The Essay is Having a Moment

There is no doubt that nonfiction, or creative nonfiction if you prefer, is hitting a new stride. The publication of the third and final volume of John D’Agata’s A New History of the Essay from Graywolf Press and the Whiting Foundation’s recent announcement of the creation of the Whiting Creative Nonfiction Grant of $35,000 are only two of many signs that the “fourth” genre is edging toward center stage.

But defining the essay, which is only one segment of the nonfiction world, is a tricky business, and one that D’Agata struggles with mightily. Every year, the Best American series publishes an anthology of essays and new definitional categories emerge, often divided into opinion essays, informational essays, or personal/memory essays. And with every additional college reader, subject-specific essay collection, and print or online publication such as Philip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay or Lee Gutkind’s Creative Non-Fiction, we hear more and more about the essay. You might say we are awash in definitions of the essay and essays themselves, or to mis-paraphrase Wallace Stevens, ideas about the thing as well as the thing itself.

But abundance doesn’t really help us with a clarifying definition, which is something D’Agata strives for in an unusual way: he introduces each essay in his collection with an eye towards defining the undefinable. Though I might argue with some of his essay choices — we all have our favorite essayists and why aren’t John Jeremiah Sullivan, Joseph Epstein, and Ellen Willis among his — D’Agata’s pioneering spirit in these volumes offers one of the most broadminded views of creative nonfiction in the persona of the essay. In fact, he stakes his claim when he writes, “By embracing a label such as ‘non-fiction’ the creative writing community has signaled to the world that what goes on in this genre is at best utilitarian and at worst an utter mystery. We have segregated the genre from art. So I use ‘Essay’ because I want you to know these are art.”

D’Agata’s final volume, The Making of the American Essay, ranges from 1630 with Anne Bradstreet’s “For My Dear Son Simon Bradstreet” to 1974 with Kathy Acker’s “Humility.” Earlier and later essays have already been represented in the two previously published volumes, but it is here, in his introduction to Gertrude Stein’s “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso,” that D’Agata chooses a wonderful quote from photographer Ansel Adams that speaks exquisitely to the essence of the essay, voice — inexorable, profound, intimate and unique voice. Adams says, “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 my photographs are photographs of myself.”

It is with this perception that we are best armed to read and delight in an essay — after all, voice is both opinion and memory, and it often trumps information.

Driven by the allure of voice, D’Agata includes forms not typically seen as essays. Charles Reznikoff’s “Testimony: The United States” is actually a long documentary poem whose sections the poet himself called “recitatives.” T.S. Eliot’s poem “Dry Salvages” is another chosen piece. These selections and several others may move us towards unique insights into a new definition of essay, but D’Agata pushes too hard with some of his assertions. His inclusion of Kenneth Goldsmith’s 2015 conceptual piece “All the Numbers from Numbers” as an essay for the year 1917 simply confounds me.

James Agee’s 1939 piece, “Brooklyn Is,” on the other hand, offers a still fresh definition of the essay as a very personal travelogue. D’Agata cites a letter in which Agee admits “to a total suspicion of both ‘creative’ and ‘reportorial’ attitudes and methods which therefore will require the development of more or less an entirely new form of writing.” And he accomplishes that. “Brooklyn Is” is the essay version of an Ansel Adams photograph.

The great essayist Montaigne declared, “I am myself the matter of my book,” and also noted that, “Every man has within himself the entire human condition.” His wisdom still holds. Once your eye and mind are open to welcoming a variety of not easily classifiable pieces into the essay genre, reading essays — from a contemplative essay such as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature,” to long-form magazine journalism such as Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” to the quasi-fiction of Renata Adler’s “Brownstone” — becomes a treasure hunt for the triumphs and pleasures of the individual voice capturing the human condition. D’Agata’s selections help map the way.