The Glorious American Essay, The Golden Age of the American Essay, The Contemporary American Essay
(Anchor Book, 2021)
A recent list of the New York Times’ top fifteen bestsellers includes books by three TV hosts, two political commentators who often appear on TV, a sports journalist, a rock star, an actor, a Hollywood actress, an activist, and a CEO of a major corporation. The remaining spots are a biography of a famous chef, two books inspired by cancer stories, and another one by two biologists who would like people to embrace science to look at the world, which—amid another COVID wave and some 70 million Americans who stubbornly refuse to get an FDA approved vaccine that billions of people all over the world had—sounds like the saddest of jokes, however necessary it might be telling it. This is not to say that these bestsellers aren’t good books. They might or might not be. The point I want to make, rather, is that what one won’t find in the list is a writer in the traditional sense of the word, and, more specifically, given the non-fiction category, an essayist, let alone more than one. This absence and the above-mentioned list reflect the power of celebrity culture, which today is perhaps wrongly identified with popular culture, and of certain media that sustains it. It might also, to an extent at least, indicate the extremely low level of our public discourse and the consequential diminished role of traditional intellectuals in today’s society. Certainly, it is the cipher of our present-day political economy and the consolidation of the publishing industry in a handful of transnational media corporations whose editorial policies the profit imperative dictates. What the lack does not mean, however, is the absence of a devil’s party, which is to say, of essayists, of good essays, and of people interested in reading them, collecting them, and publishing them. Unsurprisingly, count among the latter Phillip Lopate, the editor of the rather successful The Art of the Personal Essay, who spent the last five years putting together three volumes of American essays. Published in chronological order, these are: The Glorious American Essay, The Golden Age of the American Essay, and The Contemporary American Essay.
The first volume covers the essay as it developed in the United States from the time of the Puritans to Zadie Smith’s 2008 essay “Speaking in Tongues.” Programmatically, and somewhat courageously given our present intellectual debates, The Glorious American Essay starts with Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards. In between the two WASP ministers and biracial Smith, Lopate inserted all the names that one would expect to find in such an anthology (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry James, W. E. B. Du Bois, Edmund Wilson, Vivian Gornick, etc.) as well as some less recognized ones (Sui Sin Farr, Mary Austin, Rolando Hinojosa-Smith). The Golden Age of the American Essay, which Lopate periodizes in twenty-five years between 1945 and 1970, includes most of the canonical names of the period it deals with, from Robert Warshow’s “The Gangster as Tragic Hero” and Walter Lippman’s “The Dilemma of Liberal Democracy,” to essays by Lionel Trilling, Susan Sontag, Richard Hofstadter, Joan Didion, and others. The Contemporary American Essay, instead, gathers essays by contemporary, perhaps less familiar writers published in the first twenty years of this century. In other words, the three volumes and the essays they collect are ordered chronologically, although some of the authors included have the honor to be present in two of the books. Finally, each volume starts out with a brief introduction, in which Lopate presents the individual book and makes the case for the essay form in the United States.
The chronological sequentiality is theoretically intentional. Lopate associates the development of the essay form with the historical course of the United States. “In fact,” Lopate argues, “it is possible to see the dual histories of the country and the literary form as running on parallel tracks, the essay mulling current issues and thereby reflecting the story of the United States in each succeeding period” (The Glorious American Essay). For this reason, the first volume starts out with two Puritan thinkers, Mather and Edwards, whom Lopate envisions as the tone-setters for the essay form as it unfolded in the United States. Regardless of their “rigid morality,” Lopate comments, the two Puritan thinkers were “sophisticated” writers that, luckily for those who came after them, “set so high an intellectual standard for later American essayists to follow” (The Glorious American Essay). One can hear the identity police preparing the firing squad, but there is no questioning that Mr. Mather and Mr. Edwards were, indeed, sophisticated thinkers who could also write. Moreover, one can easily pick other essays that either directly or indirectly dispute the tenets of Puritanism, as well as its position as a foundational doctrine of the country and its perennially contested identity. Lopate himself provides in the introduction a brief history of intellectuals who contested those Puritans and their heritage, namely H.L. Mencken and Walt Whitman, as well as of writers who tried to contextualize things, chiefly Edmund Wilson and Marilynne Robinson. The crux of the matter, for Lopate, is not to reaffirm the WASP origins of the country and its identity. Rather, it is to argue for the ideological flexibility and plasticity that the essay form inherently has in his view, “The great promise of essays is the freedom they offer to explore, digress, acknowledge uncertainty; to evade dogmatism and embrace ambivalence and contradiction.” (The Glorious American Essay)
