JULY 28, 2016
IN THE LAST YEAR and a half, literary studies lost two titans: M. H. Abrams, at 102 in April 2015, and Daniel Aaron, who died this past spring, at 103. The careers of these two men were built on their early books: Abrams’s studies of British Romanticism, The Mirror and the Lamp (1953) and Natural Supernaturalism (1971), and Aaron’s groundbreaking works of American literary history, Writers on the Left: Episodes in American Literary Communism (1961) and The Unwritten War: American Writers and the Civil War (1973). Both men continued to write, however, throughout their amazingly long lives, each of them managing to publish a book after turning 100. And both were also inspiring teachers whose influence reached beyond the classroom. Abrams taught for almost 40 years at Cornell, where his students included Harold Bloom, Gayatri Spivak, E. D. Hirsch, Robert Scholes, Carl H. Klaus, William H. Gass, and Thomas Pynchon. Aaron taught at Smith for 30 years and then at Harvard for 12. He was instrumental in building the multi-disciplinary approach known as American Studies.
General readers know Abrams and Aaron best for their work as editors and anthologists. Abrams edited the Norton Anthology of English Literature through its first seven editions (1962–2000; it’s now in its ninth) and A Glossary of Literary Terms, first published in 1957 and now in its 11th edition. Generations of college students read English literature seriously for the first time in their Norton anthology; after graduation, many held onto their copies (two fat volumes), the thin pages now full of underlines and margin notes — 10 million copies are in print. Aaron founded the Library of America in 1979, providing our culture with authoritative editions of American classics from Melville and Hawthorne to Updike, Roth, and O’Connor. The LOA’s books with their familiar glossy black dust jackets, have sold over 9.5 million copies.
At first, Abrams and Aaron worked primarily to codify existing canons, but they soon responded to the times and began opening the canons of English and American literature. Students who occupied buildings to protest the Vietnam War often called for African-American and Women’s Studies programs at their universities as well. They were frequently successful and the changes in curricula that followed required a new, more diverse set of classroom texts. The first edition of the Norton Anthology, which surveyed English literature from the Middle Ages to the present, included just six women writers. The latest version includes 60. In 1985, Norton launched an anthology of women’s literature, and in 1996, added one devoted to African-American literature. Both are now in their third editions. Similarly, Aaron’s Library of America has expanded to include not just already established masters such as James, Thoreau, and Cather, but also the work of African-American writers such as Hurston, Baldwin, and Wright, and more recently, collections of Elmore Leonard’s crime novels, Ursula K. Le Guin’s science fiction, H. L. Mencken’s columns, Aldo Leopold’s nature writing, and James Agee’s film criticism.
Aaron and Abrams responded to but did not lead the 1960s activism that ushered in such sweeping changes in curricula and publishing. They were fellow travelers of a sort. Aaron called himself “an irregular in the ranks of the non-Communist left.” Abrams was apparently a mediator. Jonathan Culler, his colleague at Cornell, described Abrams’s role in their department: “During the culture wars and arguments about the literary canon, he has promoted here at home an open-mindedness and mutual respect that has often been lacking elsewhere.” The movement those old lions were responding to was led by young faculty and graduate students such as Richard Ohmann, Paul Lauter, Florence Howe, Alice Walker, and Cary Nelson. This new generation was already active in the civil rights, women’s, and anti-war movements when they began to change the academy in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Change came quickly. They organized the Radical Caucus and the Women’s Caucus of the Modern Language Association in 1968. Howe, who founded The Feminist Press in 1970, served as president of the MLA in 1973. Ohmann edited College English from 1966 to 1978 and helped found Radical Teacher in 1975, journals that brought discussions of race, class, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality to literary studies. Walker published her famous essay “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” in Ms. Magazine in March 1975, and that December a petition was circulated at the MLA’s annual meeting asking that Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God be brought back to print. The novel is now a staple of high school AP literature classes and sells more than 100,000 copies a year. In 1989, Lauter launched the new Heath Anthology of American Literature. He said it arose from the “the 1968 movements.” The anthology is currently in its seventh edition. Its editors bill it as full of a vast variety of ethnic literature, “available in five volumes for great flexibility,” and as central to the “multicultural transformation of American literary studies.” Nelson’s Anthology of Modern American Poetry and Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry attempt something similar, promising to introduce students to poets “who have not been anthologized before” and to “both canonical and lesser-known selections by women, minority, Native American, and progressive writers only rediscovered in the past two decades.”
John D’Agata, who teaches writing at the University of Iowa, has quite different goals. Unlike Aaron and Abrams he is a writer, not a literary critic. He may not be a titan or a radical, but he is certainly talented, precocious, provocative, and influential. Graywolf has just released The Making of the American Essay, the final volume of D’Agata’s trilogy of anthologies that makes up what he and Graywolf call A New History of the Essay. The first two volumes were The Next American Essay (2003) and The Lost Origins of the Essay (2009). Like Abrams, Aaron, and the radicals of 1968, D’Agata wants to expand the canon — in his case, the essay canon — but he wants to do so by redefining what an essay is. He introduces us to new voices but not because those writers represent a previously underrepresented group in terms of race, sexuality, ethnicity, or class, but because D’Agata sees them as doing something different in terms of form, something that allows him to nudge the genre toward his conception of what it should be.
