Publisher’s Weekly: The Top 10 Essays Since 1950

From Publisher’s Weekly: The Top 10 Essays Since 1950.

Robert Atwan, the founder of The Best American Essays series, picks the 10 best essays of the postwar period. Links to the essays are provided when available.

Fortunately, when I worked with Joyce Carol Oates on The Best American Essays of the Century (that’s the last century, by the way), we weren’t restricted to ten selections. So to make my list of the top ten essays since 1950 less impossible, I decided to exclude all the great examples of New Journalism–Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Michael Herr, and many others can be reserved for another list. I also decided to include only American writers, so such outstanding English-language essayists as Chris Arthur and Tim Robinson are missing, though they have appeared in The Best American Essays series. And I selected essays, not essayists. A list of the top ten essayists since 1950 would feature some different writers.

To my mind, 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.

James Baldwin, “Notes of a Native Son” (originally appeared in Harper’s, 1955)

Norman Mailer, “The White Negro” (originally appeared in Dissent, 1957)

Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp’” (originally appeared in Partisan Review, 1964)

John McPhee, “The Search for Marvin Gardens” (originally appeared in The New Yorker, 1972) (subscription required).

Joan Didion, “The White Album” (originally appeared in New West, 1979)

Annie Dillard, “Total Eclipse” (originally appeared in Antaeus, 1982)

Phillip Lopate, “Against Joie de Vivre” (originally appeared in Ploughshares, 1986)

Edward Hoagland, “Heaven and Nature” (originally appeared in Harper’s, 1988)

Jo Ann Beard, “The Fourth State of Matter” (originally appeared in The New Yorker, 1996)

David Foster Wallace, “Consider the Lobster” (originally appeared in Gourmet, 2004) (Note: the electronic version from Gourmet magazine’s archives differs from the essay that appears in The Best American Essays and in his book, Consider the Lobster.)

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