The careful reader will understand that right off the bat Lopate is taking aim at both cancel culture and the conservative intelligentsia, (if there is any such a thing left in this country is a whole different question), with their inability to even allow for opinions and visions of the country’s identity different from theirs. For this reason, The Glorious American Essay chronologically extends from the early days of the American colonies to the present and includes a variety of writers that in Lopate’s estimation identify both the diversity of the country and the essay-form’s capacity to reflect it along with the variegated range of visions for the country’s identity that they encapsulate. Consequently, Lopate traces a brief genealogy of the essay-form that explains how in the US members of marginalized groups, at different points in time, “have increasingly turned to the essay as a means of asserting identity (or complicating it).” (The Glorious American Essay) It is because of this appropriation of the essay by representatives of marginalized groups that the essay-form itself has veered over time toward a “greater autobiographical frankness” (The Glorious American Essay). Such an element would confirm the previously mentioned flexibility of the essay-form as a thought-tracker of what Lopate calls “every type of beast: the familiar essay, the personal essay, the critical essay, the biographical essay, the dialogue-essay, the humor essay, the philosophical essay, the academic essay, and the polemic.” (The Glorious American Essay) The list seems to indicate that according to Lopate the essay-form has the intrinsic ability to contain any sort of subjectivity and host the various tones and registers in which such subjectivity is expressed. No surprise, then, that one of the pre-conditions that the editor chose for the selection of the authors is that they need “to be American either by birth or emigration.” (The Glorious American Essay)
The specificity of the criterion is, of course, a political move on Lopate’s part, one that is at once circumstantial and ideological. It is circumstantial because it is an intentional rebuke of the anti-immigrant, nativist, white supremacist rhetoric and policies of the Trump administration, whose tenure essentially coincides with the years Lopate spent putting together these three volumes. It is ideological because it proposes as an alternative an all-including, liberal view of American identity. One can see this positioning of the trilogy as a new chapter in an old battle that historically speaking dates to at least Jacksonian America if not the foundations of the country that cyclically resurfaces in our public sphere, however in different guises. Think, for example, of the Great Depression’s Federal Writers’ Project re-envisioning of the country following the rabidly nativist 1920s, culminated in the state assassination of Sacco and Vanzetti.
It makes perfect sense, in this perspective, that in the introduction to The Golden Age of the American Essay, Lopate situates liberalism as the political cornerstone of the project and Lionel Trilling’s idea of the liberal consensus as its epitome and discursive starting point. However, Lopate is not arguing for an ideological defense of liberalism. He uses it to extend what he reckons to be its ability to advocate for “pluralism and difference” (The Golden Age). Indeed, Lopate argues that there is a “symbiotic relationship between essayism—the practice or ideology of essay writing—and liberalism,” (The Golden Age) a kind of overlapping that he sees as beneficial for both the essay-form and liberalism, one that, nonetheless, does not identify as a defense of liberalism as a political philosophy. What Lopate appreciates and deems unique in liberalism, what makes it conducive to associates itself with the essay form is its anti-dogmatism, its shying away from the emotions, the fact that it refuses to make room for terror and mysticism, the privileging of the mind over impulses. This is precisely what makes it a perfect partner for a form that in his view “seeks the middle way.” (The Golden Age) Even authors such as Irving Howe and Susan Sontag, who politically speaking did not think of themselves as liberals, wrote in a thoughtful, persuasive manner rather than in an “emotionally extreme” way Lopate suggests. (The Golden Age)
In essence, what this argument boils down to is the pairing of a literary form and the temperament of a political philosophy and their simultaneous dissociation from the material circumstances of their actualization and the ideas that they trigger and reflect. It is an argument that has its merits and whose appeal and (re)proposition(ing) is understandable, especially in times like the present, when the basic tenets of liberalism and liberal democracy are under attack. And yet one must be mindful and willing to consider why that is the case and what such a (re)proposition(ing) omits to confront, whether the problem lies not solely in the threats and the attacks, but in the historically proven shortcomings of the ideology under attack and whether the temperament of such ideology bears the signs of those shortcomings.
