In her groundbreaking 1999 article The Essay Canon, Lynn Z. Bloom argued that the essays most people know—the essays that, effectively, define the genre—are the ones that appear most frequently in freshman composition anthologies. As a result, the essay canon is fundamentally a teaching canon as opposed to a historical, critical or national canon, and the essay is too easily dismissed as a service genre, one that is used to write about other, more “literary” genres. It is a genre used to teach 19-year-olds how to write.
Such teaching is hard work. New teaching assistants are assigned multiple sections, in which they are expected to introduce the entire writing process, from brainstorming through proofreading. Editors select essays for first-year writing anthologies with the needs of these beginning teachers and their students in mind. Is the selection current and accessible? Can it be used to model this or that rhetorical mode? Is it short enough for use in a one-hour class? Is it in the public domain, and if not, how much will the permissions cost? Will it help diversify the anthology in terms of race, ethnicity and gender? Does it help establish a balance between classic and contemporary essays, and between emerging authors and established big names? These concerns are real and understandable, but they push toward the inclusion of shorter, simpler, more “teachable” essays.
Important anthologies, such as those edited by Gerald Early, Phillip Lopate, Robert Atwan, Joyce Carol Oates and John D’Agata, have sought to position the essay historically and argued for the genre’s centrality, but, as Bloom points out, “All anthologies (not just [first-year] readers) deracinate their material—old or new—from its original context and replant it in the anthologist’s soil.”
The essay is more than the “fourth genre.” It deserves to be studied in literature as well as writing classes. It deserves anthologies that emphasize historical and cultural contexts, and promote extensive critical interpretations. It deserves a diverse and expansive canon full of challenging essays that are read by general readers and scholars alike.
W. E. B. Du Bois, Of Our Spiritual Strivings
In this piece, Du Bois recalls the moment when, as a young boy in western Massachusetts, he was introduced to the color line. During a “merry” exchange of cards in school, a white girl refused his, and it dawned on him that he “was different from the others” and “shut out from their world by a vast veil.” Hidden behind this veil, says Du Bois, he and other Negroes are “gifted with second-sight,” the ability to see the racism to which whites are often blind. This trope of finding power in invisibility later inspired Ralph Ellison.
Du Bois also introduces his idea of “double-consciousness,” that “peculiar sensation” experienced by African Americans who find themselves neither African nor American, but are left, instead, with a “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
Published originally in The Atlantic Monthly (August 1897) as “Strivings of the Negro People”; a revised version appeared as Chapter One of The Souls of Black Folk (1903).
Randolph Bourne, A Philosophy of Handicap
Bourne’s face was disfigured at birth by misused forceps, and his body was crippled soon after by tuberculosis of the spine—disabilities he wrote about in this stunning essay, first published anonymously. Struggling to be both objective and personal, Bourne found himself caught between pronouns and trapped in subordinate clauses: “If he [the Handicapped] has to go out for himself to look for work, without fortune, training, or influence, as I personally did, his way will indeed be rugged.”
Two years later, Bourne revised the essay, changed its title to “A Philosophy of Handicap” and included it in his first book, “Youth and Life.” In the later version, he stopped using the term “deformed,” removed some descriptions of himself, folded “he” and “I” into “the handicapped man” and argued that disability is not only a physical state but also a social category that is used to define what is “normal” and what is not.
It would be 60 years before the last Unsightly Beggar Ordinances, or “ugly laws,” were repealed and 16 after that before Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
Published originally in The Atlantic Monthly (September 1911) as “The Handicapped—by One of Them”; revised as “A Philosophy of Handicap”, in Youth and Life (1913).
William Carlos Williams, An Essay on Virginia
During the period of “In the American Grain” (1925), William Carlos Williams rethought the essay and America. Eliot, Pound and Stein had left for Europe and dismissed the personal essay as a middlebrow form, but Williams used the essay to establish what he called “contact” with America. “An Essay on Virginia” is his contribution to the surveys of “these united states,” popular at the time; it is also cubist and modern, an essay on the essay. With whiplash disjunctiveness, it simultaneously advances and enacts a modernist theory of the essay while also critiquing Virginia, regionalism, and American democracy: “These are essentially the component moments of all essays, hams, anecdotes of battles, broken buildings—the materia are the same. It is their feudal allocation in Virginia that is important. But the essay is essentially modern.”
Published originally in This Quarter (Paris) (Spring 1925); first collected in A Novelette and Other Prose, 1921-1931 (1932).
Richard Wright, The Ethics of Living Jim Crow
In the punning title of this essay, Living can be a verb or an adjective, and Jim Crow an adverb or noun. Either way, “ethics” is to be taken ironically, and Americans, both black and white, find themselves undone by their country’s racism.
