The Next American Essay
Anthologies insist on sandbagging poets with monikers and historic brands; their effort at fiat is often in cahoots with simplification and shtick. In the year 2000 we saw many attempts at defining the “new” in poetry, mostly dictated by a willy-nilly aesthetic and/or cultural Identity, constructs that help create communities but also overly commit their authors. The best anthologies are in the spirit of turning the tourist into a traveler; the worst pander to our tastes for the sentimental (grandmother and New Formalist poems) or sensational (victims and New (American) poems); they satisfy by way of consumerism. If you too can’t stomach being sold another errant sampling of the “new”—if you abhor anthologies for the same reasons I do—turn your attention to John D’Agata’s The Next American Essay.
John D’Agata has imagined a way out of this state of affairs by creating an industry around the lyric essay, not a school of poetry this time but a subgenre in and of itself. He smuggles genre-squatters as well certifiable poets and fiction writers into the house of Essay, making claims for the essay as a kind of literary catch-all that serves to defamiliarize the form. More particularly here, D’Agata sticks to home turf, delivering an American hodge-podge of forms, with a taste for fresh blood and deliciously wayward formal acts. In its bringing together of parts to make a unified other—without any totalizing impulse—this anthology outdoes most others.
D’Agata adopts the same task Baudelaire took on for the prose poem; while D’Agata insists he has not invented the form, he is in large measure its contemporary excavator and popularizer. Also, like Baudelaire’s prose poem, this genre has a heavy axe to grind—this time not against the Alexandrine, but against the Personal Essay and Memoir. The oxymoronic lyric essay is also nom de guerre against the Industry’s refusal to consider Essay as Art and its habitual (mindless) need to pigeonhole every literary thing into the same stodgy standby genres, poetry and fiction, ignoring what doesn’t quite fit. Thus D’Agata makes his case: The alternative essay hasn’t gotten its own. Wedged awkwardly between hard journalism and the mushy personal essay, it’s been forgotten or neglected—by publishers, funding agencies, and readers—and therefore wears the Romantic patina of the alienated form, a solitary displaced thing.
Then there are the questions of authenticity and definition: Can a genre be created in hindsight? Who decides what’s an essay? What’s at stake in creating an American tradition? How does this retrospective look play into America’s tradition anxiety? (Do we have them? Do we want them?) Isn’t this alternative essay just another name for hybridity? Doesn’t the anthology’s impulse toward product creation smack of the bottled water phenomena? How does naming the thing?after centuries of dodging names—change it?
For all questions of essence, I refer you to the Seneca Review‘s website; otherwise, in the spirit of the lyric essay, I’m leaving these questions “on” like the red-hot coils of an electric burner after the pot’s been removed.
First things first: what’s in the pot?
Beginning with Monopoly and ending with a To Do list, these essays dish an American sensibility; they make a case for America—like the lyric essay—as an anything goes category. A French recipe? Well, that’s American! A European pilgrimage written by a Canadian? What could be more American! What makes these essays “American” is of course that they are all written by Americans—by which we must rely on Whitman’s claim for “Kanada” as one of the States—and they embrace contradictions and paradox as they give cultural imperialism an innocent “next” glow.
Emerging from the ground Emerson prepared, these essays, taken together, build an echo chamber of ideas about Paradise and the Fallen world. Emerson’s urge to represent experience and not tradition, to discover a world rather than inherit one, is at the heart of D’Agata’s choices. Like Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, The Next American Essay creates a frontier between the American self and its imaginative New World. These essays refract and reflect on the ways in which our earthly paradises (of culture, of thought, of place, of the past) construct various dystopics of experience. Readers may begin to suspect paradox lies at the heart of all discovery itself, for these essays enact the discovery of paradox over and over again. Because many of the essays here are well known, the collectivity’s coadunates streams of thought give us a new context in which to read familiar works such as Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” and Joan Didion’s “The White Album.” Like D’Agata’s book Halls of Fame, these essays dwell in the wide sky between the ideal and the actual; they enact the Puritan cycle of hope, attempt, failure, and redemption. Grafting fantasy onto reality, an act intrinsically bound to the creation of America or any national identity, these essays are built to accommodate paradox, to incite and tease our assumptions until those assumptions rupture and their emancipated lava of complexity glides forth. The essays front confusion and struggle; read together, they become a polemic about American iconography refigured through cultural disappointment. The fragments of discrete texts synthesize as part of a new whole, a revised America, a rehabilitation of the promised land and the promised language. And yet the titular “next” implies something not quite finished; the book ends on “Things To Do Today” by Joe Wenderoth: We look ahead; we anticipate a future of hopeful attempts and wondrous discoveries. The essays’ collective ardor for wonder is thankfully not naive and never affects the gosh-golly innocence of idiot amnesia (read: morally defective surprise at the corruption and hypocrisy of governments). The American ethic of discovery gives rise to two opposing stances—a willful independence as well as a pillaging urge to appropriate. For instance, on one hand the anthology does Theresa Hak Cha’s Dictee a great service by restoring the chapter included here to its original format (something altered in the now-in-print version), but I’m not sure the excerpt is contextualized enough for someone not already familiar with Cha’s work to appreciate it. This loss of footing is in part due to D’Agata’s thin introduction and in part due to the nature of her book, which seems to resist quotation.
