The Best How To Essays
Robert Atwan, the founder of The Best American Essays series, picks the 10 best essays of the postwar period. Links to the essays are provided when available.
Fortunately, when I worked with Joyce Carol Oates on The Best American Essays of the Century (that’s the last century, by the way), we weren’t restricted to ten selections. So to make my list of the top ten essays since 1950 less impossible, I decided to exclude all the great examples of New Journalism--Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Michael Herr, and many others can be reserved for another list. I also decided to include only American writers, so such outstanding English-language essayists as Chris Arthur and Tim Robinson are missing, though they have appeared in The Best American Essays series. And I selected essays, not essayists. A list of the top ten essayists since 1950 would feature some different writers.
To my mind, the best essays are deeply personal (that doesn’t necessarily mean autobiographical) and deeply engaged with issues and ideas. And the best essays show that the name of the genre is also a verb, so they demonstrate a mind in process--reflecting, trying-out, essaying.
James Baldwin, "Notes of a Native Son" (originally appeared in Harper’s, 1955)
“I had never thought of myself as an essayist,” wrote James Baldwin, who was finishing his novel Giovanni’s Room while he worked on what would become one of the great American essays. Against a violent historical background, Baldwin recalls his deeply troubled relationship with his father and explores his growing awareness of himself as a black American. Some today may question the relevance of the essay in our brave new “post-racial” world, though Baldwin considered the essay still relevant in 1984 and, had he lived to see it, the election of Barak Obama may not have changed his mind. However you view the racial politics, the prose is undeniably hypnotic, beautifully modulated and yet full of urgency. Langston Hughes nailed it when he described Baldwin’s “illuminating intensity.” The essay was collected in Notes of a Native Son courageously (at the time) published by Beacon Press in 1955.
Norman Mailer, "The White Negro" (originally appeared in Dissent, 1957)
An essay that packed an enormous wallop at the time may make some of us cringe today with its hyperbolic dialectics and hyperventilated metaphysics. But Mailer’s attempt to define the “hipster”–in what reads in part like a prose version of Ginsberg’s “Howl”–is suddenly relevant again, as new essays keep appearing with a similar definitional purpose, though no one would mistake Mailer’s hipster (“a philosophical psychopath”) for the ones we now find in Mailer’s old Brooklyn neighborhoods. Odd, how terms can bounce back into life with an entirely different set of connotations. What might Mailer call the new hipsters? Squares?
Read the essay here.
Susan Sontag, "Notes on 'Camp'" (originally appeared in Partisan Review, 1964)
Like Mailer’s “White Negro,” Sontag’s groundbreaking essay was an ambitious attempt to define a modern sensibility, in this case “camp,” a word that was then almost exclusively associated with the gay world. I was familiar with it as an undergraduate, hearing it used often by a set of friends, department store window decorators in Manhattan. Before I heard Sontag—thirty-one, glamorous, dressed entirely in black-- read the essay on publication at a Partisan Review gathering, I had simply interpreted “campy” as an exaggerated style or over-the-top behavior. But after Sontag unpacked the concept, with the help of Oscar Wilde, I began to see the cultural world in a different light. “The whole point of camp,” she writes, “is to dethrone the serious.” Her essay, collected in Against Interpretation (1966), is not in itself an example of camp.
Read the essay here.
John McPhee, "The Search for Marvin Gardens" (originally appeared in The New Yorker, 1972)
“Go. I roll the dice—a six and a two. Through the air I move my token, the flatiron, to Vermont Avenue, where dog packs range.” And so we move, in this brilliantly conceived essay, from a series of Monopoly games to a decaying Atlantic City, the once renowned resort town that inspired America’s most popular board game. As the games progress and as properties are rapidly snapped up, McPhee juxtaposes the well-known sites on the board—Atlantic Avenue, Park Place—with actual visits to their crumbling locations. He goes to jail, not just in the game but in fact, portraying what life has now become in a city that in better days was a Boardwalk Empire. At essay’s end, he finds the elusive Marvin Gardens. The essay was collected in Pieces of the Frame (1975).
Read the essay here (subscription required).
