Review: The Lost Origins of the Essay

Issue #112
Fall 2010

Essay anthologies are one of the perennials of American publishing, old and new titles shoaling into bookstores by the tens of thousands every year … the catch being that most are put forward not as essay anthologies, but as “composition readers,” created to encourage undergraduates to take an interest in the shapeliness of their own prose. Their covers and editorial apparatuses gesture wildly at being up-to-date, but the contents—descriptive, narrative, and argumentative essays, as represented by George Orwell, Joan Didion, James Baldwin, Annie Dillard, Richard Rodriguez, and E. B. White—have the sleepy timelessness of a bayou.

John D’Agata’s anthology The Next American Essay cannonballed into these long-quiet waters in 2003. Alongside essays by Didion and Dillard were much less familiar pieces by David Foster Wallace, Anne Carson, and Harry Mathews. Instead of a typology of essays, there were unclassifiable anomalies like David Shields’s “Life Story,” composed entirely of bumper sticker slogans, and Jenny Boully’s “The Body,” a series of footnotes to a text that had been erased from the upper half of the page. As an essay anthology, The Next American Essay made compelling, revelatory reading; more surprisingly, it could also (as I had several occasions to observe) do something almost no composition reader ever does: inspire interesting writing.

The Next American Essay already seems to belong in that small company of anthologies that become landmarks or points of departure, like Ron Silliman’s In the American Tree or Jerome Rothenberg’s Technicians of the Sacred. In neat postmodern fashion, it has now been followed by its precursor. The Lost Origins of the Essay excavates the literary history of several continents to demonstrate that the “next” essay, in all its idiosyncratic divagations, has always already been among us. The first text, “The List of Ziusudra,” dates from 2700 BC.

The historical landscape of the essay that D’Agata takes us through is at once familiar and strange. Beside Petrarch’s famous “Ascent of Mont Ventoux” (here titled “My Journey Up the Mountain”) is an excerpt from A General History of the Things of New Spain, the sixteenth-century Franciscan monk Bernardino de Sahagún’s compilation of the lore of the Aztecs. Montaigne and Bacon are here, but not their shorter, more familiar, and more digestible pieces; instead we have Bacon’s “Antitheses of Things,” a collection of dueling aphorisms, and Montaigne’s unmappable, serpentine exploration of sexuality, “On Some Verses of Virgil.” Sei Shonagon and Matsuo Basho, classics of Japanese prose, are generously represented, but for the English tradition, we get neither Addison’s finesse nor Johnson’s gravity, nor Lamb’s charm, but instead the mercurial Thomas DeQuincey’s astonishing “The English Mail-Coach” and (in its entirety) Sir Thomas Browne’s Urn-Burial.

Several of the anthology’s selections are quite well known, but not as essays. Mallarmé’s A Throw of the Dice, St. John Perse’s Anabasis and Christopher Smart’s lines about his cat Jeoffrey are usually thought of as poems, Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” as fiction, Plutarch on the Spartans as history, the sayings of Heraclitus as philosophy, Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell as …well … as what, exactly? Not poems … not fictions … but are they essays? By making us ponder the mere presence of such selections, D’Agata suggests the anthology’s ambitions and makes us wonder whether it announces a revolution.

D’Agata knows his definition of the essay goes against the grain. In his acknowledgments, he thanks his students, “who have been reading and discussing some of these essays for many years with me, and who sometimes in response—to the benefit of this project—have challenged my thinking by declaring these not essays.” The headnotes of The Lost Origins of the Essay, as did those of The Next American Essay, together constitute an essay of their own, a disquisition on the infinitely branching possibilities of the form, furnished with full-length examples. D’Agata reminds us early in the volume that the name of the form derives from “the Middle French essai—‘a test’, ‘a trial’, ‘an experiment’,” and asks us to see the essay as “the equivalent of a mind in rumination, performing as if improvisationally the reception of new ideas, the discovery of unknowns, the encounter with the ‘other.’” At about the volume’s midpoint, he takes aim at the classic English essay (“a kind of literary transaction: the subject matter advertised in the title of the piece, the unthreateningly middling thesis, the unsurprising exploration in fulfillment of that thesis, and the proudly dramatic reminder of what the reader has just read”) in introducing DeQuincey, whose essays he describes as “incorporating personal experience, literary criticism, politics, history, gossip, dreams—all string together loosely by the music of association.” Introducing the final selection, Lisa Robertson’s marvelous “Seven Walks,” D’Agata suggests we see the essay itself as a walk: “the essay is at its best when it is trying to get somewhere. But […] just because an essay has something it’s pursuing does not mean, necessarily, that what’s arrived at is what’s gained.” Or, as he memorably asserts in introducing Mallarmé, “every essay is a journey of a thought into risk.”

D’Agata particularly seeks to discourage any notion that what makes an essay an essay is that it holds information. The phrase “creative nonfiction,” designating writing that is markedly literary without being either clearly poetry or clearly fiction, appears nowhere in his volume, and one guesses he would stop that increasingly common label dead in its tracks if he could. He emphatically wants our idea of the essay to include the imagined, the speculative, even the counterfactual. A novel’s inclusion of real places and actual historical events does not make it a work of nonfiction; since Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar” has the tone, deportment, and momentum of an essay, does its account of an invented place really make the text fiction? Does it really make more sense to call The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and A Season in Hell poems than it does to call them essays? “Where do we draw the line then—in a genre that’s still thought of as a source for only data—between texts that merely want to inform their readers and those that attempt to transform them?”

The Next American Essay was strong evidence that the essay is no longer what it used to be, and The Lost Origins of the Essay is strong evidence that the essay was never what we thought it was. The prospects that the two anthologies, taken as an ensemble, open for writing are large and intoxicating. But as intriguing as the newer volume’s implied argument is, its real award is the writing it contains. The next few years will likely see no anthology of writing, in whatever genre, as compellingly readable and as richly worthwhile as this one. The intriguing new discoveries are many, and even the very oldest of friends, like Swift’s “Modest Proposal,” gain something from being read in this new context. The Lost Origins of the Essay brings to light a fabulous inheritance that was right in front of our faces without our seeing it.