The Essayest American Essays 2009

Together with my students and friends, I've set out to find the most essayistic (the "essayest") essays published in American literary journals each year. Our method is, perhaps appropriately, unsystematic, scatter-shot, driven by luck and play and personal preference. I and other "experts in the field" simply read the journals we subscribe to or can acccess in our libraries. Students read about twenty highly regarded journals, usually two issues of each. From these, each student or group selects ten "creative nonfiction" pieces, and from those ten, chooses the "essayest."

This is not meant to subvert the excellent work of Robert Atwan and his yearly editors of the Best American Essays series. But I have noticed, and my students and many of my colleagues concur, that the term essay has been largely hijacked and adulterated beyond recognition, firstly by the pedagogues, who call every school writing assignment an "essay," and currently by memoirists, travel writers, new journalists, and other practitioners of "creative nonfiction," whose writing, excellent though it may be, often essays nothing, is not idea-driven, is not meditative or associative or tangential. Just try to google the word essay and see what results you get. This list is one small attempt to rescue the word essay.

There is no money, no prize, no republication attached to selection. There may be no honor. All we are saying is 1) give peace a chance, and 2) these are some really excellent essays, real essays. We sincerely hope that the essayists whose work we chose are pleased that someone has read and appreciated their essays, and that visitors to the site will take our recommendations and seek out the essays to read and enjoy them.

2009's list was selected by my fall 2009 English 517R (graduate creative nonfiction workshop) and winter 2010 English 337R (History and Theory of the Essay) students. When possible, we include links to full-text HTML or PDF versions of some essays and/or database indications for others (if you are affiliated with a university, you likely have access to many databases through your library).

You may also be interested in past lists:

Marcia Aldrich
“The Mother Essay”

Water~Stone Review 12 (Fall 2009)

Selected by Patrick Madden

Michael Cohen
“Notebooks”

Southern Humanities Review 43.2 (Spring 2009)

Selected by Patrick Madden

Anthony Doerr
“Nine Times (Among Countless Others) I’ve Thought About the People Who Came Before Us in My Brief Career as a Father”

The Missouri Review 32.1 (Spring 2009)

Alexander Smith writes that essayists can find connections from any trivial thing to fortune, mutability, and death; Anthony Doerr’s essay “Nine Times (Among Countless Others) I’ve Thought About the People Who Came Before Us in My Brief Career as a Father” proves Smith right. In nine segments, Doerr meditates on what it means to be a father, associating his experience with ancient civilizations, great-grandparents, and the people that surround him. Although he shows his family in various settings and situations, Doerr grasps the day-to-day reality of raising children. He explores the awe of the world that he sees in his sons (and that his sons reveal to him) by noting seemingly simple details—like his sons searching for the alphabet everywhere from bathroom tiles to “dog poo.” His acute images (“The two creatures that will be our sons are crammed against the underside of her skin, twisting, she tells me sometimes, like snakes”) enable him to think on the subject of our shifting mortality (102). Like Montaigne, Doerr essays on quotations, asks questions, and seeks answers as he writes. The essay is delightful and thought-provoking in content and form.

Selected by Cassie Keller Cole

Mark Edmundson
Enough Already

The American Scholar 78.3 (Summer 2009): 56-65.

In “Enough Already,” Mark Edmundson writes a humorous yet contemplative personal essay on annoying persons who monopolize conversations with talk about themselves while failing to show any interest in those they’re addressing. Punctuated with wit, the essay makes an earnest, not entirely sympathetic, attempt to understand what motivates “bores” who consistently take and hold center stage. Edmundson carefully leads the reader from a friendly sharing of a common occurrence (meeting up with the “bore”) into greater levels of possible understanding of the bore’s behavior, from the intuitive into more sophisticated explanations meriting deeper pondering. By the end, the essay has morphed into an exposition of the ideal conversation, a mutually reinforcing, self-actualizing exchange between people who sincerely care for each other.

This essay is available on the American Scholar website. Just click on its title above.

Selected by David Kirkham

Ben Fountain
“The Night Shift”

New Letters 75.2/3 (Winter/Spring 2009): 161-170.

As Alexander Smith said, “The world is not so much in need of new thoughts as that when thought grows old and worn with usage it should, like current coin, be called in, and, from the mint of genius, reissued fresh and new.” Many essays have been written about parenthood, so what compels me to stay with Ben Fountain as he circles his living room in the darkness, baby on his chest? I stay for the parallel wandering in thought, for his thorough musings on living a whole life even as children pull from both arms and threaten to split him in half. I stay because I’m convinced that the distinct and poetic voice of the author is the voice of a person I’d like to know, who I believe is a kind and deliberate father trying to make hard choices the best he can. I stay because he invites me to stay, he invites me to circle, he invites me to muse, and because he helps me see the rewards for those who persevere in wandering.