Graywolf Press published D’Agata’s first book, Halls of Fame, a collection of his personal essays, in 2001, when he was in his mid-20s and had himself recently graduated from the University of Iowa, where he picked up an MFA in poetry from the Writers’ Workshop and a second MFA from the Nonfiction Writing Program. (He would return to the Nonfiction Writing Program to teach full-time in 2006 and take over as director in 2013.) Around the time Halls of Fame came out, he pitched Graywolf publisher Fiona McCrae his idea for a 1000-plus-page anthology of the essay. He was nothing if not ambitious, approaching her, as he later acknowledged, “in that beautiful, cocky way that people do when they’re in their early twenties.” Halls of Fame had sported an attention-getting blurb from David Foster Wallace — “one of the most significant U.S. writers to emerge in recent years” — and had been a finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction. D’Agata was becoming a name so McCrae listened. His sweeping anthology, he said, would begin with a 5,000-year-old Sumerian list of aphorisms and end in the contemporary United States. As D’Agata tells the story, McCrae admired his ambition and trusted his talents, but told him he needed to calm down. She would try an anthology of his contemporary American selections and see how it sold. If it did well, they might pursue his other ideas.
Graywolf released The Next American Essay in 2003. It appeared at the moment when the “fourth genre” was experiencing a revival. Beginning with the New Journalism of the ’60s, writers like Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, Jamaica Kincaid, Barry Lopez, John McPhee, and Susan Sontag (all of whom appeared in The Next American Essay), had been shaking up a moribund genre. Robert Atwan’s Best American Essays series was in its 17th year, and creative nonfiction was finally beginning to work its way into MFA writing programs. Most essay anthologies, however, were still geared toward First-Year Writing courses. Too often these anthologies confused the personal essay with the five-paragraph theme and, in the words of Graham Good, conceived of the essayist as “a middle-aged man in a worn tweed jacket in an armchair smoking a pipe by a fire in his private library in a country house in England, in about 1910, maundering on about the delights of idleness, country walks, tobacco, old wine, and old books.”
D’Agata looked to do something different. His anthology would appeal to the new generation of graduate students who were staffing many of the undergraduate writing courses and looking for a new kind of nonfiction. The Next American Essay was not just different; it was also groundbreaking and even, as D’Agata himself suggested, cocky. The anthology contained essays by 30 essayists, some of them new, some of them well known. There was at least one essay for every year from 1975 to 2003. Not coincidentally, 1975 was the year D’Agata was born — a detail he announced in the book’s first headnote. The headnotes continued in that personal and even idiosyncratic vein. The anthology itself felt like a personal essay. Sometimes his headnotes reminded us what was going on in the culture (or in his own life) at the time the essay first appeared. Sometimes they introduced the writer being featured for that year. Sometimes they offered a short, suggestive reading of the essay at hand. Rarely did one headnote do all three, but all together they constituted a running disquisition by D’Agata about the lyricism of the next American essay — but always lyricism as he defines it.
He advanced his position most explicitly in his headnote for the year 2003. For that final year of the collection, he selected an odd, beautiful, and fascinating essay by Jenny Boully, titled “The Body.” Boully’s piece is written as footnotes to an absent text. On most pages the missing body of the essay is represented by white space, though on one page there is nothing but footnotes. There are footnotes to footnotes, footnotes about footnotes, and in some footnotes there are hints about the end of an affair, discussions of Hamlet and the death of the author, and quotations from several texts, including the Bible. D’Agata’s headnote for 2003 does not mention Boully by name but offers instead a short take on what the lyric essay might be. (Carl H. Klaus and I included D’Agata’s entire 2003 headnote in our 2012 anthology Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time.) D’Agata had been arguing on behalf of the lyric essay since at least 1997, when as an undergraduate at Hobart College he edited (along with his mentor Deborah Tall) the first of several special issues of the Seneca Review devoted to the form. His advocacy was impassioned, eloquent, and effective. Literary journals began to follow the lead of the Seneca Review, publishing more experimental essays, what came to be called flash essays, and essays that felt like prose poems. Of course, D’Agata’s ideas weren’t all new. Essayists had long likened their form to lyric poetry in the sense that both were expressions of the self, explorations of personality and its moods, and reliant on figurative language — but D’Agata went beyond these comparisons. He also wanted to realign the essay’s relationship to facts, research, and memory, or even, it soon became clear, to that quaint, pre-postmodern concept — the truth. The lyric essay, he wrote:
asks what happens when an essay begins to behave less like an essay and more like a poem. What happens when an essayist starts imagining things, making things up, filling in blank spaces, or — worse yet — leaving the blanks blank? What happens when statistics, reportage, and observation in an essay are abandoned for image, emotion, expressive transformation?
In these three sentences we witness D’Agata’s ideas about the essay hardening into dogma. He begins with a clever personification of the essay and a timely and provocative question about the relationship between the essay and the poem. He offers that question provisionally (“less like,” “more like”), but quickly assumes the essayist has never done any imagining (or at minimum somehow stopped and now needs to start back up again) and suggests that she start “making things up,” as if imagining is synonymous with lying. This dangerous slide, so troubling aesthetically and ethically, culminates in a false either/or. Research and reporting must be “abandoned” if the essayist is to generate imagery, reveal emotionally, or achieve “expressive transformation.” Prose or poetry, facts or art — one or the other.
