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The Golden Age of the American Essay

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This is a strong collection of essays. It took me a while to make my way through them, but there were only a handful that I skipped (mainly because the subject matter just didn't interest me).

The essays are arranged chronologically and touch upon various topics, including politics, sociology, food, art, pop culture, and literature.
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An amazing collection from the age of writers-as-celebrities, and a great primer on American intellectualism in the mid-20th century. I hope this book will help more people discover these amazing writers!

Thank you to Knopf Doubleday and NetGalley for providing an ARC.
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My thanks to both NetGalley and the publisher Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group for an advanced copy of this new historical essay collection.

Essays are very popular in publishing currently. Numerous celebrities, thinkers, doers and wannabes are releasing essay collections all the time. In my career as a bookseller I have seen the shelving expand quite a bit as more and more books about life, reflecting on life, living life and other essays are published. Some are personal, some are reflective, some are trying to cash in those remaining fame points. Some will be forgotten, both fairly and unfairly.

The Golden Age of the American Essay 1945-1970 edited and compiled by famed essayist Philip Lopate spans 25 years from the end of the Second World War and the hopes for a better future to end of the Sixties where people began to know better. The authors included are the usual suspects for essays, Gore Vidal, E. B. White, Norman Mailer et al, with some women Mary McCarthy, Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, with James Baldwin, and Martin Luther King for diversity. I was surprised to see M. Scott Momaday in the collection which was nice to read again. 

The introduction by Philip Lopate is interesting, trying to set the idea of the essay and its reflection of the events around politics, art and thought. Some of the essays seem dated, others seem as fresh as the headlines of today. I was disappointed about the lack of commentary on the essays. The authors are given a quick overview, the essay a brief description of other works by the author like it. I understand more analysis of the works would have lead to less works, but still most of these works are very familiar to most readers, a little more information, or a new way of looking at it might have been interesting. 

A good collection for students new to essays, to see those that came before, and if further investigation of that author is worth the readers time. Recommended for students interesting in writing, or for podcasters who might want to make their shows more personal or topical. Nothing new, just good solid writing by people reflecting on their time and place, and hope for a better future.
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This is an incredibly well curated anthology of essays from an important era. It was a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the history of this country through one of my favorite forms of writing.
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A rich and thoughtful collection, clearly carefully curated, Lopate's THE GOLDEN AGE OF THE AMERICAN ESSAY is a book to savor. Highly recommended.
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Phillip Lopate  has compiled a thought provoking fascinating group of essays.So many excellent essays thoughtful from gifted writers.So much to discuss reflect on.#netgalley #knopfdoubleday
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The introduction to this compendium gets straight in there with the claim that "The essay seeks out the middle way", celebrating it as a liberal form right back to Montaigne, and applauding its avoidance of extremes – which, given how 'centrist' and 'liberal' have now become such spectacularly dirty words, helps cement an impression of an artefact from another time. All the more so for the fact that so many of the contributors are people I remember being alive, but that at the time of publication, only two remained that way – with one of those, Joan Didion, departing before I finished it, and the other, Edward Hoagland, potentially set to see 90 this year. Still, for all that sense of a lost age, it also gets straight in with reminding us how cyclical these things can be; the first selection is James Agee on the uneasy peace after the Second World War, the worries of worse to come, the uneven distribution of hope. There's much discussion from the time of the fifties as an age of conformity, which now inevitably makes one think with a little hope of the sixties which were to follow; later on, Philip Roth's Writing About Jews is a spirited response to criticism that he doesn't present "a balanced portrayal of Jews as we know them". His exasperated demolition of rabbis mistaking, in so many words, novels for sociological studies would be very useful reading for a certain school of criticism today. Other essays are more firmly of their time, like George F Kennan's originally anonymous expansion of his Long Telegram, a founding document of the Cold War but also much more measured than that status might suggest, advocating setting a good example as an approach more likely to bear fruit than military confrontation. If only the CIA had paid attention to that bit. He is perceptive, too, on how 'truth' worked in the USSR - though alas, that now seems to be how it works in most countries' politics. But beyond historical interest, even beyond the political sphere, some thoughts here remain applicable in everyday life: "It is an undeniable privilege of every man to prove himself right in the thesis that the world is his enemy, for if he reiterates it frequently enough and makes it the background of his conduct he is bound eventually to be right."