Selected by Catherine Curtis

Amy Hassinger
On Pests

Fourth Genre 11.2 (Fall 2009)

It is not uncommon for an essay to move from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic. In a way, it seems that is precisely what essay is designed to do; take a simple deliberate thought or experience and stare at it, stretch it, question it and write it until it is woven into a broader cloth that encompasses a greater bit of humanity. Amy Hassinger’s essay “On Pests” moves like a camera panning from a microcosmic family and home to the even smaller pests (like bees and mice) that reside in her home along with her family. She then pans back out to the history and evolution of not only the annoying pests around her house, but a greater history of many animals. She moves even further out to examine the extinctions that we humans are causing. With that information in tow, we then zoom back into Hassinger’s home and the decisions she makes about the pests. The essay is successful because we are made aware of the context in which her decisions to kill the bees in her front yard are made. The essay allows itself to be something more than a simple anecdote. Hassinger weaves reflection into the research she presents. My favorite lines come in the penultimate paragraph, “I knew those nests were there, and I assumed I’d be harming them with my hoe—and yet, somehow I couldn’t summon the empathy. I wanted what I wanted, bees be damned. Such is the hardness of human hearts.” I am moved by this line because I am aware of how intelligent, how well-informed, how seemingly in awe of the bees the writer of the essay is, and yet, the decision to kill the pests for convenience sake is still made.

This essay is available online as a PDF; just click on its title above.

Selected by Ashley mae Hoiland

David McGlynn
“Onomastics”

Southwest Review 94.3 (2009)

While telling the tale of his son's birth, David McGlynn uses humor and personal examples to attempt to discover what it means to name and be named. Wondering what name to give his child, he discusses odd and unusual names as well as his own name and the names of people he has known. In this way, McGlynn is able to provide an insightful discussion of how a person forms an identity and what each person's name really means to themselves and to those around them. What really stands out is McGlynn's voice, at once sarcastic and thought-provoking. Sprinkled with dialog and pop-culture references, the essay's humor provides a unique way for the reader to gain a new perspective on what a name truly means.

This essay is available through the ProQuest and EBSCO databases.

Selected by Ryan Croker

Elena Passarello
The Wilhelm Scream

Gulf Coast 22.1 (Winter/Spring 2010): 205-215.

If you search for “Wilhelm Scream” online, you may find several compilations of film clips, all of which include the identical sound effect of a man’s scream. Elena Passarello takes up this sound clip in her essay, “The Wilhelm Scream.” A good essay ruminates, carefully examining an idea or a feeling—or in this case, an audio clip that has appeared in at least 149 films over fifty years. After watching a “Wilhelm Scream” compilation, you might suppose that the “man eaten by alligator” sound effect would resist serious rumination, as the scream gains a sort of comical effect when repeated en masse. While Passarello acknowledges the joke, she uses the humorous occasion to examine more serious reasons about how we scream, and the ways we read sound. What happens when a frightened scream is repeated over and over? When an authentic, original sound becomes a joke? Passarello shows that more rumination is not only available: it’s useful—not just to provide a catalogue of examples (in fact, she only mentions a handful of films in which the scream shows up; she also fails to mention some of the most obvious or famous places, as the video compilations show), but to make the scream personal, important, more than just a Hollywood inside joke. A voice that may have become little more than a gag on screen becomes human on Passarello’s page.

This essay is partly available online; click on its title above.

Selected by Kathy West

Earl Rovit
“Friends Indeed”

Sewanee Review 117.1 (2009): 75-94.

Playing with the title of his piece, “Friends Indeed” Earl Rovit leads us from pleasant recollections of friendship, both likely and unlikely, to show how cherished relationships bring great happiness to us through our interaction, but also shape who we are through our actions toward others. Rovit reminisces about friends that have played pertinent roles in the way he thinks and the experiences he values, but also explores the relationships that are reflected in the landscape, or ones national identity, finding new ways of identifying ourselves and the ways we interact. He seeks to identify how these interactions build us and impress us, but ends with how they can also tells us things about ourselves that we may not want to hear. In short, Rovit seeks to understand the darker elements of himself and his deeds, exploring how those acts toward others really show who we all are, which is not always the idealized friend we want to be.

This essay is available through the Project MUSE database.

Selected by Lesley Hart Gunn

Brian Jay Stanley
On Being Nothing

The Antioch Review 67.2 (Spring 2009): 340-348.

Setting the classical, idea-driven tone with a ponderous quote by Hobbes, Stanley begins an honest discussion of his own insignificance. From his frustration with the subscription requests he receives from journals who have rejected him, to the attention from others we all crave, to the conclusion that without fans a celebrity is insignificant—and if a celebrity is insignificant, what then are we?, Stanley covers a wide range of the many ways we are made insignificant. He admits his own arrogance with admirable self-deprecation. The honest tone and thorough thinking of the essay makes for an enjoyable read, and surprisingly, it’s not even (too) depressing. Nothing compels you to read on more than the reflection of truth that you see in yourself.

This essay is available on the author's website and through the ProQuest and EBSCO Host databases.

Selected by Amy Roper