American Essay in the American Century

American Essay in the American Century

American Essay in the American Century

American Essay in the American Century

Synopsis

The American Essay in the American Century is a compelling, highly readable book that illuminates the history of a secretly beloved literary genre. A work that will appeal to fiction readers, scholars, and students alike, this book offers fundamental insight into modern American literary history and the intersections of literature, culture, and class through the personal essay. This thoroughly researched volume dismisses, once and for all, the death of the essay, proving that the essay will remain relevant for a very long time to come.

Excerpt

This book grew out of a love of the personal essay and a desire to figure out why middle-class Americans like to read magazines that contain essays. I grew up middle class myself (or more specifically,white, Protestant, and middle class) in a small town in Indiana in a 1950s ranch house—twenty-one hundred square feet with four bedrooms, three baths, a knotty-pine rec room, and a screened porch. My parents built the house using a floor plan my mother adapted from one she found in the Ladies’ Home Journal.In that house I watched Omnibusand the Young People’s Concerts on Sunday afternoons and read my mother’s Book-of-the-Month Club selections when she was done with them—Marchette Chute’s Shakespeare of London,Jim Bishop’s Day Lincoln Was Shot,Theodore White’s Making of a President, 1960. It was there I first read James Baldwin’s Fire Next Timeand some borrowed copies of the New Yorker.My parents were Stevensonian Democrats and thoroughly middlebrow.

During the spring of 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were shot, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) occupied buildings at Columbia, students and workers struck in Paris, and I registered for the draft and graduated from high school, my allegiance to my class began to erode.

I went away to college at Harvard that fall, disillusioned by the assassinations and the hypocritical mess that was the Chicago Democratic Convention. Nixon’s election in November sealed the deal. I started to go to SDS meetings. The following spring, we occupied University Hall, the administration called in the police, people got clubbed and arrested, and the whole campus went out on strike. I came home for the summer feeling angry, cynical, revolutionary, and full of myself, and I turned on my parents and their home. In one nasty argument I meanly dismissed their Utrillo prints and Paul McCobb . . .

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