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  • Users and Their Words: Wrestling with John D’Agata
  • Thomas Larson (bio)


I suppose it was inevitable. The age of self-disclosure—memoir writing, celebrity tweets, one-person Broadway shows, suicide-bomber’s goodbye videos—has hastened one editor’s need to proclaim a new hegemony for that intractable thing we call the essay. In this case, one I want to prosecute, it’s John D’Agata’s three-volume anthology, which Graywolf has published over the last fifteen years. The collection is a course text, an MFA genre, and a private breviary on the form’s putative evolution, all in one. Under D’Agata’s leadership (he chairs the University of Iowa’s nonfiction program), his opus speaks to the essay’s undiscovered past and its experimental present and future.

It appears, under D’Agata’s helm, that the form requires a 1,968-page British Museum in which to view it. Volume One (2009) is composed of “the lost origins” of the essay, circa 1500 B.C.E. to 1974. Volume Two (2016) links or detours to American writers, the stylistic reinvigoration of the essay in the New World from 1630 to 1974. (The English essayists, who were just as innovative as the Americans, are placed in Volume One.) Volume Three (the last chronologically but [End Page 23] the first published in 2003) collects new American essays, 1975–2003. In 2016, Graywolf and D’Agata adopted this One-Two-Three order, retitling the whole, A New History of the Essay. Today, the publisher offers a boxed set with a precis included: introductory essays by D’Agata and James Wood.

Here is a voyage over the sea of a literary form we readers thought we had already crossed. Apparently not. D’Agata sets sail by declaring that there are two forms of nonfiction writing: informational and artistic. The essay, the artistic half, emerges as a replacement of the former, writing “that’s not propelled by information, but…compelled instead by individual expression—by inquiry, by opinion, by wonder, by doubt.” The three volumes before us grow large with essays of personal expression, which, D’Agata says, have been penned for six thousand years but somehow remained hidden from historical view.

This hiddenness gambit engenders the first of many questions I have with his work. Why were these ancient essay-like creations concealed and by whom? Contrary to the claim of censorship is D’Agata’s own inclusions: in the opening ninety pages of Volume One, we have four writers, all familiar, that I encountered in college: Heraclitus, Plutarch, Seneca, and Sei Shōnagon. Granted we may have defined their essays then not in the contemporary mold of personal inquiry but as aesthetic forays on universal themes of politics, love, honor, and more.

I think it important here to get one thing straight: An anthology of prose or poetry showcases exemplary work for which the study of literature—and its artistry—is either being proposed or already established. Via such assemblages, we have been evaluating literature for several centuries. The decision to collect the best work has been made by a community of scholars, often across generations, who we trust have chosen readings of literary value. College freshmen write tens of thousands of academic papers after reading and discussing the creative wonders of Alice Walker rather than the rare delights of Elizabeth Hardwick.

Such an endeavor sounds fair—over time the cream rises to the top. But the idea of anthologizing literature has also been politicized. [End Page 24] Before our time, literary collectivization focused almost exclusively on male writers. That good-old-boy process issued from white male critics, which we still regard as the Western literary canon. This redoubt was first laid out in the Harvard Universal Classics, in 1909. Later, in the mid-to-later twentieth century, pliant high school English teachers and a handful of the New Critics (Robert Penn Warren, Rene Welleck, Allen Tate) further demarcated the formal and impersonal superiority of certain white male authors those critics favored. Oddly, D’Agata’s history, with its inclusion of Greek, Roman, English, and American essayists, echoes much of this prior canon.

A further problem: given...


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