In 1571, Frenchman Michel de Montaigne retired from public life, retreated to his library, and began a series of writings in which he mused in the first person on everything from dinner to death, fashion to philosophy, literature to the human thumb. That’s how the personal essay was born, as Jane Kramer reminds readers in her own essay on Montaigne published in The New Yorker.
It’s one of 21 essays reprinted in The Best American Essays 2010, an annual anthology of the finest essays written for American periodicals. Each selection, in its own way, aspires to the standard that Kramer credits Montaigne with setting centuries ago, offering readers “the autobiography of a mind.”
Veteran fans of “The Best American Essays” series, which has been going a quarter of a century, already know the format. This year’s guest editor is Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens, like many readers, mentions that he first encountered the essay in its most boring of forms – as one of those dreary compositions assigned in grade school. But Hitchens quickly adds that the very word “essay” has the power to thrill, suggesting as it does a trial or experiment.
The essays in this year’s anthology answer that call to intellectual daring, and they also capitalize on the essay’s chief virtue: variety.
Elif Batuman retraces the ground where a great Russian writer spent his last days in “The Murder of Leo Tolstoy.” Brian Doyle offers a wry look at the reasons people divorce in “Irreconcilable Dissonance.” Phillip Lopate, both a great essayist and a scholar of the form, reflects on his neighborhood in “Brooklyn the Unknowable.” Steven Pinker follows Montaigne’s tradition of inspired navel-gazing by considering his own genetics in “My Genome, My Self.”
“The Best American Essays” also includes a long list of runners-up who didn’t make the final cut, a helpful guide to further reading.
Any anthology, however large, naturally inspires the reader to notice what’s left out. This year’s selections sprouted mostly from urban landscapes, it seems, and curiously absent are pieces from America’s great nature writers, such as Edward Hoagland, Scott Russell Sanders, and Kathleen Dean Moore.
A fair number of the essays in this year’s “Best American Essays” are about other essayists. Besides Montaigne and George Orwell, the late William F. Buckley Jr. is remembered in a moving reminiscence by Garry Wills. Ian McEwan’s clear-eyed appraisal of John Updike seems like the kind of prose that Updike, an exemplar of clarity in his own essays, would have admired.
All of this shoptalk in “Best American Essays 2010” can seem a little self-referential, like one of those closed literary communities in which modern poets spend so much of their time writing about other poets.
But the evocations of Updike, Buckley, and company in “Best American Essays” are a useful reminder that today’s practicing essayists hail from a genre with a long and distinguished tradition.
Beyond its hallowed past, is there a future for the personal essay?
In his introduction, Hitchens notes with regret that many of the magazines that publish great essays are now under economic stress. In his foreword, series editor Robert Atwan also acknowledges the changing publishing climate, but finds the prospects for the essay “very encouraging.”
Atwan has reason to be hopeful. In the 1950s, Clifton Fadiman predicted with regret that the personal essay was on the way out. In the 1980s, Lopate expressed similar worries over his genre of choice in a New York Times piece that queried, “What Happened to the Personal Essay?”
Lopate’s presence in this year’s anthology is a nice reminder that despite such chronic anxieties about its health, the essay seems just fine. Collectively, Lopate and his fellow contributors to “The Best American Essays 2010” seem to affirm Virginia Woolf’s wise admonition: “The essay is alive; There is no reason to despair.”