Consider the Fourth State of the White Album

October 12, 2012 § 2 Comments


Robert Atwan has assembled a list of the top ten essays since 1950 for Publisher’s Weekly to mark the release of The Best American Essays 2012.  Is it exactly the list we would have assembled? No, because we would have picked seven Brevity essays and then Baldwin, Didion, and perhaps Lopate, but that’s just hometown pride. In truth, Atwan has done a remarkable job, and the list is a great place to start a discussion, or even a class.

In addition to the useful list, Atwan gives us a brief explanation of why the essays matters. Here he is on Baldwin, followed by a link to the entire article:

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

“I had never thought of myself as an essayist,” wrote James Baldwin, who was finishing his novel Giovanni’s Room while he worked on what would become one of the great American essays. Against a violent historical background, Baldwin recalls his deeply troubled relationship with his father and explores his growing awareness of himself as a black American. Some today may question the relevance of the essay in our brave new “post-racial” world, though Baldwin considered the essay still relevant in 1984 and, had he lived to see it, the election of Barak Obama may not have changed his mind. However you view the racial politics, the prose is undeniably hypnotic, beautifully modulated and yet full of urgency. Langston Hughes nailed it when he described Baldwin’s “illuminating intensity.” The essay was collected in Notes of a Native Son courageously (at the time) published by Beacon Press in 1955.

Atwan’s Full Top Ten List.

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§ 2 Responses to Consider the Fourth State of the White Album

  • Helpful to remember, when engaged in the D’Agata-shaming that has become de rigueur, that his collection The Next American Essay contains almost all of the writers that Atwan selects, with even some direct duplicates (McPhee, Didion). So, we may not like what D’Agata done in his own career, but let’s remember that us Nonfics have a canon that we can more or less find in common with each other!

  • kateflaherty says:

    Reblogged this on Fact or Fiction and commented:
    Wrote a bit about this too–thanks Dinty!

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