Reading anything of length is still a solitary act, a settling into slowness and thoughtfulness, and to decide to read is to decide to pay attention to what someone else thought when they themselves were solitary, reflective, introspective, trying to put the fragments together into a new picture of who we are and can be, where we are and came from and might go, why it matters, what it means – Rebecca Solnit
The essayist’s job is to gather up the shards or map them where they are, to find the pattern out there or make one with words about the disconnections and mysteries. This reading of the world is a form of travel, questing and searching and gathering. Essays are restless literature, trying to find out how things fit together, how we can think about two things at once, how the personal and the public can inform each other, how two overtly dissimilar things share a secret kinship, how intuitive and scholarly knowledge can cook down together, how discovery can be a deep pleasure.
When you read for a book called The Best American Essays, you have to decide what an essay is, or in my case, definitions emerge as you read. Some excellent writing fell by the wayside because it was too purely personal history, and some because it felt too like feature-writing journalism. A very few pieces were at the other end of the spectrum, too purely philosophical inquiry and analysis. These writings reminded me what essays in particular do and what I want them to do, which is to be a meeting ground. A place where the experiential and the categorical, the firsthand and the researched, converse, question, or just dance in each other’s arms for a while. Where the patterns and relationships we didn’t suspect reveal themselves, or where those patterns and phenomena we thought we knew take on new meanings and depths or turn out to be strangers we are meeting for the first time. Where the writer moves between people, places, things, and events, and contemplation of what they mean, why they matter, what they have to tell us. Where the writer goes on to philosophize a little, to draw conclusions, to share a little of her own views about it all.
Essay writing is reflective; it doesn’t just want to recount things that happened, but contemplate what they mean, and often what they mean is really about how they fit into the pattern, which is how the particular connects to the general. Often this means making ethical statements, and though sometimes an ethic is explicit, sometimes it’s implicit in what the writer chose to pay attention to or how she read it. (People who think overt principles are always propaganda often mistake the status quo for a neutral place, rather than one with its own ethical strictures and ardent propaganda.)
That quest for meaning takes many forms. Gary Taylor writes about the murder of Maura Binkley, one of the students in the English department he chairs: “These men were all trying to kill generalities. The man who stands accused of murdering Maura was not seeing a luminous living individual; he was seeing a specimen of the category ‘woman,’ a category he hated. From his perspective, the category ‘woman’ owed him something, something he as a ‘man’ was entitled to have. The category ‘woman’ had no right to choose to refuse him. Before the gun killed Maura, the generalization did.”
Taylor takes a stance against the inability to see particulars, and argues, “What we do, in English, and in the humanities more broadly, what we teach, what we celebrate and investigate, is human particularity.” Though I was moved and impressed by his essay’s deep humanism as he grapples with the crime, I don’t actually agree with him, because seeing patterns is seeing what we have in common, and he does it himself: “These men were all trying to kill generalities” tries to understand the mass shooting in which Binkley died as something that happens too often, and arises from a set of beliefs and entitlements. That is, this one killer typifies misogynist mass shooters.
It’s the relationship between generalities and particulars that matters, and often the work an essay does is taxonomical: here’s how this particular fits into this categorical reality. Here’s how this young woman died as a result of a set of widespread beliefs and values. Here’s how to restore what may seem like an anomaly to its natural habitat in the order of things. Here’s why this thing matters: because it is a type specimen of the species, and here is why this species matters or threatens us or is in trouble. Here’s how what happened to me happens to us, or has happened before and will again.
It takes a certain kind of confidence to reach a conclusion. You have to take a stand, believe in yourself. You have to go past reporting or recounting. But it also takes a desire to understand, to contextualize, to situate the incident in the principle that governs it, and every essay is a journey of sorts from what we’re given to what we make of it, “we” being the writer and the readers who go on the journey with her.
Jia Tolentino covers similar ground to Taylor’s in “The Rage of the Incels,” at least thematically, since her particulars are so different in this essay prompted by a whole different slaughter directed at women. She writes, “It is a horrible thing to feel unwanted—invisible, inadequate, ineligible for the things that any person might hope for. It is also entirely possible to process a difficult social position with generosity and grace.” She’s contextualizing the men who think women owe them sex by contemplating the other people who are not having sex and who yet don’t feel enraged and homicidal about that. It’s full of her usual startling insights, briskly delivered: “These days, in this country, sex has become a hyperefficient and deregulated marketplace, and, like any hyperefficient and deregulated marketplace, it often makes people feel very bad.” But then she goes further, to explore how what incels want is not really sex, or that sex is just the form in which they demand supremacy. It’s an ethical essay, and its ethics might be called feminism. As might Lili Loofbourow’s essay interrogating the excuses so often made for men, and the latitude to destroy they’re given.