Joan Didion, "The White Album" (originally appeared in New West, 1979)
Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and the Black Panthers, a recording session with Jim Morrison and the Doors, the San Francisco State riots, the Manson murders—all of these, and much more, figure prominently in Didion’s brilliant mosaic distillation (or phantasmagoric album) of California life in the late 1960s. Yet despite a cast of characters larger than most Hollywood epics, “The White Album” is a highly personal essay, right down to Didion’s report of her psychiatric tests as an outpatient in a Santa Monica hospital in the summer of 1968. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” the essay famously begins, and as it progresses nervously through cuts and flashes of reportage, with transcripts, interviews, and testimonies, we realize that all of our stories are questionable, “the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images.” Portions of the essay appeared in installments in 1968-69 but it wasn’t until 1979 that Didion published the complete essay in New West magazine; it then became the lead essay of her book, The White Album (1979).
Annie Dillard, "Total Eclipse" (originally appeared in Antaeus, 1982)
In her introduction to The Best American Essays 1988, Annie Dillard claims that “The essay can do everything a poem can do, and everything a short story can do—everything but fake it.” Her essay “Total Eclipse” easily makes her case for the imaginative power of a genre that is still undervalued as a branch of imaginative literature. “Total Eclipse” has it all—the climactic intensity of short fiction, the interwoven imagery of poetry, and the meditative dynamics of the personal essay: “This was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt: the universe as a clockwork of loose spheres flung at stupefying, unauthorized speeds.” The essay, which first appeared in Antaeus in 1982 was collected in Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982), a slim volume that ranks among the best essay collections of the past fifty years.
Phillip Lopate, "Against Joie de Vivre" (originally appeared in Ploughshares, 1986)
This is an essay that made me glad I’d started The Best American Essays the year before. I’d been looking for essays that grew out of a vibrant Montaignean spirit—personal essays that were witty, conversational, reflective, confessional, and yet always about something worth discussing. And here was exactly what I’d been looking for. I might have found such writing several decades earlier but in the 80s it was relatively rare; Lopate had found a creative way to insert the old familiar essay into the contemporary world: “Over the years,” Lopate begins, “I have developed a distaste for the spectacle of joie de vivre, the knack of knowing how to live.” He goes on to dissect in comic yet astute detail the rituals of the modern dinner party. The essay was selected by Gay Talese for The Best American Essays 1987 and collected in Against Joie de Vivre in 1989.
Read the essay here.
Edward Hoagland, "Heaven and Nature" (originally appeared in Harper’s, 1988)
“The best essayist of my generation,” is how John Updike described Edward Hoagland, who must be one of the most prolific essayists of our time as well. “Essays,” Hoagland wrote, “are how we speak to one another in print—caroming thoughts not merely in order to convey a certain packet of information, but with a special edge or bounce of personal character in a kind of public letter.” I could easily have selected many other Hoagland essays for this list (such as “The Courage of Turtles”), but I’m especially fond of “Heaven and Nature,” which shows Hoagland at his best, balancing the public and private, the well-crafted general observation with the clinching vivid example. The essay, selected by Geoffrey Wolff for The Best American Essays 1989 and collected in Heart’s Desire (1988), is an unforgettable meditation not so much on suicide as on how we remarkably manage to stay alive.
Jo Ann Beard, "The Fourth State of Matter" (originally appeared in The New Yorker, 1996)
A question for nonfiction writing students: When writing a true story based on actual events, how does the narrator create dramatic tension when most readers can be expected to know what happens in the end? To see how skillfully this can be done turn to Jo Ann Beard’s astonishing personal story about a graduate student’s murderous rampage on the University of Iowa campus in 1991. “Plasma is the fourth state of matter,” writes Beard, who worked in the U of I’s physics department at the time of the incident, “You’ve got your solid, your liquid, your gas, and there’s your plasma. In outer space there’s the plasmasphere and the plasmapause.” Besides plasma, in this emotion-packed essay you will find entangled in all the tension a lovable, dying collie, invasive squirrels, an estranged husband, the seriously disturbed gunman, and his victims, one of them among the author’s dearest friends. Selected by Ian Frazier for The Best American Essays 1997, the essay was collected in Beard’s award-winning volume, The Boys of My Youth (1998).
Read the essay here.