In nine numbered sections, Wright takes us from one “lesson” to another, showing how he was taught to act as if racism did not exist, until he “learned to lie, to steal, to dissemble.” But, what he “steals” are knowledge and an educated self. He does this by convincing a fellow worker, a white Catholic from the North, to loan him his library card so he can check out (ostensibly for his white friend) subversive books by authors such as Mencken.
In the fall of 1939, during a House Un-American Activities Committee hearing, Texas congressman Martin Dies, Jr., called Wright’s essay “the most filthy thing I have ever seen.” Dies accused Wright of fomenting racial hatred and entered into the Congressional Record Wright’s explanation of how Black people in the South saw their situation:
How do Negroes feel about the way they have to live? How do they discuss it when alone among themselves? I think this question can be answered in a single sentence. A friend of mine who ran an elevator once told me:
“Lawd, man! Ef it wuzn’t fer them polices ’n’ them ol’ lynch-mobs, there wouldn’t be nothin’ but uproar down here!”
Published originally in 1937 as “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow: An Autobiographical Sketch” in American Stuff: WPA Writers’ Anthology; first reprinted as the introduction to the second edition of Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children (1940).
E. B. White, Once More to the Lake
Once More to the Lake, the most widely anthologized American essay of the last half of the 20th century, is usually taught as a nostalgia piece about fathers and sons, often serving as a prompt for a what-I-did-on-my-summer-vacation essay.
Readers in the fall of 1941 would have taken something different from the essay, however, for in his Harper’s column, White had been making the case against fascists abroad and isolationists at home for three years already. Pearl Harbor was two months away. When, at the end of the essay, White described a thunderstorm as “the revival of an old melodrama that I had seen long ago with childish awe,” when he sadly acknowledged that “America had not changed in any important respect,” when he remarked on “a curious darkening of the sky, and a lull in everything that made life tick” and the storm began to roll in off the North Atlantic with a “crackling light against the dark and the gods grinning and licking their chops in the hills,” White’s readers would have heard him rejecting the naïve view that World War I was the “war to end all wars” and bemoaning the imminent and sickening return of war.
Published originally as an installment of “One Man’s Meat” in Harper’s (October 1941); first collected in “One Man’s Meat” (1942).
James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son
It took Baldwin 12 years to write this bruising essay about the events of two days: July 29, 1943, when his father died and his sister was born, and August 3, 1943, when the family buried his father in the midst of the Harlem riots and Baldwin himself turned 19. The essay braids together several narratives and reaches several climaxes. At one point, Baldwin realizes that racial hatred has nearly led him to kill and to be killed; at another, he realizes that hatred killed his father. If we are not to be destroyed by such hatred, Baldwin finally decides, we must learn “to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seem to be in opposition”:
The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: In light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength.
The editors of Harper’s apparently did not fully accept this conclusion (or perhaps they did not trust their readers to accept it), for they elided several passages, including the following: “I had discovered the weight of white people in the world. I saw that this had been for my ancestors and now would be for me an awful thing to live with and that the bitterness which had helped to kill my father could also kill me.”
Published originally as “Me and My House…” in Harper’s (November 1955); first collected as “Notes of a Native Son” in the book of the same title (1955).
Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail
On April 12, 1963—Good Friday—King, Ralph Abernathy and 52 other people were arrested in Birmingham, Ala., for marching in violation of an injunction prohibiting any “parading” or “demonstrating,” including even “conduct customarily known as ‘kneel-ins’ in churches.” King was put in solitary confinement. Four days later, he wrote, first in the margins of The New York Times and later on paper smuggled in by his lawyer and a Negro trusty, this “letter” to eight white, liberal Birmingham clergymen who had published “A Call for Unity,” which criticized non-violent direct action, labeled King an outside agitator and argued that the courts alone should deal with civil rights.
Speaking as a fellow minister, King explained that the black citizens of Birmingham had invited him and his colleagues to the city, that Jesus also spoke against injustice, that Paul, too, had been called an “outsider” and that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Because it is often occasioned by an event, the essay is sometimes dismissed as journalistic and less-than-literary. King’s piece is evidence to the contrary. His letter displays much learning (as in its allusions not only to the Bible, but also to Reinhold Niebuhr, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and Martin Buber), rises often to abstract and careful logic (as in its explanation of nonviolent civil disobedience and the difference between just and unjust laws) and regularly lifts its personal witness to lyrical heights, especially in a famous 316-word sentence that enacts America’s delay of justice—a waiting that has, says King, always meant “never.”
Excerpted without permission in the New York Post Sunday Magazine (May 19, 1963); published in its entirety and with permission under various titles throughout the summer of 1963 in Liberation, The Christian Century, The New Leader, Witness, The Mennonite and The Atlantic Monthly, and as an American Friends Service Committee pamphlet; revised and collected in King, Jr.’s book Why We Can’t Wait (1964).