Terese Marie Mailhot does something similar with racism and then with violence against women, but she also tells us of the mythologies, beliefs, and ways of living of her mother, and of how “there is power in the reclamation of story—in the remembrance that these stories are real and tangible things, like my mother . . . I look at myself and see a lineage of monstrous desire and compulsion and beauty and power. When my mother said I was born to Thunder, she believed life would be hard for me, because Thunder is a liberator, and liberating is hard and thankless work. She believed I would disrupt things, but the world would be better for it.” Mailhot finds a cosmology that can accompany her through insults and obliviousness and shows us something of it.
In “My Father Says He’s a Targeted Individual. Maybe We All Are.,” Jean Guerrero tells us about her father’s fears about surveillance and some of the conduct that fear has prompted and the ways that it impacted her and her family. That could be the stuff of memoir, but she goes further, to think about the ways that people who are dismissed as paranoid or conspiracy theorists are right, or have become so. With that she brings us to face the monstrous invasiveness of the new technologies and networks and the fact that all of us now live under conditions that were once supposed to be the stuff of paranoiac delusion. They are watching you. And us. If she’d only reported on the latter, her piece would be journalism, just as it would have been memoir had it only been the former, and since there is no such genre as investigative memoir, nor any such thing as the personal editorial, it’s an essay.
“Only connect” may have emerged as the dictum underlying E. M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End, but it’s the main instruction for writing an essay. Not connecting people emotionally, but connecting ideas and meanings, which are the protagonists in essays, as human beings are in novels, the subjects who must reveal themselves and evolve through the writing.
Threaded through all the crises of this era is an absence of a certain kind of sense perhaps too rare to call common. This sense arises from an ability to deal in facts but also in meanings, to situate the particular in the general, and to extricate oneself from generalizations by means of directness and detail, to move back and forth from the personal to the political, to know where we are and how we got here and why that matters. Patience, attention to detail, devotion to accuracy and precision, interest in patterns and overarching orders, and concentration that doesn’t flicker from the main event are the soil in which that sense grows.
This is the work essays have done more than any other kind of literature, though virtually all literature has done it by asking people to sit quietly alone and engage with what a stranger thought, perhaps one long ago or far away or unfamiliar in some essential. This thoughtfulness of the writer and the reader who meets her is itself an act of self-definition and of being in the world in ways that don’t comply with hasty, networked, distracted time.
William Carlos Williams wrote in one of his most famous passages about the difficulty of getting the news from poems, “yet men die miserably every day . . . for lack of what is found there.” Just before that oft-quoted clutch of lines, the poet says,
My heart rouses / thinking to bring you news / of something / that concerns you / and concerns many men.
It seems to be some kind of objective information he’s referring to, some practical or political information (and he keeps addressing himself to men as a synecdoche for humanity, though he’s speaking to a beloved who is his wife of forty years, because women still didn’t quite exist in the fifties, speaking of patterns that erase, or patterns we’re trying to shatter). Actual news, perhaps of the kind found in newspapers, or perhaps news in the larger, vaguer sense of what just happened out there, whether it’s the sun breaking through the clouds out the window or the diagnosis just phoned in. And then come those famous lines informing us that poems don’t deliver the news, but they deliver something essential.
So does the news, of course, and essays deliver both and maintain the diplomatic relations between journalism and poetry, owning something from both territories, or functioning in both. Curious about the lines I had read so many times, I looked up the poem, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” and when writing about it I found this from poet and professor Ann Fisher-Wirth: “A bout with depression was exacerbated both by the recent stroke and by the injustices surrounding Williams’ appointment as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress. The position was first offered, then withdrawn owing to allegations of Communist sympathizing, then offered again contingent upon further loyalty investigations, which were conducted but never evaluated, so that the year’s term was up before Williams was able to serve. The situation tormented him with feelings of rage, powerlessness, and humiliation.”
Fisher-Wirth writes that the crisis drove him to put himself in a mental hospital for a couple of months, and it was in this phase of his life he wrote the poem. Maybe it’s this news “of something that concerns you” he was thinking of. I hadn’t known that McCarthyism had impacted Williams, too, and it changed the poem for me to know that it had been written in duress that was not only personal but public, the vicious anticommunism that turned into a right-wing enthusiasm to punish and control all dissenters and leftists and then homosexuals and everyone, anyone. Millions lived in fear they might be targeted, whatever their political alliances past and present.
How do you think about this poem to his wife, with its intimate imagery of flowers and domesticity, when you find out it’s from a man devastated by the national crisis of McCarthyism—that is, by the threat of an inquiry that is not a desire to know the person but to hunt for grounds to punish him in an act that oversimplifies the past and lumps many positions in the same category and attempts to banish certain kinds of thought and politics?