Otherwise, however, the selections themselves give enough context to build a fascinating way of reading the material. If the essays dilate a common understanding of a fallen, paradoxical, unfinished America (like the lyric essay itself), then D’Agata’s intersticed essay (or mini-introductions that string together a sense) also seems seduced by the wonder of imperfection. A stingy reading could call the introductions complacent yet defensive, a generous one would call them luxuriating in Whitmanic nonchalance. There’s something of a smart slacker aesthetic lurking here: A ho-hum ennui flickers in and out of these essays. I’m all for shucking an authoritative editorial voice, but why replace it with an attitude of comfortable dawdling, and not active searching? D’Agata does our homework for us, and many of the pieces are driven by a genuine wish to inform and prepare, but even his insistence on the form’s history is sometimes reduced to a series of exasperated pleas and lists. If D’Agata wants us to really metabolize the “next American” essay’s history, why doesn’t he broaden the anthology’s scope? If the roots of the next American essay are in fact in Cicero and Montaigne, shouldn’t they be part of our sampler?
Of course, in the end, anthologists are like goalies: known for what they let pass. The point of an anthology is exclusion. Still, when making a case for a subgenre, a list of titles and assurances doesn’t make up for the real deal. We need to flay the contemporary animal alive to expose what she’s ingested, what air he’s been breathing.
Though D’Agata does not claim to have coined the term “lyric essay,” nor invented the form, his organizing structure makes it seem as if it sprung into existence as a result of his conception. Organized chronologically beginning with the year of D’Agata’s birth, the anthology represents the past 29 years. This is the single oddest and most flagrantly arbitrary aspect of a book that defensively works against any dismissal of the alternative essay as a mere flavor-of-the-day or marketing ploy. The first introduction, 1975, begins
This is not a special year. We are not fighting in this year a war in Vietnam. We are not worried in this year about the price of gas. We are not celebrating in this year the American bicentennial. Instead, in this year, we are “doing the hustle.” We are on the moon, again. . . .
And so forth with the kind of events lifted from an historic calendar. His panoramic view then for a moment zooms in on literature, and then abruptly, coyly finishes: “Some of us, in this year, are born.” This introduction to John McPhee’s “The Search for Marvin Gardens” seems to parody the lyric essay’s chromosomal coding for fact and subjectivity.
What the order makes clear, however, is D’Agata’s care for our appreciation of his singular ware—we begin with familiar, less taxing essays by the Masters, then ease into more and more turbulent, fragmentary, “challenging” pieces by contemporary authors as Susan Griffin, Lydia Davis, and Thalia Field, as if to imply a kind of evolution of the essay. We know this “progression” is artificial, but it generously, gently glides new readers into the fray. Because of their unostentatious fascination with language (repetition, elision, materiality), one that interferes with linearity of story or idea while claiming the domain of truth for poetry and imagination for prose, the essays seem to (though this is clearly an illusion) learn from each other and teach us how best to read them. It will take another anthology to give us the backstory; meanwhile, what D’Agata has offered us is an anthology that reads like a poem, accreting complexity and resonance. Its ideas slip into and out of synch with one another, acting to sharpen themselves and us. As we read, the essays become a travelogue that pushes us further and further out beyond the artfully experimental and into tropes and traps of the Platonic underpinnings of Western thought.