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Summary/Reviews: The best American essays 1999
Foreword The Essay in the Twentieth Century When I was very young, my father purchased a small, uniform set of cheap literary classics. Why, I never knew. He was not a reader. Perhaps he had been duped by a door-to-door salesman. Perhaps he had aspirations for his children. The books crowded the only bookshelf in a cramped two-family house hedged in by humming factories on a narrow street that dead-ended into the mysterious and spectacular sumac- lined banks of the Passaic River in Paterson, New Jersey. As a result of his once-in-a-lifetime purchase I grew up with the privilege of knowing that Emerson was not merely the name of a television set. I found Emersons message bracing and liberating. I can see it now as self-help elevated to the highest literary standard, but reading "Self-Reliance" as an adolescent I simply took heart from his exhortations to resist conformity, trust in oneself, and not feel pressured by conventions, parties, and authority: "I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions," he said. "If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument," he said. "Insist on yourself; never imitate," he said. He warned about the physical pain of forced smiles and acknowledged the advantages of being misunderstood. If the writings of the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides comprised a Guide for the Perplexed, Emersons essays provided a Guide for the Intimidated. His independent, freethinking, inquisitive mind shaped American thought and writing, and his spiritual heirs invented the twentieth-century essay. Although Emerson may be said to hover over the volume, his presence can be detected more directly in one of his most prominent descendants, William James. Although this selection of great American essays begins in 1901, one could argue that the symbolic origins of the twentieth-century essay go back to the day in 1842 when Emerson was invited by the James family to visit their New York apartment and "bless" young William in his cradle. As a teacher, lecturer, physician, scientist, and one of the founders of modern psychology, William James would exert a powerful influence over the new century. Two of his students, W.E.B. Du Bois and Gertrude Stein, would permanently alter the course of the American essay by initiating two new modes of literary introspection: Du Boiss "double-consciousness" grounded in racial identity and Steins experiments with "stream of consciousness." Both originated in the critical first decade of the century, and their literary legacies can be felt throughout this collection. The twentieth-century essay also emerged from a resistance to the "familiar" or "polite" essay that had been a literary staple of the preceding era. Proper, congenial, Anglophilic, the genteel essay survived, even against the skepticism and irascibility of the Mark Twains, Randolph Bournes, and H. L. Menckens, who did their best to bury it. By the 1930s, howeve Excerpted from The Best American Essays of the Century All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
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