We know that Senator Joe McCarthy started an inquisition in the early 1950s, with the help of lawyer Roy Cohn, who later became a mentor and instructor to the young Donald J. Trump. McCarthyism is far behind us as part of the era of the USSR and the Cold War, but right in front of us as a strategy to override facts, truths, and rights with belligerence, repetition, and sheer force of will. It is the strategy of nonsense: “‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that’s all.’”
By Williams’s time, and McCarthy’s, this destruction of meaning was recognized as a deadly serious political force by the chief poet of the age of Stalin and McCarthy, George Orwell, who wrote: “And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory.” In an age like this, accuracy and precision become acts of resistance, and the practice of memory and the writing of history and the assertion of it at key points become insurrectionary acts.
Orwell reminds us that essays have tremendous political power at times, and Thoreau reminds us that such power is not always immediate. But we live in an essayistic age, and in recent years some of the key transformations in the United States have proceeded in no small part by the arguments advanced in essays, not landmark individual ones, generally, but flocks of essays that fill the sky like the birds J. Drew Lanham writes about in his essay here, covering all aspects of a subject, one essay making a case that lets another make a case that goes a little further, establishing together a new set of perspectives from which new statements can be made and old problems reexamined. The flock lands in countless imaginations and settles in. This has been true of Black Lives Matter, of feminism, of the climate movement, of the way the fight at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline illuminated a whole world of indigenous struggles and fossil-fuel depredations for a new audience, of the growing awareness of trans identities and oppressions, and of much else besides.
I have in recent years had a vivid feeling of seeing new ideas sweep in like storms to water the ground and germinate dormant seeds, of recognizing with exhilaration the way that this essay and this and this have a cumulative effect that is transformative. Of how we together make things visible that even those already dedicated to the general goals or principles did not see, of how that capacity to see expands and becomes integral to some portion of society, of how change itself works.
We who live in and through media and the online world live in a whirlwind of slogans and catchphrases and clickbait, summary conclusions and scrolls across the split screen of news programs, pop-up ads and interruptions that together make things swirl and spin and shatter thoughts and thoughtfulness, and more than that propose that they’re something to accelerate past on the raceway. The world is made out of fragments, and now we have breathtaking new technologies to pound them into splinters or snatch us away before we have time for pattern recognition or even knowledge of ourselves. Silicon Valley’s contribution to the diminishment of our attention spans may have as much as anything to do with the more disastrous moments of our politics.
“Make America great again,” the slogan Trump ran on, was a promise to make history run backward, to make immigrants and people of color disappear, to make women shut up and queer people go back into the closet, to make coal king again and “working class” mean white men with hardhats and not, say, immigrant Asian women in nail salons and Latinx farmworkers. But more than that, it was the promise that nostalgia was history and the past could be recaptured, that truth could be whatever you wanted it to be, that reality was a Choose Your Own Adventure plus bullying romp, that history “means just what I choose it to mean.” History is erased by the victors.
Good writing is antithetical to all that, and by good I mean passionately engaged, informed, and committed to ideals including accuracy and precision and fact and memory, writing that calls on readers to be alert, to care about subtle as well as large distinctions, that asks them to observe and value the details and the distinctions, to resist oversimplification and the binaries and absolutes that dog our sloganeering, to go slow and take the time to know where we are and where we are heading. Or it can change who we are and where we are heading.
In this troubled era I have found a particular power not just in straight news reporting, but in a sort of hybrid, a newsy editorial writing or reporting with opinions and interpretations, work that is objective enough to serve as journalism and subjective enough to serve as editorial and opinion writing. Dahlia Lithwick, Roxane Gay, Jamelle Bouie, Jane Kramer, Paul Waldman, Rebecca Traister, Soraya Chemaly, Brittney Cooper, Masha Gessen, Jelani Cobb, Jia Tolentino, Bill McKibben, Sue Halpern, Moira Don-egan, John Nichols, David Roberts, Charles Blow, and Greg Sargent are leading examples, people whose voices I trust, writers who begin with the news but go on to contemplate or analyze it in ways that are proscribed in newspaper journalism’s idea of straight reporting. Facts without contexts are slippery things, and it’s easy to miss what’s going on if you have an untrustworthy narrator or one who gives you just bald facts without context. A law is being violated, an assumption is being made, a new precedent is being set, language is being used in a particular way, pattern recognition of slow incremental change and its causes: why does it matter? is the question that political essays often try to answer, and with that they reach out from the official arena of politics into culture, the subsoil from which politics grows.