In this perspective, the central question that from the theoretical and literary standpoint one faces is the question of the canon that the three anthologies establish, Lopate’s attempt to deny it notwithstanding. The fact of the matter is that in the first place the anthologies do establish a canon. To an extent this is both the prerogative and the job, if not the duty, of any critical work, let alone of an anthologist. Of this, Lopate is acutely aware, as one can easily infer from the introduction to the third and final volume that groups together and “accounts for the range of styles, subgenres, experimental approaches, and moral positions that characterize the contemporary American essay” with the prime goal of “chart[ing] the high points of the essay’s resurgence” (The Contemporary American Essay). Charting and ordering, in this case chronologically, a mass of literary material is a precondition of establishing a canon. Likewise, Lopate does not shy away from admitting that the canon he establishes with the three volumes and especially the third one may incur a skeptical reaction of some readers. “Is this selection truly representative of the contemporary essay in all its omnium-gatherum splendor, or is it merely one (elderly white man’s) take?” asks Lopate. His answer is “Both … Were I younger,” he continues, “I would probably have chosen more exclusively from among insurgent essays” that other anthologies have assembled. (The Contemporary American Essay)
As far as I am concerned, this is not the problem of the third volume or, for that matter, of what he has included in any of the three volumes. Especially regarding the third volume, Lopate has both the advantage and disadvantage to work with two decades that, chronologically and in terms of structures of feelings, are in many ways still with us. The advantage is the relatively short period of time he deals with and selects from. The disadvantage is that we do not know whether the essays he selected will please many and please them long, to put it with Dr. Johnson. At the same time, the advent of new forms of technology, whose importance Lopate underlines, have put new life into the essay-form. They allowed for the multiplication and the previously mentioned resurgence of the form that makes it almost impossible not to leave out something worthy of being included in the anthology. This is the nature of the beast, as Lopate knows as well if not better than anybody else.
The problem with the canon established here, as I see it, is its disentanglement from the structures of history in which it is entangled and of which it is discursively co-constitutive, as well as the cultural hegemony that the chronologically linear order of the three anthologies foregrounds. This is not a refusal of the literary traditions that this order entails, let alone a denial of the indisputable high level of the quality of writing here presented or a critique of the inclusion of the writers here assembled. It is the temporality of the chronological order that Lopate chose that is troubling to me. By positioning Mather and Edwards, the English language and tone they used, and the audience they addressed as the founding fathers of the American essay while at the same time arguing for the parallelism of the essay-form in America and US history, necessarily reifies the Protestant male whitening of the foundations of the country’s discursive formations. In this way, Lopate backs himself against the wall. True, he leaves himself the option of the opening of the canon, but by now that is the cornerstone of any American literary anthology, academic or otherwise, an accepted norm. The opening of the canon here presented erases the possibility of subverting the canon and those discursive foundations. Even writers who wrote against those very discursive foundations with the very idea of undermining them because they did not share that vision of America end up being aligned within the enlarged framework of that very vision, however modified in the perspective of a diversified and yet linear unfolding of history. What gets lost is their subversive potential and the possibility to entertain other visions as potentially foundational. Certainly, this is the case of Leslie Fiedler’s “Come Back to the Raft, Ag’in, Huck Honey” and James Baldwin’s “A Stranger in the Village.” Instead of questioning the status quo, or disturbing the intellectual peace, this canon ends up reifying it. I am not proposing, let me be clear about this, the mere replacement of one canon with another. Indeed, one of the many merits of these volumes is the recuperation of certain writers and strains of our literary traditions, perhaps in opposition to other recent anthologies of essays that do replace a canon with another. Yet, one wonders if the omission of certain writings that could have easily been housed in these anthologies might be the byproduct of this methodological framework that informs its structure. Obviously, one cannot include everything in an anthology. And these three anthologies, taken individually or together, are no exception. What this means, of course, is that any anthology is essentially flawed and the canon that it proposes is only temporary, historically and culturally circumstantial, and, more importantly, not right. Still, in this case one cannot help but thinking what would happen to those discursive foundations and the historical parallelism that Lopate claims between the essay-form and our history if, say, The Glorious American Essay began with “The Negro” essay that Roscoe E. Lewis and the staff writers of the American Guide Series Virginia: A Guide to the Old Dominion penned under the supervision of Sterling Brown and continued with Brown’s own “The Negro in Washington” essay in the Washington D.C. guide. How would Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” read if it were sandwiched in between Malcolm X’s “The Ballot and the Bullet” and Mario Savio’s “Bodies Against the Gear” speech at Berkeley from that same year? Whose voices and registers and what visions and discursive foundations of America would we hear in, say, the Port Huron Statement, John L. Lewis’s “Labor and History,” and Mario Cuomo’s speech at the 1984 Democratic Convention in San Francisco? Would Bartolomeo Vanzetti’s “Address to the Court” and Tillie Olse’s 1934 essay “The Strike,” the latter originally published in Partisan Review, one of the historical homelands of so many American great essays, including several published in these anthologies, evoke a different kind of glory, of aesthetics? Is there anything more personal after the last five years in America than Dorothy Allison’s “Mama”?
