Ordered these two used anthologies some weeks back, but it’s D’Agata’s book this post will focus on.
The table of contents raised my eyebrows enough that I had to check it out: John Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing”? one of Dickinson’s letters? pieces from works of fiction like MOBY DICK or Irving’s satirical “History of New York”? There’s an implication that the essayistic can exist in any other prose form.
Of course, D’Agata is at pains to emphasize the creativity of nonfiction, making is drilled home as the central concept and it was only almost annoying. Three imperative epigraphs from Whitman, Pound, and Ashbery: Make it simple, make it new, make it sweet again. Yes, there is an irreducible element of fiction in the writing of history or essays. But D’Agata’s introductions to each essay seemed reticent to develop this insight further. I started to feel like the idea was intended to seem more controversial than I thought it was.
But the aspects of this book that frustrated me are also what make it interesting as an experimental kind of anthology. Traditional pedagogy doesn’t seem to be on the book’s agenda. Sure there’s canonical things like White’s “Once More to the Lake” and Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” but also terribly obscure work: it was interesting to go with “Portrait of Picasso” rather than something meaty from Stein’s Lectures in America, or a sports piece from Baldwin instead of “Notes of a Native Son.”
D’Agata’s introductory pieces could be coyly ambiguous, even subversive. There’s one intro for a non-existent essay. His remarks for Mark Twain’s book length essay “Letters from the Earth” amount to two sentences explaining the maritime meaning of “mark twain.” It’s not until later (I’ve read all the introductions before reading all the pieces) that D’Agata more explicitly connects the pieces — they are a fragmented essay stringing along these essays, in chronological order, from personal narratives and aphorisms to modernist avant-gardeism to new journalism.
A few of them explicitly provide context for the essays, but the vast majority of the time they only indirectly address the formal concerns of the essay or its historical situation. The book is divided into years, but they don’t seem to correspond to when the pieces were published. One inspiring intro comes before “In the Fifties” by Leonard Michaels, a paratactic string of sentences with nothing in common except they refer to things in the fifties. D’Agata discusses the historical amnesia rapidly enforced by US society after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, before finally ending with the journal of the Enola Gay’s bomber, which he apparently auctioned off for big money:
They are observations that appear to be unrelated on the page — his nots about the clouds, temperature, time, speed, his view of a city from thirty thousand feet, and then his view of smoke rings expanding out of the rubble…
Parataxis here is “a style of writing that levels everything in it equally, refuses to assign significance, and refuses responsibility.”
I also admired the climax at the end of the intro to James Agee’s “Brooklyn Is,” in which he brings up the old Penn Station’s great hall.
Maybe the building squeezed you down as it sucked you toward its gut, and maybe this was intentional, a stylistic trick to prepare you for that moment when the tunnels disappeared and the ceiling lifted up and the walls widened out as you flashed into a gleaming white atrium of light, its thin iron archways supporting a glass ceiling that was seven acres wide — a roof of pure sky — the largest indoor public space anywhere in the world, and one that felt so suddenly unburdensome to travelers that moving from that foyer to the Great Hall, as it was called, physically felt like having something lifted from our shoulders, the architectural equivalent of traveling, in other words, and the literary equivalent of being inside a sentence that is held aloft by language, by a vim of curiosity, and maybe by a little bit of fear of what comes next.
There might be some confusion: shouldn’t the experience of a long sentence itself be the literary counterpart to the experience of the great hall? But still the performance is cool, demonstrating the value of Agee’s high-level rhetoric, using “And” as a way to make the aesthetic value and the discomfort of Penn station not become a contradiction, and repeated conjunction gives the sentence an American flavor.
The wide terrain of the essay genre in the hands of US writers presented here is galvanizing. Reportage is mixed with memoir and amazing experimental exercises. (Stein’s Picasso portrait was a special treat.) I feel his own essay, which encompasses the other essays, bears witness to how intertwined fiction and nonfiction, the traditional form of literature, are, while also acknowledging their autonomy. History is made by legions of people, and innovation comes gradually.