I don’t know John D’Agata and can’t speculate on what drives him psychologically to draw such a hard theoretical line, but I do know that essayists have long had an inferiority complex. In the 1977 foreword to his collected essays E. B. White wrote (perhaps with some sly irony and feigned self-pity):
I am not fooled about the place of the essay in twentieth-century American letters — it stands a short distance down the line. The essayist, unlike the novelist, the poet, and the playwright, must be content in his self-imposed role of second-class citizen.
Pierre Bourdieu argued when considering the hierarchy of genres that we need to recognize that capital and cultural capital stand in an inverse relationship to each other. A genre moves up the hierarchy if it expresses what Bourdieu called a “disavowal” or “refusal” of the economic. Poetry is at the top in part because so few people buy poetry books or go to poetry readings. Hollywood films and genre fiction are at the bottom because they’re so popular. Adopting an “art for art’s sake” stance or being considered a “writer’s writer” suggests your stuff is more literary, poetic, and difficult, and thereby more worthy of critical attention and the precise definition that comes with that attention. Writing a year before White and having apparently intuited Bourdieu’s argument, Edward Hoagland compared the essay to the short story, and concluded that it was “a mercurial, newfangled, sometimes hokey affair that has lent itself to many of the excesses of the age, from spurious autobiography to spurious hallucination, as well as to the shabby careerism of traditional journalism. It’s a greased pig.” The pig scampers about on a spectrum that is marked by dry, peer-reviewed scholarship or fact-checked, fish-wrap journalism at one end, and fiction, timeless poetry, or even flights of fantasy at the other, and D’Agata is trying to scare the oinker once and for all up toward the poetry end of things. He has said explicitly that this means staying away from popularity and the money it brings. In the introduction to The Lost Origins of the Essay he declared, “I am here in search of art. I am here to track the origins of an alternative to commerce.” He does this, we should remember, while of course soliciting blurbs from famous authors and selling well enough so that Graywolf will bring out his anthologies and keep them in print. Apparently you can run from capitalism, but you can’t hide.
D’Agata seems to be as leery of multiculturalism as he is of commercialism. He worries that it, like money, will sully his formalist purity. Abrams and Aaron responded to the times and diversified their anthologies, but D’Agata is wary of trying something similar. He might have to, he admits, but such compromise will happen inadvertently, or against his better judgment. Or perhaps if it happens, it will be the reader’s fault. In the first lines of the first page of The Next American Essay, D’Agata said what he thought of multicultural diversity. Addressing the reader directly, he wrote:
For your records: there are 19 men in here, 13 women. Twenty-nine are Americans; 1 is a Mexican; 1 is Canadian. There’s a Native American, a Korean American, an African American, a Thai American. I’ll bet there are probably some gay people, too. There’s someone who’s 25, another who’s 90. I know for a fact there are poor people included, as well as a few others who are relatively rich. Four are dead. I do not know how many are smokers, although some of them surely are.
He goes on like that for most of a page, even speculating at one point that the cars of some of the writers may “smell like McDonald’s sometimes.” This is irony escalating into facetiousness. D’Agata is anti-fact, but not all facts are equal and when it comes to biography in particular not every fact is irrelevant. Take for example, the case of Jenny Boully. She is the Thai American he mentions, though he doesn’t identify her by name. Admittedly, her heritage may be less obviously relevant when reading “The Body” than it would be when reading “A Short Essay on Being,” which is about her identity, but that doesn’t mean it is irrelevant.
Ariel Lewiton, one of D’Agata’s former students, interviewed him recently for Guernica and gently asked him about this note to the reader, wondering if it was not “a little defensive” and perhaps a way of “preempting pushback about not being adequately representative.” To which he replied, “Well, kind of. Inclusiveness isn’t what I want to push back against. The obsession with facts is.” But a recognition that there are such things as facts, a concern for what is or is not factual, an understanding that some literary genres have a different relationship to facts than do others is not the same thing as an obsession with facts.