In the introduction to The Golden Age of the American Essay, Lopate laments, for very good reasons, the diminishing role of the public intellectual today and the lack of a fierce intellectual debate that instead characterized those years. “It was common practice then for the public intellectuals,” he reminds us, “to criticize each other, like members of a quarreling family. If that made for nasty competitiveness, it also showed that ideas were taken seriously enough to be tested in written debate” (The Golden Age of the American Essay). His lament is not a wish to repeat the past. He’s too smart a scholar and knows his Gatsby, he knows you can’t repeat the past. Rather, his is an invitation to the readers to look back in order to move forward, beyond the stagnation of identity as the ultimate affirmation of intellectualism and the intellectual debate. Ultimately, this is the goal of the three volumes, independently and taken all together. And yet, one cannot help thinking how that “nasty competitiveness” he refers to might be also, perhaps especially, the outcome of the attempt of some of those intellectuals to subvert the mythological foundations of a society that now even more so than in their time has outlived its value system, except in the mind of the segment of the population that believes the only possible democracy is the mythological American one that never existed. The peril in overlooking this fact is that sooner than later I might find myself reviewing a fourth volume titled The Decline and End of the American Essay. God forbid.
The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Samuele F.S. Pardini (Rail): Can you tell me a little about the genesis of your project? How it came about and if you thought of it as a three-volume project from the beginning.
Phillip Lopate: It began as a one volume project. I got the idea of doing an anthology of American essays. I had edited, earlier, The Art of the Personal Essays, which was very popular. Publishers asked me to update that, but I liked it the way it is and thought I would try something different, which is to focus on American essays. Basically, I got a contract to edit one volume of American essays from the 17th century to the present. And I found so many good things that it expanded to about 2,000 pages. And the publisher said no, that’s not going to work. I was crushed because I had this Platonic idea of the perfect anthology. Any anthologist knows that there are things that he or she has to leave out and could not completely protect them if he or she were able to put them in. The publishers said we can’t do one volume, but we can do more than one volume. I had amassed this group of essays from the post-war period that seem to me very interesting and peculiar, and I thought of it as the golden age of the American essay because there were so many people writing good essays at this moment. So, I said: let’s focus on that. Then the publisher said, you can do that, and you can also do a third volume that would be limited to the 21st century. In other words, our contemporary moment. In the end, they gave me three volumes, which is quite unusual for publishers these days. But I think because of the popularity of the Personal Essay, they hoped for a similar success. In any case, they thought I was the one to do it. Because, immodestly, I am considered one of the experts in the essay.
Rail: How did you decide to divide the three volumes? In the first volume, The Glorious American Essay, you have essays that could have gone into the second volume, The Golden Age of the American Essay.
Lopate: The Glorious American Essay is an attempt to reflect the high points and the variety of the American essays. Part of what I wanted to do was to stretch the notion of what an American essay was. Instead of dealing only with belletristic essays by recognized literary authors, I thought that every field must have some really good writer who writes good essays. In sociology, theology, psychology there would be at least one writer whom I could represent. Also, I wanted to expand the notion of what an essay is and include speeches, letters, sermons. I really wanted to denotate what really an essay was and make people think about, to start a conversation on what is an essay. If an essay is a way of tracking a person’s thought, why couldn’t it be a speech instead of something written for as an essay. So, I included MLK’s speech on Vietnam, Douglass’s letter to his master, and Lincoln’s second inaugural address. That was my way, you might say, of having people think beyond the usual borders of the essay. So, the first volume was going to have people who would also appear in the second volume. For instance, Sontag or Baldwin or MacCarthy. These are figures who are very important in the essay as well as in the post-war period. That’s how I figured out I would do the first volume, which would be a kind of highlights, and it would go from the Puritans to the present, from Cotton Mather to Zadie Smith. And again, that was a kind of mis-making on my part because most people think of the Puritans as very repressive. I actually think a lot of the Puritans were very good writers, and they were intellectuals. I wanted to include that. Smith lives part of the year here and part of the year in London, and I was responding to Donald Trump’s anti-immigration policies because inevitably my own politics would get into this project. We can’t eliminate that. I wanted to reflect my vision of America, which is a place of diversity, a place where you have voices like Richard Rodriguez writing about “Hispanic” or Leonard Michaels writing about “My Yiddish” and Smith who’s multiracial, biracial. That was one of the ways I was trying to put forth a vision of America, you might say.
