Putting America to the Test

By David MikicsJanuary 1, 2021

Putting America to the Test

The Glorious American Essay by Phillip Lopate

AN ESSAY IS an experiment, as etymology suggests: essayer, a way of trying something out. It’s no surprise that the United States, the experimental nation, perpetually in search of itself, has produced a surplus of remarkable essayists. Phillip Lopate’s new anthology, The Glorious American Essay, is accordingly capacious. Ranging from Cotton Mather to Zadie Smith, Lopate gives us 100 essays about everything from the American desert (Edward Abbey) to grocers’ cats (Agnes Repplier) to the Scopes trial (H. L. Mencken, in an acrobatic feat of sarcasm). There’s James Thurber on the American male, Nora Ephron on breasts, and Martin Luther King Jr. on the Vietnam War. Lopate has widened the definition of the essay to encompass King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, George Washington’s farewell address, Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, and a few other central instances of American oratory. Political speeches, too, partake of the essay’s wily and strategic ways.

Lopate’s anthology is a treasure trove, a word hoard, a bonanza, perfect for dipping into and rifling through. There are comic delights from Thurber and Dorothy Parker, fine-tuned naturalism from Rachel Carson, John Burroughs, and Loren Eiseley, and, above all, sallies at that constant American topic, personal identity.

These essays are public as well as personal. They grapple with the darkness that, as we have lately been reminded, has bedeviled the United States from the beginning: slavery, racial hatred, oppression. John Jay Chapman faces one of the nation’s darkest moments when he denounces the Coatesville lynching; Frederick Douglass writes a piercing letter to his old slave master Thomas Auld. But there is brightness too, like the freewheeling Zora Neale Hurston’s “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” which I’ve always thought should be taught in schools alongside the Declaration of Independence.

Lopate’s anthology raises serious questions for our fractious time. Is the United States divided into opposing camps, or ready for conversation? Can Americans reach across lines of race, gender, and class, or are they stuck in the compartments sociologists impose on them? Eudora Welty’s bold, affecting portrait of a black hometown character, Ida M’Toy, suggests that the essayist’s job is to step over racial boundaries, out of sheer human interest. Elizabeth Hardwick remembers Billie Holiday, who “live[d] gregariously and without affections”: “Murderous dissipation went with the music, inseparable, skin and bone.” Ralph Ellison stresses how blackness inflects all of the United States, even its ostensibly pure white niches. Leonard Michaels raucously claims Jewishness as a way of talking that implies a way of being, a protest against bland and finicky goyish manners. Norman Mailer admits that the homosexual villain in his latest novel springs from his own prejudice, which he discovers has strangely mutated into a sympathetic curiosity about what it means to be gay. Sui Sin Far, in the 1890s, grapples with prevailing social bias against the Chinese, which deforms her but also makes her who she is. And Nancy Mairs calls herself a cripple rather than a disabled person, throwing in society’s face her brave gambit of self-definition. “Perhaps I want them to wince,” Mairs writes. “I want them to see me as a tough customer […] who can face the brutal truth of her existence squarely. As a cripple, I swagger.” All these writers stage their identity against the square-pegging games of social convention, but they also realize that no one can fully break free into rootless individualism.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, that apostle of individualism, is also, it goes without saying, the United States’s central essayist. But even in Emerson the individual can begin to slip-slide away. In “Experience,” the Emersonian gospel of self-reliance is hard to take hold of, since, he says, life is made up of illusions. And “this new yet unapproachable America,” as he calls it, is also an illusion, albeit a grand one, its magnificence the work of dreamers. Joan Didion replays Emerson in a bare and starkly Western key, in her 1965 essay “Notes from a Native Daughter.” She suggests that California is a hopeful mirage always haunted by that unspeakable word, failure:

California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.

To play against Didion’s exitlessness, Lopate includes Wallace Stegner’s staunch defense of a rough and ready Western ethos, “The Twilight of Self-Reliance.” But there is also N. Scott Momaday’s tribute to American Indian poetry, “The Native Voice in American Literature.” Momaday quotes a Pawnee song: “Let us see, is this real, / This life I am living,” and comments: “[T]he attitude toward life itself is uncompromisingly rational, the pose nearly indifferent, nearly haughty.” Momaday finds in a Sioux chant — “soldiers / you fled / even the eagle dies” — a “profound equation[.] […] I have looked at these words on the page a long time, and I have heard them grow up in the silence again and again. They do not fade or fail.”

