The Ten Best American Essays Since 1950, According to Robert Atwan

Robert Atwan’s favorite lit­er­ary genre is the essay. As edi­tor and founder of The Best Amer­i­can Essays series, Atwan has read thou­sands of exam­ples of the remark­ably flex­i­ble form.

“Essays can be lots of things, maybe too many things,” writes Atwan in his fore­ward to the 2012 install­ment in the Best Amer­i­can series, “but at the core of the genre is an unmis­tak­able recep­tiv­i­ty to the ever-shift­ing process­es of our minds and moods. If there is any essen­tial char­ac­ter­is­tic we can attribute to the essay, it may be this: that the truest exam­ples of the form enact that ever-shift­ing process, and in that enact­ment we can find the basis for the essay’s qual­i­fi­ca­tion to be regard­ed seri­ous­ly as imag­i­na­tive lit­er­a­ture and the essay­ist’s claim to be tak­en seri­ous­ly as a cre­ative writer.”

In 2001 Atwan and Joyce Car­ol Oates took on the daunt­ing task of trac­ing that ever-shift­ing process through the pre­vi­ous 100 years for The Best Amer­i­can Essays of the Cen­tu­ry. Recent­ly Atwan returned with a more focused selec­tion for Pub­lish­ers Week­ly“The Top 10 Essays Since 1950.” To pare it all down to such a small num­ber, Atwan decid­ed to reserve the “New Jour­nal­ism” cat­e­go­ry, with its many mem­o­rable works by Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Michael Herr and oth­ers, for some future list. He also made a point of select­ing the best essays, as opposed to exam­ples from the best essay­ists. “A list of the top ten essay­ists since 1950 would fea­ture some dif­fer­ent writ­ers.”

We were inter­est­ed to see that six of the ten best essays are avail­able for free read­ing online. Here is Atwan’s list, along with links to those essays that are on the Web:

  • James Bald­win, “Notes of a Native Son,” 1955 (Read it here.)
  • Nor­man Mail­er, “The White Negro,” 1957 (Read it here.)
  • Susan Son­tag, “Notes on ‘Camp,’ ” 1964 (Read it here.)
  • John McPhee, “The Search for Mar­vin Gar­dens,” 1972 (Read it here with a sub­scrip­tion.)
  • Joan Did­ion, “The White Album,” 1979
  • Annie Dil­lard, “Total Eclipse,” 1982
  • Phillip Lopate, “Against Joie de Vivre,” 1986 (Read it here.)
  • Edward Hoagland, “Heav­en and Nature,” 1988
  • Jo Ann Beard, “The Fourth State of Mat­ter,” 1996 (Read it here.)
  • David Fos­ter Wal­lace, “Con­sid­er the Lob­ster,” 2004 (Read it here in a ver­sion dif­fer­ent from the one pub­lished in his 2005 book of the same name.)

“To my mind,” writes Atwan in his arti­cle, “the best essays are deeply per­son­al (that does­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal) and deeply engaged with issues and ideas. And the best essays show that the name of the genre is also a verb, so they demon­strate a mind in process–reflecting, try­ing-out, essay­ing.”

To read more of Atwan’s com­men­tary, see his arti­cle in Pub­lish­ers Week­ly.

The pho­to above of Susan Son­tag was tak­en by Peter Hujar in 1966.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

30 Free Essays & Sto­ries by David Fos­ter Wal­lace on the Web

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