Rail: In the introduction to The Glorious American Essay, you write that the essay identifies modern society, you associate the essay and modernity. Can you elaborate on this point? Why would the essay identify modern society and specifically the U.S. as a modern society?
Lopate: I think the essay is a kind of canary in the mine, something that alerts us to our own confusion, our own ambivalence, our own doubts, because the essay is traditionally associated with doubt, skepticism, and even with thinking against the grain, not just saying what everybody else is saying. Often the essay points us to some of the problems that any society is facing. One of the things I was trying to do in that first volume and, in a sense, all three volumes, was track the history of the US and the history of the essay as a form in the US. So, it was both a literary project and an historical project because inevitably essays regard the topics that are most pressing at the moment, whether it’s feminism, or racism, or immigration policies or ableism or any of these things. Yes, it turns out to be a very useful reflection of the problem of any modern society.
Rail: In the introduction to The Golden Age of the American Essay you write that in the US the essay has a very illustrious but underrated history. Why do you think that is the case, especially since you argue that it’s such an important form for the development of US society?
Lopate: Why is it undervalued as a form? To some degree this lack of respect gives the essay more freedom because it hasn’t been broken down in a way that poetry has, or in the way that fiction has. In academia there’s a long tradition of looking at poetry through prosody and in fiction looking at novels and short stories through narratology, but the essay has not been studied quite that way. In a way that’s a good thing because it gives us more freedom. Nobody is crystallizing the form, what goes into it. It has a lower status because the canon has been traditionally made of fiction, poetry, and playwright. For instance, if you’re an English major, and you’re taking a course in 18th-century literature, you’re probably going to get a lot of fiction and poetry even though it was a great period for the essay. I think, to some degree, essayists can complain, like Rodney Dangerfield, that they get no respect, but I think we get enough respect. And I think that at this present moment there are more and more collections of essays that are being published. I think that it has to do with identity politics, with the notion that essays collections are a very good vehicle for putting forth a kind of identity, being ethnic or body type or sexual preference. The essay turns out to be going through a resurgence. Whether it’ll attain the same status as poetry and fiction, I don’t know. I don’t think there’s ever been an essayist who won the Nobel Prize. The closest we’ve come is probably Elias Canetti, but he published a novel and that was cited in the Nobel Prize.
Rail: What is so specific to the essay that it is so useful to convey identity issues?
Lopate: The essayists may be thinking how they belong to some tribe and possibly defending the values of that tribe, but at the same time how they don’t belong to that tribe, how they are an individual, how they are peculiar, because I do think that the essay remains a form that is highly subjective and defends the notion of individuality. I think this is more and more important in a time when there is so much group-think and when the country is so polarized politically, and we’re encouraged to parrot the views of our group. You might say the essayist thinks, “Yes, I am a part of this group, but I am also not part of this group.”
Rail: What is specifically American about the American essay. I am asking you this because obviously you could have put together an anthology with essays by people from all over the world. Moreover, you write that you included writers that were either born in the US or emigrated to the US?
Lopate: I do think it’s a fairly democratic form in that you don’t have to be part of the upper class. In England, for instance, which is a much smaller and more class-determined society, even if you weren’t in the upper class maybe you were educated in Cambridge or Oxford. Somebody like John Ruskin would rise to the top of the society. America is a bigger country and is less class-ridden, even though class is ultimately a very important part of American society, perhaps undervalued. Anybody can be an essayist, and that’s what part of what makes it American. Also, there are so many different voices that have developed through immigration. For instance, I put in an essay by Emma Goldman, this anarchist, socialist, who eventually got kicked out of the country but still had a kind of fun feeling for America, and she writes about that. I like the way the American language has taken on Italian, Hispanic, African American, Yiddish, all these tones. Even though there is a sense of what formal American English sounds like, it still has these echoes. Take Leslie Fiedler. His essay “Come Back to the Raft Agi’n, Huck Honey” has a slightly Jewish inflection in its rhythm. Of course, Black writers, who have given so much to American literature. A writer like Albert Murray, who talks about the blues and jazz, I put him in because I wanted to show that Baldwin, who I think he’s so important in the American essay, nevertheless is not the only voice coming out of the Black community. In a way, Ellison and Murray represented another tendency because they thought that Baldwin was overdoing the misery side of the Black experience and under-reflecting the joy and the resiliency of the Black experience. They also thought that Baldwin, at one point having left America, really didn’t know what he was talking about. Murray and Ellison wrote a number of pieces that seem to be in disagreement with Baldwin. In a sense, Zora Neale Hurston was also saying that she was not a tragic Negro. That’s an example of a specific group or identity. There can be so many tendencies and positions.
