Best American Essays 5th

Perelman -- Bop / Langston Hughes -- Future is now / Katherine Anne Porter -- Artists in uniform / Mary Mc Carthy -- Marginal world / Rachel Carson -- Notes of a native son / James Baldwin -- Brown wasps / Loren Eiseley -- Sweet devouring / Eudora Welty -- Hundred thousand straightened nails / Donald Hall -- Letter from Birmingham jail / Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Best American Essays was published in both hardcover and paperback until 2008.

Weren’t many essays every bit as good, or even better than most of these stories?

I’m not sure precisely when this idea struck me but my review appeared in the Times Book Review on June 3, 1984.

Looking back, it seems like a good thing I didn’t realize how diminished the status of the essay truly was.

This ignorance allowed me to persevere with what to some seemed like a hopeless idea.

So most likely the idea for the essay series occurred to me a week or so earlier, in mid-May.

Exactly two years later, I turned in the manuscript of the first volume of the series, The Best American Essays 1986. Before I wrote up a proposal I’d mentioned the idea informally at a party to the late Roger Straus, the head of the prestigious publishing house, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, where my wife at the time was publicity director (Helene Atwan is now director of Beacon Press).

I came to the essay through both academia and college publishing.

As I’ve noted in several essays on the essay, the genre had long been ostracized from English literature which considered poetry, fiction, and drama the only legitimate literary forms worthy of scholarly and critical attention.

(For more, see here.) The only place in academe where the essay flourished was in the standard freshman English course, where students, often reluctantly, learned the basic principles of composition, usually by reading and writing essays or—as the writing assignments were then frequently called—“themes.” Such instruction had been going on for decades and the enterprise largely depended on a steady stream of “freshman readers,” anthologies put out by college publishers that featured mostly essays that would appeal to students and their instructors.” Many prominent writers and critics edited such anthologies—John Crowe Ransom, Donald Hall, Alfred Kazin, Leslie Fiedler, and Frederick Crews, to name a few.

The final Ticknor & Fields' volume came out in 1993.

The idea for a series of books devoted to the year’s best essays first came to me in the spring of 1984.

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