Joan Didion, The White Album
When did the ’60s end? With Altamont? The fall of Saigon? Watergate? Didion’s answer—the Manson murders marked the end—is a Los Angeles answer, but not a parochial one. Her essay speaks personally to the large and public issues of race, gender and peace; she connects her own neuroses to those of the age. Finding herself and her times without a narrative or script, she chooses to improvise. Though she mentions it only in her title, Didion’s model for such improvisation is the unnamed Beatles album that came to be called “The White Album”—an album containing bits of narrative (“Rocky Raccoon”) and sound pictures of chaos (“Revolution 9”), an album that contained the helter-skelter which defined a decade and a track named “Helter Skelter” which haunted the murderer who, for Didion, ended that decade.
Sections 3, 5 and 9 published originally as installments of the “Points West” column of The Saturday Evening Post, entitled respectively “Waiting for Morrison” (March 9, 1968), “Black Panther” (May 4, 1968) and “The Revolution Game” (January 25, 1969); first published in its entirety, with twelve additional sections and significant changes, in New West (1979) as “The White Album: A Chronicle of Survival”; published in book form as The White Album (1979).
Nancy Mairs, On Being a Cripple
Born in 1943, Mairs came of age as a writer during the politicized ’60s, and her social activism informs how she writes and thinks about her personal life—especially her depression and multiple sclerosis. Her work is distinguished by its self-deprecation and candor. On Being a Cripple opens with an anecdote: While using the bathroom at her office at the University of Arizona, Mairs was thinking again about writing an essay about her MS. Her mind still on the essay, she flushed, tucked in her shirt, picked up her book bag and grabbed her cane off the hook: “So many movements unbalanced me, and as I pulled the door open, I fell over backward, landing fully clothed on the toilet seat with my legs splayed in front of me: the old beetle-on-its-back routine. Saturday afternoon, the building deserted, I was free to laugh aloud as I wriggled back to my feet. … I decided that it was high time to write the essay.”
We are, and are not, a long way from Bourne’s A Philosophy of Handicap. Unlike Bourne, Mairs embraces the first person, but she faces the same paternalism and self-pity he had found himself up against (fortunately, her daughter Anne helps her resist them):
Fortunately, at home no one much cares whether I’m a good cripple or a bad cripple as long as I make vichyssoise with fair regularity. One evening several years ago, Anne was reading at the dining-room table while I cooked dinner. As I opened a can of tomatoes, the can slipped in my left hand and juice spattered me and the counter with bloody spots. Fatigued and infuriated, I bellowed, “I’m so sick of being crippled!” Anne glanced at me over the top of her book. “There now,” she said, “do you feel better?” “Yes,” I said, “yes, I do.” She went back to her reading. I felt better. That’s about all the attention my scurviness ever gets.
In 1998, Mairs was one of seven plaintiffs who successfully sued the Greyhound Lines bus company over its failure to comply with the equal access provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Published originally in MSS (Fall 1983); first collected in Plaintext (1986).
Jo Ann Beard, The Fourth State of Matter
On November 1, 1991, I walked across the University of Iowa campus, where I was a graduate student, to meet my wife at a coffee shop. I had just left my office at the Iowa Memorial Union, where I worked part-time as writer for the dean of students. Because the weather was gray and sleety and it was Friday afternoon, I’d dropped some newsletter copy in campus mail rather than at the dean’s office in Jessup Hall.
My friend Jo Ann Beard was at home. She shared a job at the physics department with her friend Mary Allen—one working one day, the other the next. Mary called Jo Ann to tell her there had been a disturbance at the office. They were evacuating the building. She’d be right over.
A disturbed physics graduate student named Gang Lu, angry that he had come in second in a contest for best dissertation on campus, had just shot and killed three professors and a graduate student named Linhua Shan, who, like him, was from China and whose dissertation had won the contest. Jo Ann knew them all. One of the professors, Chris Goertz, was a close friend.
Gang Lu then walked across campus and shot a vice president outside her office in Jessup Hall. He also shot a young student employee, leaving her paralyzed from the neck down.
The Fourth State of Matter is about the shootings, but it is about much more: the end of Jo Ann’s marriage; her collie’s final days; the squirrels who infested her attic; her friendship with Chris; the death of Chris’s mother, who killed herself not long after her son’s murder; and the plasma, or the fourth state of matter, that the dead physicists had studied. It is a beautiful essay, fully deserving of the praise it received (inclusion in Best American Essays of 1996 and other anthologies) and the doors it opened (a book contract, a Whiting Award, a Guggenheim). It was also a life-changing essay about a life-changing event, an essay that might make you wonder if you have the right to write about your friends and their deaths, your friends and their work, though, slowly, you accept that their lives were bound up with yours, as are all of our lives bound up with those of others, and so you continue to write.
Published originally in The New Yorker (June 24, 1996); first collected in The Boys of My Youth (1998).