David Foster Wallace, "Consider the Lobster" (originally appeared in Gourmet, 2004)
They may at first look like magazine articles—those factually-driven, expansive pieces on the Illinois State Fair, a luxury cruise ship, the adult video awards, or John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign—but once you uncover the disguise and get inside them you are in the midst of essayistic genius. One of David Foster Wallace’s shortest and most essayistic is his “coverage” of the annual Maine Lobster Festival, “Consider the Lobster.” The Festival becomes much more than an occasion to observe “the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker” in action as Wallace poses an uncomfortable question to readers of the upscale food magazine: “Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?” Don’t gloss over the footnotes. Susan Orlean selected the essay for The Best American Essays 2004 and Wallace collected it in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (2005).
Read the essay here. (Note: the electronic version from Gourmet magazine’s archives differs from the essay that appears in The Best American Essays and in his book, Consider the Lobster.)
I wish I could include twenty more essays but these ten in themselves comprise a wonderful and wide-ranging mini-anthology, one that showcases some of the most outstanding literary voices of our time. Readers who’d like to see more of the best essays since 1950 should take a look at The Best American Essays of the Century (2000).
We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in essays.
Editor in chief of Catapult magazine, author of the forthcoming memoir All You Can Ever Know.
Going It Alone (Rahawa Haile, Outside Magazine)
One of my favorite personal essays published this year was Rahawa Haile’s stunning “Going It Alone,” for Outside. She uses a personal story, her own journey on Appalachian Trail, to try and answer a larger question: Just who is the outdoors for? To answer this, Haile doesn’t just rely on her own experiences on the trail, she also does a ton of research, bringing in past interviews and stories, and interweaving anecdotes from other through-hikers she meets along the way. I really appreciated how, with all these other voices in play, we get a clearer vision of Rahawa and her journey, too. At the conclusion of this piece, which is so gorgeously written and urgent and honest and full of life, Rahawa closes with the perfect ode to those she met on her way: “It is no understatement to say that the friends I made, and the experiences I had with strangers who, at times, literally gave me the shirt off their back, saved my life. I owe a great debt to the through-hiking community that welcomed me with open arms, that showed me what I could be and helped me when I faltered. There is no impossible, they taught me: only good ideas of extraordinary magnitude.”
Author of the forthcoming memoir Sick, and the novels The Last Illusion and Sons & Other Flammable Objects.
Obama’s Parting Gift: Not to Fear White Racism (Carvell Wallace, The New Yorker)
I tiptoed into 2017 filled with dread and despair thanks to the political atmosphere, but it just so happened this New Yorker essay came out early in the year, and it was one I returned to many times. It reminded me of what power means and how it can come again, even under the most menacing racist climates in history. It moved me so much that I taught it and then read everything else the writer had written; a couple months later I felt compelled to message him to tell him I greatly appreciated his work. It turned out he knew and loved my work too, and flash forward some months, he became my boyfriend. It might be awkward to nominate a loved one, but Wallace’s work is indispensable to me — he’s one of our most essential essayists. (He managed to turn his GQ cover story on Mahershala Ali into a beautiful essay too, without being indulgent or steering off course.) I know I’m lucky to have him; I know we all are lucky to have him.
Author of the memoir Save the Date and the upcoming novel Unclaimed Baggage
Wrongful Birth (Jen Gann, New York Magazine)
My favorite longread this year was one that came in toward the end of the year, but it’s a stunner. Jen Gann’s New York Magazine cover story weaves reporting and personal essay together in a form that is pure, moving, informative, and true. Gann’s son has cystic fibrosis. The disease should have been caught by her doctors before she gave birth — and in fact, it was — but the information was never passed on to her. Instead, a child she would have aborted is deeply beloved no less for his illness. Because of the disease, she must fight for him daily, which along with caring for his needs also means filing a “wrongful birth” lawsuit to help pay exorbitant medical expenses.
So many personal essays are called brave, but this one truly is, in the way that Gann reveals the complicated truth of her emotions to a society that is not often kind to women who don’t fit the category of “perfect, beatific motherhood,” whatever that is, and is crueler still to those who reject that notion as they attempt to do the best they can for their child. Gann’s reconciling of her emotions with her reality isn’t an easy task; it’s something she’ll have to do for the rest of her life, and her child’s. This powerful essay provides a glimpse into something that every human, whether they have children or not, should try to understand.