After his sarcastic list of demographic data to his reader, D’Agata adds, “I know you are expecting such facts from nonfiction. But henceforth please do not consider these ‘nonfictions.’ I want you preoccupied with art in this book, not with facts for the sake of facts.” I have several quarrels with this statement. First, while I understand the essayistic use of direct address, I think it is presumptuous of D’Agata to suggest (as I believe he does) that all of his readers “are expecting such facts from nonfiction” and so must be blinded by political correctness to any appreciation of formal innovation and beauty. Second, to want to know some biographical information about an anthology’s contributors is different from expecting the nonfiction pieces themselves to provide all such facts. Sometimes the essay will be more personal or revealing, sometimes it won’t, but either way, such information in the form of a contributor’s note might well be pertinent. We do not, for instance, live in a post-racial utopia and so knowing that this or that contributor is African American is hardly irrelevant. When Countee Cullen complained, “I want to be a poet — not a Negro poet,” Langston Hughes in his indispensible essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” basically said, “Yeah, well, good luck with that. It’s not possible and you’re doing yourself no favors to think it is.” It is reasonable for D’Agata’s readers to expect that his anthologies will contain some essays by women, gay people, and people of color; that they might be told who’s who among those contributors; and that the essays, in at least some instances, might focus on issues of race, gender, ethnicity, or yes, even class. Having such expectations is very different from expecting to read essays that focus narrowly on smoking or the consequences of eating fast food in one’s car. Finally, I’m as troubled as the next essayist with the term creative nonfiction, which, as Scott Russell Sanders has nicely pointed out, is “an exceedingly vague term, taking in everything from telephone books to Walden, and it’s negative, implying that fiction is the norm against which everything else must be measured. It’s as though, instead of calling an apple a fruit, we called it a non-meat.” So yes, the term is problematic, but why assume readers are going to call the pieces in the book “nonfictions” rather than “essays” (and scold them for doing so)? The title of the book is, after all, The Next American Essay. Give us a little credit.
These criticisms have to do primarily with D’Agata’s assumptions, his tone, and his attitude toward his readers, but it is in his third sentence that we see what D’Agata’s main concern (dare I say “obsession”?) is. “Nonfictions” may have been a straw man. The real bogeyman is facts (a.k.a. Truth, or Reality). Here D’Agata’s false either/or, in which facts are pitted against art, raises its ugly head again. “Facts for the sake of facts” is replaced by art for art’s sake. Why must we choose? Like Pooh, when Rabbit asked, “Honey or condensed milk with your bread?” one wants to shout, “Both!”
Many readers are likely aware of the ways in which D’Agata’s all-or-nothing theory has driven his writing as well as his anthologizing. D’Agata has written two books since Halls of Fame. The first of these, About a Mountain (2010), is a book of so-called creative nonfiction (though D’Agata would probably prefer to call it an extended lyric essay) about the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump and a young boy’s suicide in Las Vegas. The second, The Lifespan of a Fact (2012), was written with Jim Fingal, who worked at The Believer, and is a chronicle of the fact-checking process of the article (first published in that journal) that led to About a Mountain. D’Agata’s notes to his readers at the beginning of his first two anthologies were marked by an adamant, prescriptive tone, but in The Lifespan of a Fact he takes the gloves off and becomes vociferous, sometimes even mean. Who knew fact-checking could be so heated, so bloody?
The cover of The Lifespan of a Fact lets us know right away that there is a hierarchy of authorship just as there is a hierarchy of genres. In a font as bold and tall as that for the title the cover announces: “John D’Agata, author. Jim Fingal, fact-checker.” It’s clear who’s in charge, or should be. The book itself reproduces an article (though D’Agata insists throughout that it’s an essay) about Levi Presley’s 2002 suicide and the seven years (supposedly) of correspondence between D’Agata and Fingal pertaining to the piece. Harper’s had already turned it down when its editors began to find out how much D’Agata had fudged the facts. D’Agata then sent it to The Believer, and Fingal, who was an intern there at the time, was given the unenviable task of fact-checking. Their battle began with the first sentence where D’Agata states that there were “34 licensed strip clubs” in Vegas at the time young Levi Presley jumped to his death from the top of the Stratosphere Hotel. Fingal quickly found out that there were only 31. D’Agata says he changed it “because the rhythm of ‘thirty-four’ works better in that sentence than the rhythm of ‘thirty-one.’” The argument continued; indeed, in Lifespan, it goes on for 123 pages. At first it was about little stuff — the names of clubs and of Levi’s school, which way Levi turned at a certain corner, the color of a fleet of dog-grooming vans (they were pink but, insists D’Agata, “I needed the two beats in ‘purple.’”) — but it soon escalated. D’Agata wanted to have another suicide-by-jumping on the same day Levi killed himself changed to a suicide-by-hanging “because I wanted Levi’s death to be the only one from falling that day. I wanted his death to be more unique.”
The fact-checking argument was really an argument about where this piece sits on the spectrum of nonfiction, which is why it often turns back to whether the piece is an essay or an article. D’Agata believes that if he calls it an essay it is Art and he has free rein. The problem is that the piece reads like an article — a piece of literary journalism admittedly, but one that is apparently fact-based, research-based. It’s packed with objective details, interviews, and statistics, and when it grows into About a Mountain, there is no disclaimer in the book. Indeed Norton marketed it with this squib: “Bearing witness to the parade of scientific, cultural, and political facts that give shape to Yucca’s story, D’Agata keeps the six tenets of reporting in mind — Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How — arranging his own investigation around each vital question.” D’Agata claims the book isn’t “reported,” but his style and the publisher’s marketing suggest otherwise. Fingal recognizes the problem, namely that the contract with the reader has been violated, but when he raises this issue, D’Agata goes after him:
Jim: “I, the hypothetical reader, am putting my trust in you to give me the straight dope, or at least to make some effort to warn me whenever you’re saying something that is patently untrue, even if it’s untrue for ‘artistic reasons.’ I mean, what exactly gives you the authority to introduce half-baked legend as fact and sidestep questions of facticity?”
John: “It’s called art, dickhead.”
