The Best American Essays of the Century share button
Joyce Carol Oates
Format Paperback
Dimensions 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.50 (d)
Pages 624
Publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication Date October 2001
ISBN 9780618155873
Book ISBN 10 0618155872
About Book

This singular collection is nothing less than a political, spiritual, and intensely personal record of America’s tumultuous modern age, as experienced by our foremost critics, commentators, activists, and artists. Joyce Carol Oates has collected a group of works that are both intimate and important, essays that move from personal experience to larger significance without severing the connection between speaker and audience.
From Ernest Hemingway covering bullfights in Pamplona to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” these essays fit, in the words of Joyce Carol Oates, “into a kind of mobile mosaic suggest[ing] where we’ve come from, and who we are, and where we are going.” Among those whose work is included are Mark Twain, John Muir, T. S. Eliot, Richard Wright, Vladimir Nabokov, James Baldwin, Tom Wolfe, Susan Sontag, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Joan Didion, Cynthia Ozick, Saul Bellow, Stephen Jay Gould, Edward Hoagland, and Annie Dillard.


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Bookseller Reviews

These essays educate us, amuse us, startle us with their immediacy. Who among us can read Henry Adam's "A Law of Acceleration," penned in 1904, and not think of our mind-zapping digital age? Who could resist the first sentence of Zora Neale Hurston's piece:I am colored but I offer nothing in the way of extenuating circumstances except the fact that I am the only Negro in the United States whose grandfather on the mother's side was not an Indian chief." And which of you could disagree with the unrepeatable wisdom of Gertrude Stein's "The tradition has always been that you may more or less describe the things that happen nowadays everybody all day long knows what is happening and so what is happening is not really interesting."

The essays that Joyce Carol Oates has selected linger with us, not because their authors (from Mark Twain to Martin Luther King), retain their fame, but because each piece is a talisman, irreducible and well-carved. James Age's prose-poems "Knoxville, Summer of 1915" appeals to us today just as it inspired composer Samuel Barber decades ago, and two thirds of a century have only enhanced the thrall of the languorous rhythms of Edmund Wilson's "The Old Stone House." H.L. Mencken's article on the 1925 Scopes trial shames this week's pale convention prose with its freshness, and T.S. Eliot's 1919 "Tradition and The Individual Talent" still has something to teach us.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly

"Here is a history of America told in many voices," declares Oates in her introduction, revealing the heart of her intelligent and incisive collection of 55 essays by American writers. Never attempting to capture or replicate a single, authentic "American identity," this collection succeeds by producing a comprehensive and multifaceted look at what America has been and, by extension, what it is and might become. While it's not explicitly political, the volume's multicultural intentions are visible. Beginning with "Cone-pone Opinions," a 1901 Mark Twain essay that uses the wisdom of an African-American child as its central image, Oates has fashioned a collection that calls attention to the way that "America" is made up of competing, and often antagonistic, cultural and social visions. There is not only the apparent contrast between the populist, overtly political visions of W.E.B. Du Bois's "Of the Coming of John," James Baldwin's "Notes of a Native Son" and Mary McCarthy's "Artists in Uniform" and the cultural elitism of T.S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent." Oates has managed to find numerous pieces whose vision and philosophy resonate with one another without becoming homogeneous, so Gretel Ehrlich's meditation on pastoral aesthetics in "The Solace of Open Spaces" contrasts abruptly and ingeniously with Susan Sontag's urban-centered "Notes on Camp." In all, Oates has assembled a provocative collection of masterpieces reflecting both the fragmentation and surprising cohesiveness of various American identities. QPB and History Book Club selections; BOMC alternate. Sept. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

From The Critics

". . . Oates has assembled a provocative collection of masterpieces
reflecting both the fragmentation and surprising cohesiveness of
various American identities."


In her excellent introduction to this collection, Joyce Carol Oates states her belief that "art should not be comforting." It should, instead, "provoke, disturb,...and expand our sympathies in directions we may not anticipate and may not even wish." The reader should therefore be prepared to have these 55 carefully selected essays do just that. Arranged chronologically, the essays span the century with an average of five essays per decade. From Mark Twain to Saul Bellow by way of William James, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost and Gertrude Stein, the collection notes literary trends as well as social upheavals as recorded in essays of W.E.B DuBois, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright. Chosen from authors who had published at least one book of nonfiction or essays, this collection attempts to present a "mobile mosaic" of 20th-century America. Category: Collections. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2001, Houghton Mifflin, 624p., Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Patricia A. Moore; Brookline, MA

Library Journal

One of the pleasures of an anthology like this is reading people you might not otherwise have picked up. Like John Muir, whose "Stickeen," a life-and-death adventure on an Alaskan glacier with a singular small black dog, is a great piece of adventure writing. Or Jane Addams, whose insights into the spread of an urban legend of "The Devil Baby at Hull House" are thoughtful and compassionate. Another sort of pleasure comes from rereading familiar works in a new context: E.B. White's "Once More to the Lake," N. Scott Momaday's "The Way to Rainy Mountain," John McPhee's "The Search for Marvin Gardens," and Annie Dillard's "Total Eclipse." Only seven of the essays come from the annual "Best American Essays" series that Atwan has coedited since 1986. The other 48 were culled from the rest of the century, with the ruling idea, Atwan says, "that the essays should speak to the present, not merely represent the past." Oates looked "for the expression of personal experience within the historical." They have created a mosaic of a century in an America whose dominant and recurring theme has been race. Essential for most libraries.--Mary Paumier Jones, Westminster P.L., CO Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\

Megan Harlan

...all the essays transcend fashion and speak just as eloquestly to us today as they did when they were first published.
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