Deputy editor, Narratively
Why We Must Believe Women: My Family’s Legacy of Violence and Murder (Chelsea Bieker, Catapult)
This piece by Chelsea Bieker takes all of the swirling pain and fear and rage of the #MeToo moment and brings it back down to earth into one family’s heartbreaking story, which was marred, over and over, by male violence, and by society’s refusal to believe it.
Author of the novel Long Division and the forthcoming memoir Heavy.
Border Wars (Zandria F. Robinson, Oxford American)
It’s strange when one of the best essayists in the world keeps getting, not just better, but more ambitious, clearer, productively ambiguous, and loving. That’s exactly what Robinson pulls off in this essay. She doesn’t just prove that the deep black south is the center of many of our musical worlds, she accepts it. That acceptance becomes a cause for celebration, a painful reckoning, and a real meditation on what literary and literal gumption can create and sustain in essayistic forms.
Writer, working on a dating memoir, An Anthology of Assholes.
A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof (Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, GQ)
During the summer of 2015, in an act of white supremacist terror, Dylann Roof murdered nine black people at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston while their heads were bowed in prayer. GQ describes Ghansah’s many months spent in Charleston profiling Roof as a search for answers, but that’s not quite accurate. Her piece is an autopsy of the American lie that this has ever been the land of the free. It is the cold truth about racism and its victims written with a warm hand. Her piece is the piece writers with less range attempted to write about a neighborhood Nazi. I look forward to her first book, The Explainers & the Explorers, out next year.
Senior editor, Longreads
A Pet Tortoise Who Will Outlive Us All (Hanya Yanagihara, The New York Times Magazine)
The essay that stayed with me throughout the year was a profile of a sulcata tortoise named Fred who spends his days wandering the backyard of Yanagihara’s parents’ house in Honolulu. Whatever we demand from our pets — love, affection, the mere acknowledgment of our presence — is lost on Fred. But tortoises are present in a way few animals can be. “To be in the company of a tortoise is to be reminded — instantly, inarticulably — of the oldness of the world and the newness of us.” writes Yanagihara “To be around them is to be reminded, incessantly, of our own vulnerability — and our own imminent deaths.” In a year where everything in the world seemed to be moving so quickly, Fred reminded me of what lasts — and what will outlast — the petty troubles of the day.
Essays editor, Longreads
My Father Spent 30 Years in Prison. Now He’s Out (Ashley C. Ford, Refinery29)
Ashley C. Ford writes about the joys and frustrations of being reunited with her father, who spent most of her life in prison. She does so with an astonishing blend of candor and compassion that makes it so you can’t help but feel for both of them. Ford’s father has missed so much of his daughter’s life, but that’s not all he has to catch up on. Having been incarcerated since the late 1980s, he is way behind the times, technologically speaking. He’s new to the whole world of cell phones, not to mention texting. (If you think helping your aging parents with their technology is frustrating, imagine if they’d never owned even a computer.) While her father is trying to learn new ways to connect with his daughter, Ford is also trying to learn how to set healthy boundaries with him, which makes for complications, and tremendous poignancy.
What Do We Do With The Art of Monstrous Men? (Claire Dederer, The Paris Review)
In this nuanced, challenging essay, Claire Dederer crystallizes a particular dilemma that has arisen from this #MeToo moment: Can we continue to enjoy or appreciate the art of men who have turned out to be sexual predators or harassers or discriminators? It’s a question she ponders both morally, and aesthetically. I relate. I will never forgive Woody Allen for, as Ronan Farrow calls it, becoming his brother-in-law, nor for the sexual abuse Dylan Farrow has accused him of. And I will also never forgive Woody Allen for ruining Woody Allen for me. Dederer doesn’t stop there. She also interrogates the harsh boundaries artists and writers must erect, and the others they must trespass, in order to do the work they do — and how women artists are afforded less understanding and forgiveness for becoming such “art monsters.” (A week or so after this was published, Lorin Stein, editor in chief of The Paris Review, resigned amid an investigation into his inappropriate sexual behavior there.)