This one is brick-red and, sadly, no longer solely features Michael Silverblatt on the back blurbing it. Also of note: at the start of each volume there are three epigraphs, each taking a whole page for a single line. The first volume’s as follows:
These are the facts, my friends, and I have much faith in them. —Cicero
What do I know? —Montaigne
So I shall essay myself to be. —Emerson
Here’s from Lost Origins, the middle book:
What word is there to describe that kind of logic that sings? —Plutarch
The word for it is new, but the thing itself is ancient. —Bacon
Oh yes, dear reader: the essay is alive. There is no reason to despair. —Woolf
And now The Making of the American Essay starts with these:
Make it plain. —Whitman
Make it new. —Pound
Make it sweet again. —Ashbery
This table-setting is necessary in talking about what D’Agata’s done, because, like all editors, D’Agata’s making a sustained aesthetic argument, and, like all anthologies, it’s impossible to talk about this one’s significance on its release, because aesthetic arguments always take a hell of a lot longer than immediately to be settled. And still, without quite getting to the actual essays included, here’s more of D’Agata: “So let’s lay it out,” he writes on page 253, in the introductory essay prefacing W. E. B. Du Bois’s “Of the Coming of John.” “I believe the goal of art is to break us all open, to make us all raw, to destabilize our understanding of ourselves and of our world so that we might experience both anew, with fresh eyes, and with the possibility of recognizing something that we had not recognized before.” Just shy of a hundred pages later, on introducing Gertrude Stein’s “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso,” D’Agata writes about Ansel Adams and his picture of Half Dome, noting that Adams wrote “As with all art, the objective of photography is not the duplication of visual reality, but an investigation of the outer world and its influence on the inner world.” All of which is to say that to engage with D’Agata’s anthologies strictly on the basis of whether what he’s including are or aren’t (or should/shouldn’t be considered) “essays” is absurdly beside the point. The question is: what is he trying to get us to see about essaying? What does it do to the contemporary reader’s understanding of the essay to include in an anthology a poem by T. S. Eliot, followed several hundred pages later by a story by Susan Steinberg? What is it D’Agata’s doing?
It’s not as if he’s not making himself clear: essaying, to D’Agata, is the process of revelation, not some factually accurate depiction. He notes that Ansel Adams used a red filter to get his famous Half Dome shot, and that, in doing so, “he has deeply manipulated the mountain he loves, he has wrangled the reality of the world around him into what he needed it to be.” In each of the pieces in this latest anthology, and in all the pieces of the other two, he includes work attempting to make meaning rather than record meaning and, of course, attempting to make meaning involves mistakes, involves inaccuracies that are or are not eventually figured out (read The Lifespan of a Fact for the ultimate master lesson on what he’s after in this sort of creation).
And so we’ve got this collection which includes work from Jean Toomer and Donald Barthelme, an Emily Dickinson poem, and an introductory essay noting simply that in 1882 God was declared dead and so “[w]hat better time, therefore, to begin to get over our anxieties about art, to start realizing as a culture that those artists who test boundaries and the conventions of their art forms are doing so as visionaries on behalf of the human spirit, exploring what else is possible in these forms we’ve all inherited.” Of course D’Agata’s just as much talking about himself there as he is about the authors included in the collection, and one reason this trilogy he’s edited is so stunning and hard to get one’s mind around is because of the changes already wrought: Ben Lerner and Knausgaard and David Means and that whole style/school/movement are intensely pursuing the same sort of track as D’Agata is here arguing for (for a further analysis of the Means/D’Agata overlap, check the Harper’s review of The Making of the American Essay from May of this year). 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. Let’s not forget, too, that aesthetic arguments end up resolving by eventually becoming canon, and let’s also not forget that the literary canon is—like the forms we feel are so undeniably strong-walled and certain—always up for negotiation, for experimentation, for furthering. 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.