- The Lost Origins of the Essay, and: Creative Nonfiction: A Guide to Form, Content, and Style, with Readings, and: The Nonfictionist's Guide: On Reading and Writing Creative Nonfiction, and: Fearless Confessions: A Writer's Guide to Memoir
John D'Agata is out to change the essay canon. And he's succeeding.
That canon, as Lynn Bloom showed over a decade ago in an article in College English, is a teaching canon. The essays that dominate it come from the anthologies designed for first-year writing classes. Editors load these anthologies full of short, accessible essays that can be used by beginning teachers to model one or another rhetorical mode for distracted 19-year-olds.
In the late 1990s D'Agata and his mentor, the late Deborah Tall, began looking for essays they considered more poetic and "literary" than the usual fare. They soon began publishing what they called lyric essays in the Seneca Review, which Tall edited at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, D'Agata's alma mater. In 2003 D'Agata, who is a fine writer of nonfiction, edited The Next American Essay (Graywolf), an innovative anthology that contained an essay a year (except for 1992, which got two) for every year from 1975 (not coincidentally the year of D'Agata's birth) to 2003. In lyrical and personal headnotes, D'Agata introduced his readers to lyrical and personal essays. "I want you preoccupied with art in this book," he warned them on page 1, "not with facts for the sake of facts."
Now D'Agata has extended his project beyond late twentieth-century America. In his new anthology, The Lost Origins of the Essay (again with Graywolf), D'Agata ranges across 6,000 years, dips into the cultures of several nations, and offers us 49 essays meant to "claim to an alternative tradition."
If the bugbear of D'Agata's previous anthology was facts, this one is haunted by commerce. "I am here in search of art," he announces. "I am here to track the origins of an alternative to commerce."
Graywolf, however, needs to make money—though fortunately, not a lot. It is a small, independent house that is organized as a nonprofit and doesn't chase the freshman comp market, enabling D'Agata to publish longer, more difficult essays. Montaigne's magisterial exercise in digression, "On Some Verses in Virgil," for instance, covers 59 pages. Professors may adopt this book (as I did D'Agata's first) for their graduate classes, but it's an idiosyncratic anthology meant mainly for those already in love with the essay. D'Agata's headnotes, each opening with a date and a place, reflect this assumption. The one titled "1941 - England" begins, "This is the year she kills herself, on March 28th." Novice readers will need to turn the page to see that the selection is by Virginia Woolf. That selection, "The Death of a Moth," and Swift's "A Modest Proposal" are the only essays in the book that might also be found in [End Page 180] a freshman comp anthology. More often D'Agata opts for prose poems such as Blake's "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," or difficult modern work by writers such as Pessoa, Celan, Beckett, Duras, and Paz.
If The Next American Essay supplemented Robert Atwan and Joyce Carol Oates's The Best American Essays of the Century, this collection seems intended to extend Phillip Lopate's The Art of the Personal Essay. Like Lopate, D'Agata includes pieces by Kenko, Shonagon, Seneca, and Plutarch, but then he reaches back another millennium and a half to a list...