Lopate has amassed a heap of marvels in The Glorious American Essay, comparable to those in The Art of the Personal Essay (1994), his earlier canonical anthology. Unavoidably, there are a few missing pieces. I would have liked to see a few pages of Ernest Hemingway (perhaps an excerpt from A Moveable Feast [1964]), as well as essays by Lionel Trilling and Alfred Kazin. Every reader will carp at some omission, but only after expressing gratitude for the feast of words that Lopate has assembled. A companion volume, The Golden Age of the American Essay: 1945–1970, comes out in April 2021, and it will, no doubt, fill in all the gaps and then some.

Lopate’s essayists sometimes have the urge to sum up the United States, as if their definition could determine what the country is. This is American hubris, but also a good sign. From the very start, we were making daring — and also worried — claims about who we are.

The Glorious American Essay begins, as it must, with the Puritans. Cotton Mather’s double-edged praise and condemnation of classical poetry dates from 1726. (Lopate omits John Winthrop’s Arbella sermon, which many think the real origin of the United States.) Homer was “one of the greatest apostles the devil ever had in the world,” Mather warns us, but he adds that “many illustrations of the sacred scriptures, I find, are to be fetched from him.” The United States’s rough suspicion of the artful begins with Puritanism, but so does the need for a social love that would support a whole community. And so does the exquisite form of self-examination that echoes far into the future, surfacing in James Baldwin, David Foster Wallace, and more than a few others here.

It’s quite an arc from Cotton Mather to Zadie Smith. Tellingly for our moment, Smith suggests that remaking personal identity is the way to freedom. She praises the polymorphous American identity she sees incarnated in Barack Obama, but her flexibility has its limits. Smith wants to rule out at least one self-definition: mixed race. Here a noticeable tide trends against her. Just 12 years after her essay was published, Smith’s claim that those who call themselves multiracial rather than black are “tragic mulattoes” seems like an incomprehensible prejudice.

Smith celebrates but also questions a mainstay of the American faith: the chance to reinvent oneself. The individualist ethos can seem like an evasion, whether of historical trauma or determining social forces, but it is lodged too deep within us to ever really lose its luster. Richard Rodriguez, in his essay “Hispanic,” points out that American individualism is “the greatest abstraction the world has ever known.” His sentence is ambivalent, even barbed. Our individualism is not merely great but also greatly — which is to say excessively — abstract. In the United States, you traditionally become who you are by being nothing in particular. You mirror the indeterminate mixedness of the nation, like the black, but also Asian, soon-to-be vice president. If there is something lost in such fluidity, it won’t be regained by insisting that people “identify as” what someone else thinks they should. Most Latinos aren’t people of color, because they say they aren’t. There is nothing so American as free choice.

If there’s a last word on ethnic identity and the United States, it must exist somewhere in the work of Baldwin, our greatest essayist after Emerson. Sitting in a French jail, accused of stealing a bedsheet, Baldwin discovers that he is being treated with contempt not because he is a black man, and not even because he is a member of that ridiculous species, les Américains, but simply because he is a human being grabbed by the steel-clad hand of French officialdom. Baldwin ends “Equal in Paris” (1955) by remarking on the easy cruelty of those who find the story of his prison experience merely hilarious. People like to avoid the suffering of others, secretly thinking that only their own is real. This is Baldwin’s version of original sin, bringing us back to Puritanism’s assault on a human soul that might be better off if only it could see into its own darkness.

Self-examination, whether dark or comic, is the thread that runs through many of the essays Phillip Lopate chooses. Often, questioning the self also means putting the United States to the test, wondering whether it can live up to the promises made in its founding pieces of paper. Whatever one thinks about the United States, The Glorious American Essay is a superb guide to the nation’s most adventurous and searching forays into prose.


David Mikics is a columnist for Tablet magazine and the author of Stanley Kubrick: American Filmmaker, which was published by Yale University Press in 2020. He teaches at the University of Houston.

LARB Contributor

David Mikics is a columnist for Tablet magazine and the author of Bellow's People (Norton) and Slow Reading in a Hurried Age (Harvard/Belknap). He is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!