The Best
American Essays
Of the Century

Joyce Carol Oates
Robert Atwan, Editors

(Houghton Mifflin)

Part II
It's not all bad news there in the belly of The Best. There are some superb writings that somehow got slipped in. For instance, Jane Addams, one of the wisest and most able writers from the world of social change talks unforgettably of the Devil Baby that turns up in the imagination of her clients at Hull House. Tom Wolfe? Who could ask for anything better than "Putting Daddy On?" James Agee --- as always, sweet, gentle --- tells of something as simple and pure as the neighbors, watering the lawns, in Knoxville, in the summer of 1915:

    Out of any one hose, the almost dead silence of the release, and the short still arch of the separate big drops, silent as a held breath, and the only noise the fluttering noise on leaves and the slapped grass at the fall of each big drop...up to that extreme tender whisper when the water was just a wide bell of film.

Martin Luther King, Jr. appears with "Letter from Birmingham Jail," which some of us have never had a chance to read. It is raw and powerful and angry: one of the best in the book.

H. L. Mencken is here, too, but the editors have arbitrarily excluded book reviews, so we miss his fine writing for The American Mercury and The Smart Set. (See, for example, his excellent study of American Education in an earlier issue of this magazine.)

Vladimir Nabokov turns up with the gorgeous first chapter from Speak Memory, but we must ask if a White Russian who cuts his literary teeth in England and France and dies in Switzerland really American? S. J. Perelman, an old fave of ours, comes with instructions on how to wrestle a toy together, but a chapter, any chapter from Acres and Pains would have been far funnier.

§     §     §

Then there's the matter of "They All Just Went Away," by Joyce Carol Oates. By including it, the editors are saying that it is one of fifty-five best American essays of the century.

The Century.

Incest is best, right?

Actually, the story does have a touch of incest, but it has something more important: the feel of something tossed in the salad-bowl by one who has no trouble stringing 2,000 or 3,000 words together on a hot Wednesday afternoon. "Now what should I write about?" Ms. Oates asks herself. "Remember, this is going to be listed as one of the best essays of the century." How about ...

Yes, that's it! Those peasants who lived down the way from us when we were growing up --- poor white trash named Weidel. There were some brothers in prison, the father beat up on the wife something awful (bit of boxing lore here), they say he did something bad to the daughters (there were rumors) --- and finally, he burned down the house. That's the ticket: noisome neighbors in our almost perfect small town of Millersport, N. Y. contrasted --- good literary trick --- with a normal and happy family.

How to cook it together quickly (we don't have much time: there are those classes at Princeton, a book review due next week for the NYRB and that speech at the MLA). How about some lists --- lists are big now --- like what was left over after the Weidel house burned up?

    Children's clothes, socks and old shoes heaped on the old sweater of Ruth's, angora-fuzzy...a naked pink plastic doll. Toppled bedsprings, filthy mattresses streaked with yellow and rust-colored stains.

And then...the aftergrowth on the walls: "trumpet vine, wisteria, rose of Sharon, willow..." And what did the old man use to after his wife? "A butcher knife, a claw hammer, the shotgun."

Yes, lists are good, and good for filling up space, but there has to be philosophy somewhere here, brain-juice. How about...let's ask ourselves, what is a house anyway? How about

    a structural arrangement of space, geometrically laid out to provide what are called rooms, these divided from one another by verticals and horizontals called walls, ceilings floors.

27 more words (and I like that bit, not rooms, but "what are called rooms.") True, this might not make it in the philosophy department: it's just another list in disguise. So how about... how about something on... ah... reality? How about

    For to be a realist (in art or in life) is to acknowledge that all things might be other than they are. That there is no design, no intention, no aesthetic or moral or teleological imprimatur but, rather, the equivalent of Darwin's great vision of a blind, purposeless, ceaseless evolutionary process that yields no "products" --- only temporary strategies against extinction.

Now that's 60 words and --- even if I do say so myself --- that's great talk-it-up-in-class stuff for those sophomores at Amherst and Brown and Boston U. --- not to say Berkeley and UCLA and Mills.

To be a realist.

Not only in Art, Life.

There is no design. No teleological imprimatur.

(Teleological imprimatur!)

Only blind, purposeless, ceaseless evolutionary process...



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