Rail: Well, in this respect, you write that you aren’t trying to build a canon, but obviously you are! Because it’s impossible not to when you put together such an anthology.
Lopate: Yes, I am! I said it out of pure cowardice because you and I know that of course I was trying to put forward a canon, and for me it’s a very valuable activity because what I am really saying is that there are works in the past that deserve to be carried forward into the future. America, as you know, is a very amnesiac country that forgets a great deal, in particular in its culture. It was important for me not only to bring forward the obvious candidates like Emerson and Thoreau, but also to reclaim certain other voices like Chapman and Landon Warren, who are in danger slightly of sliding into the great sea of American amnesia. The canon has become a dirty word, so I was backing away from it and saying, “OK, I am presenting a smaller world, I am presenting a feast.” I am just trying to start a conversation, but another way to say this I am presenting a canon and let that be the start of the conversation. You caught me!
Rail: I was very pleased to read that one of the main criteria for your selection was the quality of writing, because I think that with regard to the canon and publishing, and this might be truer of the novel than the essay form, it’s something that has been lost in favor of identity. What makes good writing for you that deserves to be published in an anthology that supposedly builds a canon for the American essay.
Lopate: Intelligence, for one thing, that you feel that you’re in the presence of a mind that is thinking at a high level. The pleasures of style, which has to do with the rhythm of the prose, the capacity to surprise, I think it’s very important. You’re not just saying what is obvious, but you’re catching people up, and you’re thinking against yourself. This is a category that E. M. Cioran, the Romanian essayist, came up with. It’s a pleasure in contradiction that creates a kind of tension, that is part of what I think of as the pleasure of style, the freshness of imagery and the sense of an individual, personal voice. The personal voice does not have to use the word I, it doesn’t have to refer to the writer, but you still feel a strong sense of the strength of the prose, that this is coming from somebody who’s developed a voice that is very singular. For example, somebody like Edmund Wilson, who isn’t necessarily a personal writer, surely has a personal voice when he writes criticism.
Rail: One more general question before moving on to volume specific questions. The essay seems to be far ahead of the society that it is supposed to represent. The essay puts out ideas that are not reflected in the way society moves or does not move forward.
Lopate: I think that part of what I was trying to do is to say to people, including my own peer group who were essentially in a moment of despair during the Trump years, that these problems are not new. The problems are recurring. The struggle for justice is circular in a sense. We should not feel so ashamed that we still have racism, sexism, or we still are defacing the environment. These problems go back a long way, and the only way we start to deal with them is to understand the historical roots. To me, strangely enough, there is something optimistic in confronting the fact that these are recurrent problems because this gives me the hope that we can inch them along a little bit further.
Rail: Let’s move to The Golden Age of the American Essay. What’s specific about those years, 1945–1970, that you characterize as the “Golden Age of the American essay.” Why were so many wonderful essays written during those 25 years?
Lopate: I think it was a moment of maturation in the intellectual life of America. America had fought WWII and had come out victorious. I do think that the influx of European intellectuals raised the bar of American non-fiction discourse. You had people like Theodor Adorno, Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Hanna Arendt in America. I think that it became a more global moment, you might say, more open to other intellectual traditions. It just so happened that there were a lot of literary journals and political magazines that were all competing for the middle-class readers’ attention, and that was a good moment for the public intellectual. And so, there were people like Mary McCarthy or Leslie Fiedler who would write an essay, one went for the Partisan Review about the Alger Hiss case and the next the Broadway show, Tennessee Williams, and so on. They were expected to be able to mouth off almost anything. They had respect, they were treated with respect, and I do think that there was more tolerance, appreciation for the cultivated writer that is. We are living in a period of anti-elitism when a lot of people don’t want to listen to the public intellectual telling them what they’re thinking, understandably. But at that moment, the public intellectual was rising high.
Rail: You identify the essay with liberalism and take Trilling’s liberal consensus as the starting point. But there’s no doubt in my mind that many of the essays express what today and even more so in those days people would call radical ideas, whatever it’s radical about radical ideas, as it seems to me that, say, there’s nothing radical about the idea of eliminating racism. It’s the right thing to do.