Readers don’t like being called dickheads. They don’t like being tricked, especially readers who believe they can have art and facts at the same time, who believe literary nonfiction exists and is something different from literary fiction. Such readers get as angry as Oprah did when she found out James Frey lied about a three-month stint in jail or about having had dental surgery without Novocain. She was mad that he and his publisher were using her platform under false pretenses. Such readers (the ones like Oprah) understand that an essayist may have to omit a character from a scene because the stage had got too crowded; they understand that dialogue from two decades ago (or even two weeks ago) must be reimagined; they understand that a writer must regularly use her imagination to supplement her memory; they understand that Elia isn’t Charles Lamb, but they also understand that Elia is Charles Lamb in a way Nick Carraway isn’t F. Scott Fitzgerald; and they understand that they have to read carefully. They understand that an essay is an attempt to know rather than an expression of what is already known, and they understand, as Patricia Hampl so nicely put it, “that memoir is not a matter of transcription, that memory itself is not a warehouse of finished stories, not a static gallery of framed pictures,” and given all this, they still don’t like to be tricked. They don’t like it when D’Agata dismisses Frey’s lies as “embellishments.” They don’t like it when they’ve wrestled with the fraught relationship between facts and art, and a writer still holds them in disdain and directs them, as D’Agata does in The Lifespan of a Fact, to “stop demanding that they be spoon-fed like infants.” They may agree with D’Agata that he is “not the reader’s boyfriend or daddy or therapist or priest or yoga instructor,” but disagree when he adds that he is not “anyone from whom they should be seeking a trustworthy relationship.” They do not like it when they are presented with a book that purports to be the actual correspondence between an author and his fact-checker, and then find out later that the two co-authors took “the relatively dry fact-checking document” and dramatized “it a bit” and “knowingly amped up the hostility of [their] comments.” They don’t like it when an author uses his position as creator of the text to see what he can get away with. They don’t like it when an author invokes Art so as to turn his relationship with the reader into a game of gotcha.
Or at least this reader doesn’t, which is why when The Lifespan of a Fact came out, I rewrote my paper for the 2012 Associated Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference as a Dear John letter in which I “broke up” with D’Agata. I had admired D’Agata’s work, adopted his first anthology in my classroom, reviewed his second, applauded the work he was doing to build the nonfiction-writing program at my alma mater, and saw him as a fellow evangelist for the essay, but now I felt tricked, even betrayed. But still I had to admit that D’Agata was talking about important and thorny issues. He was also very good at raising a ruckus. With About a Mountain and The Lifespan of a Fact D’Agata had made the jump from Graywolf to Norton. He was now a New York sensation. The Lifespan of the Fact had prompted not just one but two responses in The New York Times. Our AWP panel on the lyric essay met at 5:00 p.m. on Saturday, the last day of the conference, when most people have already headed to a bar or the airport. But thanks to D’Agata and The Lifespan of a Fact, it was packed. My fellow panelists and I began to take up our criticisms of D’Agata. We argued that while The Lifespan of a Fact was brave, foolish, and ambitious, it was also infuriating. It was during the Q and A that things got interesting. Some of D’Agata’s students and acolytes were there, and more than one issued long denunciations before asking a question. One didn’t even ask a question. They decried us as retrograde, as artistically conservative, as just not getting it, though I didn’t think they got my Dear John letter, which I believed was a lyric essay, a performance in response to a performance. I wasn’t really breaking up with D’Agata. I didn’t even know D’Agata. I was just trying to show that while I didn’t agree with him, I appreciated the clever way in which he used a “fact-checking” exchange to advance his theory of art. I didn’t agree with his theory of the essay, but I could go along with the game.
I have long preferred D’Agata’s anthologies to his essays, though his essays are terrific. About a Mountain is a good and interesting read, but it was made more interesting by The Lifespan of a Fact, which is a brilliant, stubborn, point-making, wrong-headed tour de force in the tradition of William H. Gass’s Fiction and the Figures of Life and David Shields’s Reality Hunger. These books are all high formalist manifestos. The trouble with manifestos is that they can turn into dogma and their authors can start to believe the dogma. Gass once made this admission to me in a conversation, published in The Harvard Advocate:
Then, of course, there is this whole bit of the relationship of the theory to the practice in people who are writing. One of the things that you really have to do when you are writing is to forget all the crap you’ve been talking about in theory, because what is important is the work and not your bloody theory. The theory is a protective device. When you are actually writing, you may have written a lousy line and hate to admit it. You have been working on it for three weeks and it is still just no good, so then you start thinking according to your theory — how many different ways this has been pronounced brilliant. […] What counts is your own experience of it, not the theory you’ve contrived. As soon as you start letting your own theory dictate your work, you are in bad shape.
This is sage advice, and I hope D’Agata and Shields will give it some thought. I admire their writing immensely, but I think they sometimes pronounce themselves brilliant — more brilliant than their readers. I would even go so far as to argue that there is something male about this (though there is a similar impulse in writers such as Gertrude Stein and Susan Sontag, who, like Gass, are fiction writers drawn to both the essay and theory). In the same conversation, Gass alluded to a certain discomfort with feeling and sentiment as a motivation for his formalism. Of his decision to get a PhD in philosophy at Cornell, he said:
I studied with a bunch of logical analysts. I deliberately went against the grain. I’m basically a romantic. I’m a romantic writer and a formalist in theory. So, working against the grain all the time in this way, I try to get something that will stand up straight.
