Excerpt: The Making of the American Essay edited and introduced by John D’Agata

About the Book:

For two decades, essayist John D’Agata has been exploring the contours of the essay through a series of innovative, informative, and expansive anthologies that have become foundational texts in the study of the genre. The breakthrough first volume, The Next American Essay, highlighted major work from 1974 to 2003, while the second, The Lost Origins of the Essay, showcased the essay’s ancient and international forebears. Now, with The Making of the American Essay, D’Agata concludes his monumental tour of this inexhaustible form, with selections ranging from Anne Bradstreet’s secular prayers to Washington Irving’s satires, Emily Dickinson’s love letters to Kenneth Goldsmith’s catalogues, Gertrude Stein’s portraits to James Baldwin’s and Norman Mailer’s meditations on boxing.

Across the anthologies, D’Agata’s introductions to each selection-intimate and brilliantly provocative throughout-serve as an extended treatise, collectively forming the backbone of the trilogy. He uncovers new stories in the American essay’s past, and shows us that some of the most fiercely daring writers in the American literary canon have turned to the essay in order to produce our culture’s most exhilarating art.

The Making of the American Essay offers the essay at its most varied, unique, and imaginative best, proving that the impulse to make essays in America is as old and as original as the nation itself.

Read an Excerpt:

Featured in April/May 2016 Issue: American Scences

One summer evening, in 1908, the hay in the fields around Folsom, New Mexico, was cut and waiting for baling. The town’s two hundred residents had gone to bed that night after a light rain cleared just in time for the sunset. But by midnight, when everyone was asleep, heavier clouds settled over the mountains above the town, and soon more than twenty inches of rain began to fall. Streams of it poured down the mountains all night, rushing into the fields, gathering up the hay, and carrying it to a trestle that spanned a nearby creek. The hay clumped and clogged around the railroad bridge’s beams, and for a while the debris managed to choke off the surging water, but as the rain continued to fall, and as the pressure began to swell, the accidental dam of iron, mud, and hay burst onto the town, killing people in their sleep, drowning the town’s livestock, crushing almost every permanent building along the way. The next morning, while surveying the flood’s damage, a local cowboy noticed the bones of a very large animal protruding from the creek. The flood had washed away so much of the creekbed that previously hidden layers of earth were now exposed—ancient, secret, long-lost layers, suggesting that the animal the cowboy came upon was not only very old but probably extinct. As he inspected the bones more closely, the cowboy noticed an arrowhead lodged between two ribs, but he couldn’t figure out how an arrow had killed such an animal before it was even thought that humans lived in America. The cowboy’s discovery was so incredible, in fact, that it took over a decade before any archaeologists would come to examine it. Yet by the time they did, arrowheads in nearby Clovis, New Mexico, were found in bones determined to be even older still. And quickly thereafter, artifacts were discovered in Texas, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Virginia that pushed back the date for human presence in America to 14,000 B.C.E.—long preceding the Neolithic Revolution, that cultural explosion in the ancient Near East that led to the domestication of animals, the cultivation of land, the development of towns, and the beginning of civilization. What this means, say most archaeologists today, is that whatever the earliest occupants of the Americas achieved they achieved in isolation, negating the long-held belief that their only real achievement was in emigrating from the Old World with inherited skills. Indeed, the first occupants of the Americas constructed their world from scratch. They lived collectively on massive farms that they developed after clear-cutting huge tracts of land. They developed cities that held hundreds of thousands of people. They maintained an estimated twenty-five thousand miles of complex highway systems, dozens of written languages, giant athletic arenas, stone towers, observatories, libraries, schools. They created a 365-day calendar that was more accurate than any other calendar in the world. They developed the concept of zero. They perfected mummification. And in the most striking example of their independent innovations, they also invented the wheel—yet they only found a use for it as a novelty in children’s toys. The obvious lesson here is that we ought to pay tribute to the talents and ambitions of America’s earliest occupants, those pioneering humans who frequently fell victim to the dreamy racist stereotype of the gentle noble savage, peacefully living in unison with an uncorrupted Earth. But I have to admit that the lesson that interests me more about our earliest American ancestors is that we all apparently have a need to shape the world around us, to build it into something new, to make it into what we want. The best illustration of this comes from a creation story from Northern California. In the mythologies of the Cahto, who live in the Pacific Coast Ranges, the world is made by two gods who spend their time designing mountains, trees, animals, and people, only to see them wiped away by a devastating flood. The flood doesn’t come as a punishment, or a warning, or even as a lesson, but instead it seems to come because floods will sometimes come—leaving us with nothing but the opportunity to rebuild. So that’s what the Cahto do. But before they reconstruct the world they lost in their creation story, the Cahto make a point of lingering on the details of the flood’s devastation, noting how it methodically disassembled the world around them by erasing each part of it, piece by piece: the mountains, trees, birds, people, weather, dirt, and light. What we’re left with, momentarily, is just the shell of what had been there, the physical shape of nothingness, an emblem of the ineffable that we’re nevertheless allowed to see and smell and touch. The Cahto want us to palpably know what nothing really means, because the meaning behind “Creation” is creativity itself, the power and the pleasure of making. What we all have is a world, the Cahto seem to say, but what we do with it is create. To my ear, this is the predicament of every essay too, situated as essays always are between chance and contrivance, between the given and the made. The world provides nonfiction, and humans provide the rest. The essays in this anthology have an appetite for the rest—for what else nonfiction can do. They are essays with a penchant for making new things, regardless of expectation, regardless of consequence. Let floods come, let dreams come, let something unexpected overtake us and make us new. The world, we all know, is already a nonfiction.

Let the essay be what we make of it. 

“To the Reader” copyright © 2016 by John D’Agata. Reprinted from The Making of the American Essay with the permission of Graywolf Press, www.graywolfpress.org.

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