Lopate: First of all, I am not trying to champion liberalism, which is even a more contested form now than the canon. I am saying that this was a moment when liberalism had its best shot and there was the liberal consensus. Don’t forget that during the FDR presidency a lot of intellectuals were brought into the administration. There was this whole question of the co-opting of the intellectual. People like Harold Rosenberg and Irving Howe who were sounding the alarm saying, “Are we getting too complacent, co-opted, losing our edge?” In other words, I saw Volume 2 as a kind of debate about liberalism, not a defense of liberalism, because liberalism has a lot of attractive things about it, but over the last 50 years you also see a lot of its weaknesses and a lot of this has to do with this whole notion that Herbert Marcuse called “repressive tolerance,” something about America that was muting dissent by way of its mass culture consumer capitalism. But to me, actually, these very doubts, these very critiques are very much a part of liberalism, to be able to invite uncertainty and to hope that by having this discussion something good would come of it. You have people all over the spectrum: you have genuine liberals, left liberals, someone like Irving Howe, who was a democratic socialist. In many ways, this whole way of expressing themselves was in a very liberal key, and that’s even true of Susan Sontag. Sontag loved the word radical. She always said every artist has to find his or her radical message. But in her essays, she was working with a kind of liberal toolbox, you might say. These were not experimental essays. I do think this was a period when there was a mistrust of mass culture. The intellectual was supposed to be holding back the barbarians at the gates. This was the last moment in American civic discourse when these doubts could be expressed because by now popular culture has completely smashed high culture and nobody questions them anymore. If you go to conferences at the Modern Language Association, you’ll see lots of panels about Madonna or rock singers. There’s much more acceptance that popular culture is our culture, but there was a moment in the postwar period when Robert Warshow was looking at movies and Agee and Maddy Furber. The same thing was happening in fiction. Mary McCarthy, who actually was a terrible theater critic, was warning us against the sentimentality of Tennessee Williams. I think it was a very interesting moment in terms of how should the intellectual position himself or herself vis-à-vis’ this avalanche of mass culture.
Rail: You mention that critics liked to criticize each other at that time. Leslie Fiedler told me once that at conferences they would go at each other’s throats like animals, something unheard of these days. This lack of healthy intellectual conflict is a sign of crisis of liberalism, or is it more an overemphasis on identity issues?
Lopate: There’s no question that in this period that I am calling the Golden Age, the debate was a kind of blood sport. Rosenberg, in his essay “A Herd of Independent Minds,” says some malicious things about Warshow and Trilling. I think Howe also takes potshots at Lionel Trilling. They all knew each other, these New York intellectuals, and they all took a certain pleasure in calling each other out. Now, I think a lot of them were children of immigrants and this has something to do with the attempt of finding a place in the culture by knocking down some of their compatriots. Now, if you want to ask why there is not this kind of debate going on at present, I think it’s for a number of reasons. One has to do with the conformity that we associate with political correctness. I think graduates go to college and learn a checklist of things that they should pounce on. This is colonialist, this is racist, this is ableist, and so on so. They learn all the bad things that they need to say “gotcha” about. So, everybody says the same gotcha. Also, the younger essayists are also supporting each other, which is a rather nice thing. They all write blurbs for each other, they all support each other, they don’t attempt to attack or shame each other in public. They see each other as part of a movement of phalanx that is challenging the old guard, so they don’t criticize each other.
Rail: I think that part of it is also a lack of knowledge or awareness of their historical traditions, which I think it’s something you’re trying to recuperate with this project. Now, obviously the main force behind the Golden Age was a specific ethnic group, which is the Jews. Intellectually speaking, there is no such a thing today, a dominant ethnic group. How do you explain that, besides the specificity of the obvious history behind that group, Jewish Americans?
Lopate: There are many more Black intellectuals writing today, and writing more critically than in the past. Up to a certain point there was a sense that Blacks needed to defend the family, the so-called race men. Now there are more various voices coming out of the Black community, and that’s interesting. But I think that if a group feels itself under attack, like Black people do during the police shootings, they’re not going to engage in self-criticism. The enemy is the enemy, not somebody who thinks differently within their own track. When you say “historical traditions,” I think that is so important because, to me, the essay is a long conversation going back centuries. One other thing that I look for in a contemporary essay is some awareness not just of the present disposition but of the centuries of conversation that have occurred through the ancestors of the essays.
Rail: You write that in the Golden Age there is a shift from the formal to the personal essay. What does that say about the essay?