Elsewhere, he has written with winning self-deprecation about how much he learned from M. H. Abrams about how to read Romantic poetry, even though he “thought poorly of English departments” at the time and arrived at Abrams’s class “armored in the costume of a smartass.” Seems someone else was cocky in his 20s.
D’Agata seems less inclined to be cocky or even belligerent when serving as the editor of an anthology than he does when issuing a manifesto. He can be prescriptive in his opening notes to the reader and slyly work his own life story into his headnotes, but overall the expectations of the project are different and, I think, tempering. Such a collection has to inform, has to be organized to attract course adoptions, and has to intervene in cultural discussions in a more measured way than a manifesto like The Lifespan of a Fact. Make no mistake — D’Agata still grinds his ax. If The Next American Essay argued against facts and in favor of Art, and The Lost Origins of the Essay argued for Art over commerce, his latest anthology, The Making of the American Essay, focuses on the essayist as maker, as one who makes something out of nothing, as one who fabricates. This concern is there in the title, of course, but lest we missed it, D’Agata opens the book with three epigraphs:
Make it plain. — Whitman
Make it new. — Pound
Make it sweet again.— Ashberry
His note to the reader begins this time with a discussion of the discovery of arrowheads near Clovis, New Mexico, in 1908. The “obvious lesson” D’Agata draws from this is that “the first occupants of the Americas constructed their world from scratch.” He moves from there to the creation myth of the Cahto people of Northern California and he draws a similar conclusion: “we all apparently have a need to shape the world around us, to build it into something new, to make it into what we want.” D’Agata sees the Clovis point as a figure for the essay. He sees the Cahto flood story as describing “the predicament of every essay too, situated as essays always are between chance and contrivance, between the given and the made.” Here again we have the spectrum, and here again I don’t think the essay needs to fear chance and the given as much as D’Agata thinks it must.
Directives to the reader aside, I looked forward to D’Agata’s latest anthology, knowing it would put me in touch again with his stunning erudition and passionate advocacy for the form we both love. I knew he would introduce me to new essays and play with the apparatus of the anthology in fascinating (and sometimes frustrating) ways. I knew also that he would make some eccentric selections that would ask me to read this poem or that short story or novel excerpt as an essay. I might not agree that they are essays but by placing them in this new context D’Agata would once again call the conventional taxonomy into question and force me to think anew about what constitutes the genre.
Take, for instance, his inclusion of “The Whiteness of the Whale” chapter from Moby-Dick. I could quibble here that it comes from a novel and that the narrator is Ishmael, not Melville, but by resituating the chapter in this anthology and nestling it up against more traditional essays such as Emerson’s “Nature” or Thoreau’s “Walking,” D’Agata gets us to look its essayistic components. He shows how this odd chapter interrupts the voyage of the Pequod, offering an interpretation of Ahab’s obsession, and that in so doing it allows Melville (or is it Ishmael?) to write for a moment like an essayist. In his distinctive manner D’Agata spends much of his headnote to this selection discussing P. T. Barnum’s not irrelevant obsession with nature’s curiosities, but he also offers this wonderful sentence about Melville’s obsession with whales and whiteness:
And so while Captain Ahab drives toward a triumphant end to his quest, Ishmael revels in the endless minutiae of cetology, the hieroglyphic significance of the scars on Moby Dick’s body, an analysis of a painting in the Spouter-Inn, and a meditation on the meaning of the color white.
Other selections are also meant to stretch our ideas of what an essay might be. For instance, Gass’s “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” The story is set in Brookston, Indiana (renamed “B” in the story) and full of details — one might call them facts — about small town Midwestern life. And I’ll admit that I’ve made my own pilgrimages to Brookston to see Gass’s old house and talk with his neighbors, so I understand the pull to include it in the collection: It uses short sections and gives them subheadings and emphasizes meditation over narrative; Gass even acknowledged in a David Godine edition of his fiction, that he began the piece as a kind of journalistic assignment in which he said he would “get my ‘facts’ straight (clubs, crops, products, prospects, townshape, bar- and barn-size),” but he goes on to add that as he “started to distribute my data gingerly across my manuscript, a steady dissolution of the real began.” He himself wound up calling it a story and published it in a collection of stories. It is generous of him to let D’Agata transfer “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” to this anthology of essays, and when that happens we can engage in an interesting thought experiment, but the story is still a story, and Gass and the narrator do not become interchangeable in the way they would in an essay.
The Making of the American Essay is a wonderful, helpful, historical anthology that serves as an alternative and complement to Robert Sayre’s American Lives: An Anthology of Autobiographical Writing (1994) or Robert Atwan and Joyce Carol Oates’s Best American Essays of the Century (2001), just as D’Agata’s sweeping global anthology, Lost Origins of the Essay, answered Phillip Lopate’s magisterial The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present (1997). From this perspective one might argue that it was The Next American Essay that was the trailblazer. Many important anthologies of contemporary American essays preceded that anthology but D’Agata inspired other editors to focus on formal innovation, including Michael Martone and Lex Williford with their Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: Work from 1970 to the Present (2007) and Sheryl St. Germain and Margaret Whitford in Between Song and Story: Essays from the 21st Century (2011).
