JOYCE CAROL OATES is the recipient of the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction and the winner of the National Book Award. Among her major works are We Were the Mulvaneys, Blonde, and The Falls. ROBERT ATWAN has been the series editor of The Best American Essays since its inception in 1986. He has edited numerous literary anthologies and written essays and reviews for periodicals nationwide.
"Here is a history of America told in many voices," declares Oates in her introduction, revealing the heart of her intelligent and incisive collection of 55 essays by American writers. Never attempting to capture or replicate a single, authentic "American identity," this collection succeeds by producing a comprehensive and multifaceted look at what America has been and, by extension, what it is and might become. While it's not explicitly political, the volume's multicultural intentions are visible. Beginning with "Cone-pone Opinions," a 1901 Mark Twain essay that uses the wisdom of an African-American child as its central image, Oates has fashioned a collection that calls attention to the way that "America" is made up of competing, and often antagonistic, cultural and social visions. There is not only the apparent contrast between the populist, overtly political visions of W.E.B. Du Bois's "Of the Coming of John," James Baldwin's "Notes of a Native Son" and Mary McCarthy's "Artists in Uniform" and the cultural elitism of T.S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent." Oates has managed to find numerous pieces whose vision and philosophy resonate with one another without becoming homogeneous, so Gretel Ehrlich's meditation on pastoral aesthetics in "The Solace of Open Spaces" contrasts abruptly and ingeniously with Susan Sontag's urban-centered "Notes on Camp." In all, Oates has assembled a provocative collection of masterpieces reflecting both the fragmentation and surprising cohesiveness of various American identities. QPB and History Book Club selections; BOMC alternate. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
One of the pleasures of an anthology like this is reading people you might not otherwise have picked up. Like John Muir, whose "Stickeen," a life-and-death adventure on an Alaskan glacier with a singular small black dog, is a great piece of adventure writing. Or Jane Addams, whose insights into the spread of an urban legend of "The Devil Baby at Hull House" are thoughtful and compassionate. Another sort of pleasure comes from rereading familiar works in a new context: E.B. White's "Once More to the Lake," N. Scott Momaday's "The Way to Rainy Mountain," John McPhee's "The Search for Marvin Gardens," and Annie Dillard's "Total Eclipse." Only seven of the essays come from the annual "Best American Essays" series that Atwan has coedited since 1986. The other 48 were culled from the rest of the century, with the ruling idea, Atwan says, "that the essays should speak to the present, not merely represent the past." Oates looked "for the expression of personal experience within the historical." They have created a mosaic of a century in an America whose dominant and recurring theme has been race. Essential for most libraries.DMary Paumier Jones, Westminster P.L., CO Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.