Lopate: I think that some of it has to do with the awareness that a writer cannot escape subjectivity. It happened in journalism. You know, for a long time, journalists said “our job is to be neutral and not to express our personal views.” Then all journalism schools started to become aware there was no way to avoid the personal, even though the first person “I” is still considered taboo in many journalism schools. But essentially there was this recognition, “Where does authority come from?” Part of where authority comes from is personal experience. Even a writer like Edward Said, for instance, would begin an essay by talking about himself, and then he would talk about Mozart or Adorno or whatever, but he would bring himself into it. And that certainly happened with feminist theory as well, and with queer theory as well, to establish a kind of niche of authority to appeal to one’s own personal experience. I think it was a turning away from the public intellectual who felt justified in mouthing off about anything and saying, what do I know? And what I do know is my own personal experience, and maybe I can use that as a fulcrum with which to explore a larger issue.
Rail: Who was the audience of these essayists?
Lopate: I would have to do a demographic analysis in order to answer that question, but essentially this was a middle-class audience who wanted to know what was happening. Susan Sontag had charisma as a spokesperson. She was the one who was going to be the one to interpret what was going on in the cutting edge of culture for the middle-class audience. She was going to be able to interpret, to be a bridge between bohemia and the middle class.
Rail: I’d like to talk a little bit about the Hofstadter essay. It seems to have an everlasting contemporaneity.
Lopate: It’s true. It was a very prescient essay. He was very interested in looking at paranoia in American culture and also at anti-intellectualism in American culture. He wrote a book about that. Certainly, when we read that essay, and we think of what’s going on in America today, where, let’s say, easily a third of the population is in the grip of paranoid fantasy, we have to be grateful to Hofstadter for giving us the map.
Rail: The level of political paranoia seems exponentially higher than when he wrote it.
Lopate: But increasingly we see that there is a tension between the college educated who veer toward the Democratic Party and working-class Americans who have no college and feel resentful toward the college-educated who they feel they’re looking down on them,and so they’re going to get their information from other sources. I don’t think there’s a paradox. There’s a schism.
Rail: It’s a lot easier to work with a definite time period such as the 25 years of the Golden Age than with the notion of the contemporaneity. How did you set up working with the 20 years of the 21st century to select the essays for The Contemporary American Essay?
Lopate: There’s no question that it’s an easier job for an anthologist to find what’s worthwhile in the past. History has sorted it out, so to speak. So, 17t, 18th, 19th century, it’s fun to select the chestnut but also to find the things that have been overlooked. The closer you get to the current moment, the more difficult it is to see what is worth preserving. Is this fashionable, or is this enduring? Then a lot depends on my own taste. I had to go by my own taste.
Rail: And rightly so! You’re the one doing the work, after all.
Lopate: I did not love everybody who I put in the contemporary essay, but I did feel that they were important, and many of them I did love. Others I thought, “this is too important to leave out.” It’s a process of compromise. You select a lot of material. I could have done twice or three times the size of the contemporary anthology. There are a lot of things that I felt bad about leaving out. Again, because there are limits to how much you can include. But I did really respect all the pieces that I put in.
Rail: As you point out in The Contemporary American Essay, today there are a lot more tools available to the essayists for publication, especially because of the web. What do you think their impact is on the essay?
Lopate: This may sound counterintuitive, but I don’t think it’s been that great of an impact. There are blogs that are beautifully written in the tradition of the essay, and there are blogs that are terribly written. I myself kept a blog for one year with The American Scholar, 48 blog entries. I knew when I was working on them that I was essentially writing essays. I think that technology is not going to stifle intelligence. People are going to work with ideas and work with language at various levels, and some of those levels are quite high indeed. One good thing about the internet is that you can write longer. Because if you’re writing for magazines there’s such a pressure to keep the word limit down, whereas if you write for the internet you can go long. So that’s a good thing. And also, it is a kind of democratic form. That means that the essayists can put their work out much more easily. What they can’t do, necessarily, is monetize it. That’s still a problem.
Rail: But do you think this has had any impact on the variety and range of styles that you refer to in the introduction to the third volume?
Lopate: I think this is a moment of experimentation where the essay is being challenged, you might say to hybridization, to mixes of fiction and non-fiction. A lot of essays are playing with the form, they’re using collage, appropriation. They’re mixing the genres: poetry, fiction and so on. I think this is all for the good. In other words, the essay is alive and is being batted on all sides and remade, which simply means that is still a vibrant form.
Rail: There’s no mention of the Federal Writers Project in this project, which was so important to the formation of many of the writers who ended up in the anthology. Indeed, an essay like Sterling Brown’s essay on DC in the American Guide Series on the nation’s capital would seem to belong to such a project.
Lopate: If you had whispered it in my ear, I would have probably put it in. I depended on friends’ tips a lot … but yes, a lot was left out and certainly the FWP was incredibly important.
Rail: Is there one that you left out that you wish you had included?
Lopate: Too many. This is the guilt that I live with.