In her groundbreaking 1999 article “The Essay Canon,” Lynn Bloom argued persuasively that at that time the essays most readers knew — the essays that, effectively, defined the genre — were the ones that appeared most frequently in freshman composition anthologies. As a result, the canon, she said, is fundamentally a teaching rather than a historical, critical or national canon, and the essay is too easily dismissed as a service genre, one that is used to teach first-year college students how to write. D’Agata’s anthologies and the others I listed above have begun to offer a corrective. In reaching back to its origins — both international and American — and by tracing a genre (albeit with a sometimes idiosyncratic and personal agenda) he has helped us see the essay as literary, as art, as operating in a tradition, and as capable of doing something much more than modeling rhetorical modes for young writers.
As Bloom also pointed out, “All anthologies […] deracinate their material — old or new — from its original context and replant it in the anthologist’s soil.” This doesn’t mean, however, that the anthologist, especially when assembling a historical collection, is not obliged to pay attention to original context, including the moment in which the essayist wrote, the ongoing publication life of the particular piece, and the essayist’s biography, as well as the history of the genre. Here is where I think D’Agata sometimes shortchanges both his readers and the selected work. He does offer biographical and historical context, but intermittently, unevenly, and, it seems, grudgingly. I don’t mean to be prescriptive here. I enjoyed the way D’Agata wove his own life story into the headnotes of The Next American Essay, for instance, and it’s not that he needs to offer all the scholarly apparatus (elaborate introductions, footnotes, bibliography) that Abrams and Aaron provide, but he could give us more than he does. For classroom use in particular, an index, contributors’ notes, more historical contextualization, and some publishing history would be nice. I am sure D’Agata would argue that such material would distract from his emphasis on form, but I disagree.
In Ariel Lewiton’s Guernica interview, she asked D’Agata why the new anthology seems to shy away from political essays. He said,
It partly has to do with my own taste and it partly has to do with a sense of timeliness, of wanting to avoid having to explain the political contexts of essays. But most importantly it has to do with wanting 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.
Again, I think he’s creating a false dichotomy and missing an opportunity. I don’t believe form and content can or should be divorced, and I don’t believe D’Agata does either, having spent so much time and effort assembling three historical anthologies totaling almost 2,000 pages. In fact, he often finds thrilling ways of using history and context to illuminate formal breakthroughs. He just doesn’t do it enough, and some of the connections he makes are needlessly obscure. Take his inclusion of poet Kenneth Goldsmith’s “All the Numbers from Numbers” in The Making of the American Essay. It’s one of the most arresting selections in the book, a 20-page print rendition of a digital poem that is a kind of meditation on numbers running down the middle of each page, most every line no more than two or three words or digits long. Goldsmith is challenging and D’Agata knows he needs to explain him a bit, but, as usual, he seems to fear that by explaining at all he will fall into that trap of spoon-feeding the reader. What he does say is intriguing and helpful. He smartly likens Goldsmith, a self-described conceptual poet and “information manager,” to Marcel Duchamp. But as part of the homage to Duchamp, D’Agata pulls Goldsmith’s piece out of chronological order and puts it in the anthology under the year 1917, the year of the Armory Show, even though it was first published online by UBU Editions in 2008. What’s more he does not mention Duchamp by name, choosing instead to refer to him as one of Goldsmith’s “ancestors.” Then, he opts to inhabit Duchamp’s voice:
Please put this sculpture in your art exhibition I call my work Fountain. It is a white porcelain urinal that I bought at a plumbing store. Here is where I signed it. No, I did not make it. I chose it, however.
We get it. Duchamp is calling our conception of art into question just as Goldsmith is calling our conception of poetry into question and D’Agata is calling our conception of the essay into question. But to me it’s an inside joke that feels contrived and not entirely necessary.
Or let’s take a more familiar example. D’Agata includes E. B. White’s “Once More to the Lake,” a most conventional choice. Bloom’s extensive survey of post–World War II essay anthologies found White’s essay to be the most anthologized American essay of the second half of the 20th century. I won’t go into detail about the piece. I’ve written extensively about White and this essay elsewhere. But I do think that it provides a good example of how some of the political contextualizing that D’Agata eschews is essential to understanding White’s formal accomplishments. Without knowing that the piece was written in the late summer of 1941 as one of a number of columns for Harper’s magazine in which White had been battling the isolationists and arguing for democracy, most contemporary readers are not going to hear White’s ironic invocation of the drumbeat of war during the essay’s climactic thunderstorm. D’Agata does talk about White’s use of persona in the headnote, and that is useful, but without any historical context he reduces the essay to what it has been for too many readers for too long: an exercise in nostalgia and a writing prompt for a five-paragraph theme about what you did on your summer vacation.
I was struck by something else D’Agata said in the interview with Lewiton. In a follow-up to her question about inclusiveness and diversity she asked if he was in some sense creating anthologies that had not been available to his younger self. He replied:
I should clarify that the “me” that I didn’t see in the anthologies that I read as a student wasn’t the queer me or the me who grew up really poor or the one who has trouble making friends as an adult. It wasn’t a reflection of my biography that I was looking for. It was a reflection of my aesthetic interests as an essayist.
