The Best American Essays 1988 Summary

The Best American Essays 1988

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In his foreword, Atwan discusses the recent rise of the essay as a popular genre--in spite of the academic connotations of the term itself. “Essays,” he says, “are being written out of the same imaginative spirit as fiction and poetry.” After reading more than three hundred essays, Dillard compiled the best twenty in a wonderful collection which, as Robert Taylor says in the BOSTON GLOBE, “bridges the gulf between journalism and literature.

In her introduction, Dillard analyzes the ways essayists achieve their flexibility and power and explains how over the past century fiction has preempted the essay’s intellectual respectability. She argues that American literature has its roots in the essays of writers such as Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Mark Twain, and notes that many narrative essays today, such as Truman Capote’s IN COLD BLOOD and Norman Mailer’s THE EXECUTIONER’S SONG, pose as fiction because of the term’s artful connotations. With the aim of encouraging essay writers out of the closet, Dillard writes that “the essay can do everything a poem can do, and everything a short story can do -- everything but fake it.”

In her selection of essays, Dillard emphasizes the subgenre of the narrative essay, especially those that integrate plain and symbolic facts, such as James McConkey’s “Heroes Among the Barbarians,” about Indians living on his land, and Susan Mitchell’s “Dreaming in Public.” The volume includes autobiographical narratives, such as Mary Lee Settle’s “London -- 1944,” which memorably evokes the German Blitz, and William Manchester’s “Okinawa: The Bloodiest Battle of All.”

These and other essays, such as Arthur C. Danto’s “Gettysburg,” deal with the recurrent theme of understanding history. The volume also contains travel literature, such as Anne Carson’s “Kinds of Water,” an essay about a journey across Spain. Richard Selzer, a physician, writes about the Haitian AIDS epidemic in “A Mask on the Face of Death.” A veritable feast of the short form of nonfiction, this compilation is not to be missed.