Which is to say that we fail miserably for lack of what’s found in the judicious engagement, the personal interpretation, and the capacity for understanding when they’re in harness together. I was assigned to pick out the best of the very good essays we gathered, and for me that meant not only the integrity of the writing and the writers’ visions, but essays that engaged with the most important and conflicted stuff of our time. I enjoy digressions and asides and essays that find the world in a microcosm; I’m as interested in the personal as the next person (but maybe more interested in the impersonal, in what I call public loves). An important topic doesn’t make an important essay, but addressing what matters can be part of what makes an essay significant. And since we are in a series of overlapping emergencies, I wanted to read about climate, about gender, about race, about technology, about violence, about how these things are changing and where we have leverage. (I didn’t find nearly as many great climate essays as I’d hoped, but I’ve long known how hard it is to find footholds on as huge and slippery a subject.)
Not only those things, because there are essays on world literature and language loss here as well, and pieces like J. Drew Lanham’s “Forever Gone” connect race and endangered and extinct species. That the climate crisis is also a heartbreak and a storytelling crisis is something that Elizabeth Kolbert takes up. The personal is political, feminism declared half a century ago; here she shows us how the political is personal.
Reading the hundred essays to find the twenty that went into this book encouraged me in ways I didn’t anticipate. I found in them one of the subtler forms of resistance we need in this era, or rather opposition, as in “to be the opposite of.” I found the opposite of the rush to judgment, the looseness with facts, the overstatements and pretense that categories are airtight, which don’t just plague our politics and public life, but gave rise to them.
Reading anything of length is still a solitary act, a settling into slowness and thoughtfulness, and to decide to read is to decide to pay attention to what someone else thought when they themselves were solitary, reflective, introspective, trying to put the fragments together into a new picture of who we are and can be, where we are and came from and might go, why it matters, what it means. By the end of my reading for this volume, I felt the grace and bounty of all these people working in their various corners of the country to try to understand what’s going on and to explore what language can do to give us joy and sharpen our perception and deepen our awareness.
I met people thinking about the issues that are in the foreground of this moment: climate change, race, gender and gender identity and misogyny, the abominable current administration. But even the essays about the most central facts of our public political life were not about the obvious. It is customary for people of color to write essays about the particulars of their experience, often saddled—as James Baldwin notably was, as if he were the ambassador from Black—with the task of explaining their “us” to the vast “them” of white people. Women have done some of the same work to illuminate what has been hidden about women’s experience to men—and also, often, to ourselves.
But one of the unfortunate side effects of this salutary business is the implication that women, queer people, and nonwhite people have a particular experience and white men have a universal experience that need not be scrutinized. Walter Johnson’s “Guns in the Family” was striking for me in that it seemed so cognizant of the fact that the relationship between certain kinds of white American males and guns is peculiar, problematic, even scary, though it is treated as normal. As an ambassador from heartland white masculinity, Johnson makes it as weird and sociologically specific as it should be.
I found in Michelle Alexander’s “We Are Not the Resistance” almost everything I ever wanted in an essay, and maybe the essay that made the biggest impact on me in 2018. She takes up the subject of our current situation in the United States, but reverses the terms in which we have described it to say that we—the we that believes in equality and universal human rights—are not the resistance. They are. She gives us a tent: “One might argue that the big tent of ‘the resistance’ is its greatest strength: a massive united front becomes possible when the barrier to entry is so low.”
Then she gets us out of the tent to admire the panorama beyond: “Viewed from the broad sweep of history, Donald Trump is the resistance. We are not.” And down below we see the river, the metaphor whose power carries the essay and our imaginations. She writes, “In the words of Vincent Harding, one of the great yet lesser-known heroes of the black freedom struggle, the long, continuous yearning and reaching toward freedom flows throughout history ‘like a river, sometimes powerful, tumultuous, and roiling with life; at other times meandering and turgid, covered with the ice and snow of seemingly endless winters, all too often streaked and running with blood.’” She then tells us, “Donald Trump’s election represents a surge of resistance to this rapidly swelling river, an effort to build not just a wall but a dam.” The metaphor itself is liberating: the river surges through those who read of it in her essay. This is why essays are not just journalism, why their freedom to do things with words and meanings and metaphors and images matters.
Alexander’s is a recharged vision of who and where we are, made partly by a different assessment of the situation on the ground, but partly by a reversal of the underlying metaphors. Resistance is a dam. And it’s not our dam. We’re not holding anything back; we’re the river, the real power, and our path forward is inevitable. Not just a news report, not just a political analysis, but a work in which the power of language and a distinct personal vision combine with those raw materials to make something more that prepares us to face a catastrophe with more confidence and clarity than before. And so the fragments come together. Stories do their work.