No sane person will read this book the way a reviewer has been conditioned to read books: straight through. And that’s just fine, because “The Glorious American Essay,” though it does contain glories, gets off to a starchy start. The book is organized chronologically, which means it begins with an extended browse through the powdered wig section. Even among dead white men, Cotton Mather, Jonathan Edwards and Thomas Paine are particularly dead and particularly white.
But push through — or save for later — the textbooklike feel of the first 100 pages or so, which also include one of Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Papers; that still leaves about 800 pages of mostly delight and edification to go. This anthology, which presents 100 exemplary essays from colonial times onward, really gets into gear with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Experience,” from 1844. It’s a remarkably extended fusillade of aphoristic provocation and insight, inspired in part by the death of his son. “There are moods in which we court suffering,” he wrote, “in the hope that here, at least, we shall find reality, sharp peaks and edges of truth. But it turns out to be scene-painting and counterfeit. The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is.”
Phillip Lopate, the book’s editor, writes in his introduction that the essay form has been valued for the freedom it offers to “explore, digress, acknowledge uncertainty.” He quotes Cynthia Ozick judging that “a genuine essay has no educational, polemical or sociopolitical use.” But Lopate isn’t so strict. “Why should a piece of writing,” he asks, “be excluded from the essay kingdom simply because it follows a coherent line of reasoning?” Lopate, especially before he gets to the 20th century, relies heavily on such works of reasoning, pieces of public rhetoric and persuasion, like those by Margaret Fuller, Sarah Moore Grimké and Elizabeth Cady Stanton on the standing and treatment of women in America.
For long stretches this book seems intended as a kind of essay-built history of America, as opposed to a history of American essays — though Lopate points out that those histories are naturally intertwined. And naturally echoing. Many of these essays “speak vividly to our present moment,” he writes, about issues that “keep recurring on the national stage.”