If this begins to sound like Lopate has skilfully evaded the potential ivory tower air of the project, that is not always the case. Edmund Wilson, of whom I've heard, is represented by a memoir of Paul Rosenfeld, of whom I have not. As Wilson offers caveat after caveat as to the abilities of this archetypically epicene figure, I increasingly found myself waiting for the punchline, but presumably this was the sincere original from which decades of spoofs were drawn. Walter Lippman delivers a terribly polite and reasonable broadside against the tyranny of the majority where, even though I agree with it, the tone is so infuriatingly condescending that I almost found myself sympathising with Trump voters. Similarly, while much of the old here can still feel new, elsewhere - Randall Jarrell whinging about consumerism - it just feels very old; I almost want to buy a rockabilly record simply to spite his shade. Elizabeth Hardwick tweaking Boston's nose may have seemed daring at the time, but now you wonder what point it could have for anyone bar a Bostonian wanting a gently outraged chuckle at how places change; if this was really the best of her work, that doesn't suggest an enormous claim on posterity's attention. And Updike is here with a piece on baseball which is largely incomprehensible to the British reader; osmosis may have left more sporting terminology than I'd like in my head, but even my foolish countrymen have more sense than to get quite this intricate about rounders.

And yet, even in the more trying stretches of the anthology, one picks things up. Who knew 'the self-fulfilling prophecy' was such a recent phrase? Not that I'd ever considered the matter – I suppose I must have thought it an unknown known – but I would have assumed it would be somewhere between the scholastics and the 19th century, possibly coined regarding Oedipus or his monotheist knock-off St Julian - but no, Robert K Merton (1910-2003), who also gave us 'unintended consequences' and 'role models', and its first illustration was race relations. On which note, particularly given the title and the collection's overall focus on the US, it's interesting to have James Baldwin represented by a piece on life as the first black man in a Swiss village; obviously he finds it reflecting light on America, but all the same. I thought perhaps the hits were too much the obvious hits, but elsewhere Lopate is happy to stay canonical with deservedly famous stuff like MLK from Birmingham jail, Sontag on camp, and The Paranoid Style In American Politics – from which I learned the glorious detail that when not inventing the telegraph, Samuel Morse was an active campaigner against the Jesuits' alleged efforts to put a Hapsburg on America's throne. And given the telegraph is the first step on the road to the Internet, you could even derive from this a meta-conspiracy theory about why the web is such a hotbed of conspiracy theories... Speaking of which, here's Mary McCarthy on an encounter with an anti-Semitic colonel - "The desolate truth was that the colonel was extremely stupid, and it came to me, as we sat there, glumly ordering lunch, that for extremely stupid people anti-Semitism was a form of intellectuality, the sole form of which they were capable. It represented, in a rudimentary way, the ability to make categories, to generalize. [...] From this, it would seem, followed the querulous obstinacy with which the anti-Semite clung to his concept; to be deprived of this intellectual tool by missionaries of tolerance would be, for persons like the colonel, the equivalent of Western man's losing the syllogism: a lapse into animal darkness." Thank goodness things have changed so much since, eh, readers?

Equally, though, there are the times when you're brought up short by quite how much things have changed, the way things laughed off as absolute and unshakable givens now seem so alien. Consider Irving Howe's This Age Of Conformity. Sometimes when this utters sentiments now inconceivable, it is precisely in the context of debunking them, as when mocking (and he mocks well) Lionel Trilling's risible claim that the culture of 1953 was livelier than that of 1923. But elsewhere, how about "the independence possible to a professor of sociology is usually greater than that possible to a writer of television scripts"? Between academia's transition into business and TV's transition into art, that idea now looks utterly outlandish. Or saying, this time in agreement with Trilling, that liberalism is now not only the dominant but the sole ideology of America, that this could only change if conservatives went into the streets, "acquiring a mass, perhaps reactionary dynamic", which surely even avowed conservatives don't want. Well, about that... Or there's Rachel Carson, who is represented by a chapter of Silent Spring, which feels like cheating - on top of which, for all the good she undoubtedly did, it opens with the entirely untrue statement "Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species – man – acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world." But then I realised, I don't know when we learned that the cyanobacteria had entirely upended Earth's atmosphere, so maybe it was true then, or thought to be. And in terms of things which have aged awkwardly for other reasons, it's debatable whether the collection really needed two pieces on Lolita, even if Nabokov's own remains a masterpiece, his discussion of the novel's "nerves, [...] secret points, [...] subliminal coordinates" one of the wisest things I've ever seen a writer say about their own work. Except that then he finishes up with a lament for his "second-rate brand of English" and you wonder whether he knew anything at all.

