An eclectic anthology of 55 essays chosen by Oates (Blonde, p. 11, etc.) comprising a generous selection of less known but deserving work from mostly big-name writers.
The collection is intended to be a greatest-hits volume of the 20th-century American essay and to stand as a companion to The Best American Essays franchise, which has been published annually since 1986. The essays included here cover the years from 1901 to 1997 and are arranged chronologically according to their original date of publication. In her introduction, Oates explains her ambitions as an editor: she tackled the project from the point of view of a literary conservator, trying to preserve worthy essays from the forgetfulness of history and vagaries of literary fashion. In order to make the task of selecting from a century's worth of writing manageable, Oates set out strict criteria: eliminating the work of writers who did not publish at least one volume of nonfiction during their career (thus ousting any one-hit-wonders), as well as those who wrote journalism or reportage. In this regard Oates self-consciously avoids creating a chronicle of the past century and, instead, collects an array of emotional journeys and obsessions. According to this formula, essays about of race and identity easily come to dominate: Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail," James Baldwin's "Notes of a Native Son," and Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" stand out. A further eight essays also take race as their topic. Other major themes include science and nature, social change, artistic endeavor, and the struggle against nostalgia. Browsing the titles indicates that only a few touchstone essays are included, although most selections have been extracted from nonfiction books whose titles are better known. As a whole, the anthology does not deliver on the grandiose promise of its title. Instead, it delivers the "Best" essays not frequently anthologized. With so few surprises and most of the selections coming from the usual suspects, the overall effect is underwhelming.
Above average, but definitely not the "Best."
The title The Best American Essays of the Century seems transparent enough, but don't be deceived. What Joyce Carol Oates has assembled is not so much a diverse collection as a sonorous march through what keeps getting called the American century. Read this not as a collection to dip into but as a history--a history of race in America. Oates says it best herself in her introduction: "It can't be an accident that essays in this volume by men and women of ethnic minority backgrounds are outstanding; to paraphrase Melville, to write a 'mighty' work of prose you must have a 'mighty' theme." The mighty pens at work here belong to, among others, Zora Neale Hurston ("How It Feels to Be Colored Me"), Langston Hughes ("Bop"), and James Baldwin ("Notes of a Native Son"). Oates has opted not for the most unexpected but for the most important and stirring essays of our time.
Other chords sound repeatedly as well: the problem of our relationship with nature (Annie Dillard, John Muir, and Gretel Ehrlich); the difficulty of identity in disrupted times (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Joan Didion, and Michael Herr). In her essay "The White Album," Didion famously declares: "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." The stories Oates has collected are not easy. Here is the hard-won truth, from writers unwilling to forgive even themselves. Even Martin Luther King Jr. doesn't let himself off the hook, as he writes in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail": "If I have said anything in this letter that is an overstatement of the truth and is indicative of an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything in this letter that is an understatement of the truth and is indicative of my having a patience that makes me patient with anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me." --Claire Dederer --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.