Again, Pooh. I think you can have both.
There has always been something private or shy about D’Agata, and I don’t mean to out him now, though it seems that he just did that in passing in his response to Lewiton. I have not read everything D’Agata has written but I do not remember ever hearing him identify as gay, though this remark about his queer self sent me back to a line I only half-remembered from the very first piece he ever published, a mini-essay about Death Valley that appeared in Judith Kitchen and Mary Paumier Jones’s lovely anthology, In Short: A Collection of Brief Creative Nonfiction (1996). I looked the essay up and there it was, the line I’d dimly recalled:
One night after hiking I watched a man pour a personality into himself at the lone end of a bar. He was a man I’d seen hiking without water, and who — he admitted at the end of the night — wanted me, and who — I’m willing to admit — I wanted too, although not in the same way that he did, but in the way you thirst for an experience, and the experience, like water, pours you out.
They are beautiful sentences and they made me rethink my Dear John letter. I don’t know, in the wake of reading those sentences and D’Agata’s reference to his queer self, if I had it to do over, that I would write my critique of The Lifespan of a Fact as a break-up letter. My prejudice, my heteronormativity, led me to assume John D’Agata was straight and that I could blithely assume the role of gay lover breaking up with him as a way to challenge his theory of the essay. I stand by my criticisms, of course, but not the form in which I made them. So I guess form does have political consequences.
With all of this in mind, I’d get back together with John, if he’d have me. Not as a pretend lover but as a collaborator. I say this with some trepidation because I saw the rough way Jim Fingal was treated in The Lifespan of a Fact, but I’m also aware that it was not Jim Fingal who was called a dickhead so much as it was “Jim Fingal.” So, John, what about an anthology of queer essays that recognizes not just the history and situation of queerness but also how that history and situation affect (one might even say, propel) the form of the queer essay? We could start, of course, with Montaigne’s “Of Friendship,” that lovely and loving paean to his lost friend, Etienne de la Boétie. That choice is pretty obvious, but then we could do a little of the formal cleverness you like while keeping with the elegiac if we included Lamb’s “A Character of the late Elia. By a Friend.” That’s the piece in which Lamb says goodbye to Elia, his essay persona and second self. “He is too much of the boy-man,” wrote Lamb. “The toga virilis never sate gracefully on his shoulders. The impressions of infancy had burnt into him, and he resented the impertinence of manhood.” Then perhaps some Whitman — maybe the profile of Lincoln in Specimen Days (“I see very plainly ABRAHAM LINCOLN’S dark brown face, with the deep-cut lines, the eyes, always to me with a deep latent sadness in the expression. We have got so that we exchange bows, and very cordial ones.”) — though Section 5 of “Song of Myself” is sexier. And how about Alexander Woollcott’s 1932 essay “My Friend Harpo,” which I have read as a kind of closeted, coded essay. The reader is halfway through before he learns that the Harpo of the title is not (maybe not) Woollcott’s best friend Harpo Marx, but Woollcott’s poodle. But, by this point, Woollcott has already told us that Harpo “carries his approval of me to the mad length of thinking I have a kind of beauty.” It is a madness Woollcott can believe because “[m]any a times and oft I have read as much in the melting glance of his topaz eyes when he has been sitting with his head on my knee, the while I stroked his tousled foretop and tweaked his roguish ears.” I know lesbian essays less well, but maybe an excerpt from Orlando, “Notes on Camp,” “Diving Into the Wreck,” and something by Audre Lorde, Penny Guisinger, or Kate Carroll de Gutes. Well, you get the picture. Oh, wait, I know! Have you seen Barrie Jean Borich’s “The Truth”? And, John, don’t be shy: I think we could include your piece about Death Valley, though maybe you have something more recent that you’d prefer to contribute. Anyway, I apologize for the letter. Let’s talk about facts and art, form and content, love and marriage, horse and carriage.
Dr. Stuckey-French specializes in the personal essay and modern American literature and culture.
James Baldwin, “Notes of a Native Son”
Jo Ann Beard, “Out There”
Judith Ortiz Cofer, “Silent Dancing”
Annie Dillard, “Living Like Weasels”
Tony Earley, “Somehow Form a Family”
Philip Gerard, “What They Don’t Tell You About Hurricanes”
Lucy Grealy, “Mirrorings”
Lee Gutkind, “Difficult Decisions”
Robin Hemley, “Reading History to My Mother”
Edward Hoagland, “The Courage of Turtles”
Pico Iyer, “Where Worlds Collide”
Jamaica Kincaid, “Biography of a Dress”
Bret Lott, “Brothers”
John McPhee, “The Search for Marvin Gardens”
Naomi Shihab Nye, “Three Pokes of a Thistle”
Scott Russell Sanders, “Buckeye”
David Sedaris, “The Drama Bug”
Richard Selzer, “The Knife”
David Shields, “42 Tattoos”
Amy Tan, “Mother Tongue”
Terry Tempest Williams, “The Clan of the One-Breasted Women”