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The American Essay in the American Century

Ned Stuckey-French

Publication Year: 2011


       In modern culture, the essay is often considered an old-fashioned, unoriginal form of literary styling. The word essay brings to mind the uninspired five-paragraph theme taught in schools around the country or the antiquated, Edwardian meanderings of English gentlemen rattling on about art and old books. These connotations exist despite the fact that Americans have been reading and enjoying personal essays in popular magazines for decades, engaging with a multitude of ideas through this short-form means of expression.



To defend the essay—that misunderstood staple of first-year composition courses—Ned Stuckey-French has written The American Essay in the American Century. This book uncovers the buried history of the American personal essay and reveals how it played a significant role in twentieth-century cultural history.



In the early 1900s, writers and critics debated the “death of the essay,” claiming it was too traditional to survive the era’s growing commercialism, labeling it a bastion of British upper-class conventions. Yet in that period, the essay blossomed into a cultural force as a new group of writers composed essays that responded to the concerns of America’s expanding cosmopolitan readership. These essays would spark the “magazine revolution,” giving a fresh voice to the ascendant middle class of the young century.



With extensive research and a cultural context, Stuckey-French describes the many reasons essays grew in appeal and importance for Americans. He also explores the rise of E. B. White, considered by many the greatest American essayist of the first half of the twentieth century whose prowess was overshadowed by his success in other fields of writing. White’s work introduced a new voice, creating an American essay that melded seriousness and political resolve with humor and self-deprecation. This book is one of the first to consider and reflect on the contributions of E. B. White to the personal essay tradition and American culture more generally.



The American Essay in the American Century is a compelling, highly readable book that illuminates the history of a secretly beloved literary genre. A work that will appeal to fiction readers, scholars, and students alike, this book offers fundamental insight into modern American literary history and the intersections of literature, culture, and class through the personal essay. This thoroughly researched volume dismisses, once and for all, the “death of the essay,” proving that the essay will remain relevant for a very long time to come.

Published by: University of Missouri Press


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pp. 2-7


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pp. 8-9

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pp. ix-xiv

This book grew out of a love of the personal essay and a desire to figure out why middle-class Americans like to read magazines that contain essays. I grew up middle class myself (or more specifically, white, ...

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Introduction: Defending the Essay

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pp. 1-13

The dates and titles tell the tale—“The Passing of the Essay” (1894), “The Survival of the Essay” (1897), “The Prosperity of the Essay” (1905), “Once and for All” (1929), “A Disappearing Art” (1932), “A ...

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1. The Genteel Essay and the Gentleman at the Fireside

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pp. 14-40

The Genteel Tradition had been waiting for someone to name it, but by the time George Santayana did, it was already in decline. It had to be, for when a culture is hegemonic and fully naturalized, it is everywhere and, therefore, hard to see. But when ...

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2. The “Death” of the Essay

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pp. 41-52

For most of the nineteenth century the genteel essay featuring a learned gentleman digressing amiably at a fireside was read by a relatively small, well-educated group of people, usually after dinner by lamp-light at a parlor fireside. Reading ...

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3. The Essay in the Progressive Era

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pp. 53-101

The world of the late Victorians produced the mix of whimsy, quiet reflection, and good manners associated with the genteel essay, but that world was never as ordered and sedate as it sometimes seemed to be. Certainly, by the turn of the century, ...

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4. New York, New York: The Arrival of the Colyumnists

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pp. 102-137

The carnage and dislocations of the First World War shook, and perhaps ended, the Progressive dream of a country being led forward by trained and rational experts. At the same time, the ...

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5. Starting Out at the New Yorker

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pp. 138-166

Born in 1899, E. B. White was the youngest of Samuel and Jessie White’s six children by five years. He grew up in the family’s big Queen Anne house at 101 Summit Avenue in Mt. Vernon, New York, America’s first ...

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6. Leaving the New Yorker

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pp. 167-190

Though capitalism was more resilient than Macdonald thought, 1937 did find it in crisis. The year opened with the Flint sit-down strike, which was followed by waves of strike activity in both auto and steel. The United Auto Workers, ...

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Epilogue: “Once More to the Lake,” History, and Freshman Composition

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pp. 191-200

Though he had passed away fifteen years earlier, E. B. White played an important role in the 2000 New York senatorial campaign. That year Hillary Clinton, in a candidates’ debate with Rick Lazio, sought to dispel accusations of carpetbagging ...


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pp. 201-224


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pp. 225-246


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pp. 247-256

E-ISBN-13: 9780826272546
E-ISBN-10: 0826272541
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826219251
Print-ISBN-10: 082621925X

Page Count: 272
Illustrations: 15 illus
Publication Year: 2011

Edition: 1