What else? Flannery O'Connor's Some Aspects Of The Grotesque In Southern Fiction, for one, like Roth addressing what we'd now call 'representation': "I am always having it pointed out to me that life in Georgia is not at all the way I picture it, that escaped criminals do not roam the roads exterminating families nor Bible salesmen prowl about looking for girls with wooden legs." And like Roth, doing it with a wonderful lack of respect either for her own tribe or the other: "Of course, I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic." But some of my favourite pieces were the later ones, largely by writers of whom I'd never heard. Edwin Denby is introduced as "the dean of American dance criticism", and I thought, oh joy, this is going to be another one for baffled skimming a la Updike – but no, turns out the guy was good on criticism, and indeed art appreciation, and for that matter education, in general. N. Scott Momaday draws on his Kiowa Indian heritage, talking about the act of deicide his grandmother witnessed, and the changed land that left behind. Albert Murray's The Blues Idiom And The Mainstream may not entirely practice what it preaches, but I can forgive much for the line "All human effort beyond the lowest level of struggle for animal subsistence is motivated by the need to live in style." And in a collection whose themes are mostly social or political, one powerful exception is Loren Eiseley's haunting study of insomnia, One Night's Dying.

(Netgalley ARC)
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Phillip Lopate has a long list of titles gathered throughout his career; Novelist, Critic, Poet etc. but perhaps one of his greatest gifts to the literary world is this incredible anthology of essays providing  a wide range of thought provoking pieces spanning 25 years. The essays range from a bit older and possibly not your cup of tea to absolutely brilliant, relevant, and fascinating. Some of the brightest thinkers of our time are represented in this anthology, which is well thought out, organized, and easy to navigate. There is something in this brilliant collection for every person, no matter your typical topic preferences. 

Thank you so much to Netgalley and of course the brilliant Phillip Lopate for providing me with an e-copy of this lovely collection and allowing me to share my honest opinion. 

I highly recommend you pick this collection up as soon as possible.
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Great writers and plenty of food for thought. I found the introduction interesting and loved the essays.
It's highly recommended.
Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for this ARC, all opinions are mine
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This collection, edited by Phillip Lopate, reads as a who’s who of great writers and thinkers. Some of the authors whose essays can be found here include James Agee, Reinhold Niebuhr, James Baldwin, Mary McCarthy, E.B. White, Norman Mailer and Martin Luther King among others.

The book begins with a helpful and detailed exploration of what may have led to this time period yielding so many exceptional essays. Each entry then has a brief introduction.

This is a generous compendium. Readers can dip in and out, always finding something of interest. It is worth a read.

Many thanks to NetGalley and the publisher. All opinions are my own.
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Phillip Lopate, who teaches at Columbia and has edited numerous essay collections, gathers an excellent collection here of post-WWII essays, starting with James Agee and ends with Joan Didion. Only a writer and thinker of Lopate's caliber would order essays in such an intentional way to progress from a impressionistic essay about America just after the war (Agee's The Nation), and then go on to essays about Soviets, liberal democracy, conformist culture in the 1950s, controversy at major sources of higher learning, nature writing, moving into the personal essay with Mailer's An Evening with Jackie Kennedy, MLK's Letter from Birmingham Jail, getting into politics with Hofstadter's The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and finally, bookmarking the whole collection with Didion's reflection on the 1960s. 

Lopate's The Glorious American Essay covers a wider amount of ground and a more diverse range of authors. That said, the time period covered here is impressive. What makes this hold together so well is considering the range of the time period. In such a short time, America went from the high of "winning" the war to the paranoia of having to look out for the Communists to the extreme paranoia of McCarthy and his followers to the hope of JFK only to have that dashed with his assassination and the highs and lows that followed with American involvement in Vietnam, massive drug use and the counterculture. "Free love" that was a lot more complicated than it sounds. It was a complicated time period, and one full of outstanding essays, as writers came to terms with all of the seismic changes and events. 

Highly recommended!
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One must be grateful to Philipp Lopate for compiling & editing this wonderful collection of essays, a wide range of thought provoking pieces spanning 25 years, probably the most turbulent of the 20th century in America
Whether it is subjective, controversial, artistic, religious, political or philosophical, this book offers to the reader a delightful sample of a unique American tradition, a celebration of the best in American prose writing. 

Many thanks to Netgalley and Knopf/Doubleday for the opportunity to read this wonderful collection of essays prior to its
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Since my field of study in school was Creative Nonfiction, I am very familiar with Mr. Lopate, primarily as an editor of anthologies and for his work writing about the craft of the narrative essay more than his actual writing. Because of this, I was excited to see what he would hold up for the golden age of the American Essay . . .and I have to say, I was disappointed.

I just didn't see much that I would consider particularly noteworthy in the field. Although not exclusively, there was a whole lot of whiteness and a whole lot of maleness. It was a lot of stodgy and stiff writing and not a lot of experimentation. It is a good text, but not the best and not one I will use with my CW students.
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