Pushing the bounds of form in ‘The Glorious American Essay’

Phillip Lopate's choices for this fine anthology may stretch the parameters of an essay, but he's made distinctive and evocative selections. 

Penguin Random House
“The Glorious American Essay: One Hundred Essays from Colonial Times to the Present” edited by Phillip Lopate, Pantheon, 928 pp.

When it comes to essay anthologies, there’s a tradition so iron-clad and long-standing that it’s remarkably daring of editor Phillip Lopate, in the foreword of “The Glorious American Essay: One Hundred Essays from Colonial Times to the Present,” to natter for 16 whole pages before he gets around to asking “But wait: what is an essay?”

This question is practically constitutionally required when writing about essays. In a narrative tradition going all the way back through Montaigne to Plutarch, editors, publishers, and a whole miscellany of intellectuals have automatically raised Deep Existential Questions in their introductions. The essay form has so many fundamental identity problems you’d expect it to wear Goth eyeliner and moodily refuse to leave its room for family meals.

Given all this confusion, surely it’s long since time to settle the question. So, for the record: an essay is a literary set of ruminations that can be read in one sitting. See? Easy-peasy. It’s Samuel Johnson’s “loose sally of mind” with just a few common-sense parameters.

“Literary” – written to be read rather than declaimed – is a key word here. Therefore Lopate’s decision to include explicitly nonliterary works such as speeches (Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s magnificent 1892 speech “The Solitude of Self,” for instance, or Martin Luther King Jr.’s rousing “Beyond Vietnam” from 1967) does, strictly speaking, cross his own parameters.

Another crucial word in this definition is “ruminations.” Something excessively structured or programmatic should also be out-of-bounds. Yet “The Glorious American Essay” includes very methodical efforts like Alexander Hamilton’s “Federalist No. 1” or “The Subjective Necessity of Social Settlements,” a paper presented by Jane Addams in 1892.

Same goes for “in one sitting,” which should have overruled Lopate’s decision to include excerpts from longer works like “The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table” by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. or “Woman in the Nineteenth Century” by Margaret Fuller. Worthy as these passages are, they weren’t conceived as stand-alone essays, so they shouldn’t be taking up space that could have gone to things that were.

But Lopate admits that he broadened his admission standards for “The Glorious American Essay” to include “every type of the beast,” and that makes it invariably fascinating reading. Even if readers only pay attention to entries that align with the aforementioned definition, there’s an almost embarrassing abundance of riches in these 900-plus pages. Readers of Lopate’s seminal 1994 anthology “The Art of the Personal Essay” will already be familiar with his skill at picking pieces that perfectly offset and interrogate each other. Diving into one of his collections is always a delightful experience that involves encountering even the most familiar selections as if for the first time.

Inevitably for such a collection, there’s a bit of Emerson’s quasi-mystical flapdoodle, this time the essay “Experience” (“I clap my hands in infantine joy and amazement, ... old with the love and homage of innumerable ages, young with the life of life, the sunbright Mecca of the desert,” etc.). There’s “Of Our Spiritual Strivings” by W.E.B. Du Bois, with his call for decency for the Black American: “He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.”

Wonderfully, there’s Audre Lorde’s electrifying “The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House” (technically a lecture, but we’re playing by Lopate’s loose rules here) and also poor forgotten Theodore Dreiser’s brief, passionate hymn of praise to New York, “The City of My Dreams” (“A May or June moon will be hanging like a burnished silver disc between the high walls aloft”). Like so many essay anthology editors before him, Lopate includes here the 1741 sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” by Jonathan Edwards, perhaps the single most demented piece of writing ever produced on this continent.

Back in 2016 editor John D'Agata likewise included “Sinners in the Hands of the Angry God” in his anthology “The Making of the American Essay,” which was the concluding volume in a trilogy of essay anthologies designed both to chart the essay’s development and to push its boundaries. And even though he calls editing an anthology “a chump’s game,” Lopate intends “The Glorious American Essay” to be the first installment in another essay trilogy. So there’ll be plenty more room for beasts of all kinds, thankfully.

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