The Essayist in Search of the Essay
At the beginning of the fall semester, my department chair sent an e-mail inviting faculty members to sign up for a date to visit her graduate Research Methods class and “talk about [our] research.” Although the majority of the research I conduct as a personal essayist and memoirist involves investigating the recesses of my memory, the work I’m drawn to as a reader most often involves essays infused with research. So as my turn to visit the class approached in October, I kept thinking about four books I read this year.
In preparation for my visit, I e-mailed those four essayists, whose work had truly stunned me, and asked if they’d be willing to write a one- to two-hundred word explanation of their research methods so that when I discussed their books with the class, I could project their words onto the screen and allow them to speak for themselves. Matthew Gavin Frank, B.J. Hollars, Peggy Shinner, and Nicole Walker all readily agreed. Considered together, their responses demonstrate a fascinating range of research strategies.
In Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer (Liveright, 2014), Matthew Gavin Frank weaves in playful forays about his research trip to Moses’s Newfoundland home, Frank’s own childhood and family history, and a catalog of bizarre facts and lists that recall Melville’s story of obsession with another deep-sea-dwelling leviathan. Though Frank is armed with impressive research, what he can’t know about Harvey he fictionalizes, quite explicitly, as a way of both illuminating the scene and exploring his central theme: the big, beautiful human impulse to obsess.
When I first saw the carcass of the giant squid in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (in a room one floor beneath that which houses the profoundly boring Hope Diamond), stretched-out to its maximum length in its thermoplastic coffin—unimpressive, dead, and snotty—it did not strike me as particularly obsession-worthy. But when I saw the photograph on the wall above it—the one (as I learned from the 3-line caption) taken by Reverend Moses Harvey in St. John’s, Newfoundland in 1874; the first-ever photograph of the giant squid; the image that rescued the beast from the realm of mythology and finally proved its existence; the one in which the carcass is draped over Harvey’s bathtub curtain rod in order to showcase its full size—I became curious about the animal, and the ways in which we’ve variously engaged it over the years. I wanted to know what the giant squid, and our reactions to it, could tell us about ourselves. I wanted to know about the sorts of ancillary subjects I’d have to engage (which turned out to be ice cream, my long-dead saxophonist grandfather, various cultural expressions of pain, and—in an early draft—puppets and puppet parts) along the journey toward something that I was likely misperceiving as super-truth. I became compelled by Harvey’s compulsions, and the sacrifices he had to make in order to chase them toward some nebulous end. I wanted desperately to empathize, so I started chasing too. I started with Google, and then read everything I could about (and by) Harvey, and considered the squid, and considered the ways in which he considered the squid. I’ve long been prone to OCD-fueled flights of fancy, so for a good three years, instead of triple-checking all the locks each night before bed, this is what I did. Via a serpentine path, I got hooked up with Harvey’s great-great granddaughter, who just happens to run the non-traveling archives at the Centre for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial University in St. John’s. She sent me the coolest scans via email. Eventually, I hit a wall in the writing process, and so I lit out for Newfoundland in order to immerse myself in what the filmmaker Werner Herzog likes to call “the voodoo of place.” That, and also to hang out in those non-traveling archives, to whoop it up with Harvey’s descendants, and to stalk the current resident of the Harvey home. I needed to see that bathroom in which a giant squid once hung. Much of the writing process involved me trying to map my own ecstasy (in the face of uncovering and organizing all of this wonderful research) onto Harvey’s assured ecstasy in the face of the fateful specimen, and all of the beautiful and horrible ways that it changed his life.
For Dispatches from the Drownings: Reporting the Fiction of Nonfiction (University of New Mexico Press, 2014), B. J. Hollars combed the archives of local newspapers only to discover vast discrepancies in articles about the deaths. In homage to Michael Lesy’s cult classic Wisconsin Death Trip, Hollars pairs reports from late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century journalists with fictional versions, creating a hybrid text complete with facts, lies, and a wide range of blurring in between.
Research, for me, takes on various forms depending on the subject, the project, and the resources. And so, when I'm in Alabama writing about civil rights, I hole up in the university archive, read the historical markers, interview everyone I can, and then head over to the microfiche where I read the daily newspaper of, say, 1964, the way most people read the daily papers. However, if I'm researching something more contemporary, I find myself spending less time in the archive and more time on the streets. When I'm writing about contemporary subjects, the key is to talk to as many folks as possible. To end each interview with a single question: “Who else might I talk to?” Having said all this, try not to search in the obvious places. I mean, you should search there, too, but then you should expand your search to look in places where no one else ever looks. And when I say “look” I mean “go there.” A few summers back I forced my family to take a 1000-mile road trip to a pet cemetery for a project I was working on. This spring break, I’ve persuaded them to join me in my search for a thought-to-be-extinct woodpecker in Arkansas for another project. And so, another good suggestion is to surround yourself with people who not only allow you your obsessions but come along for the ride. Finally, and most importantly, when you're researching you must live your research. Take the blinders off and see how the radio report on NPR dovetails with a headline in the paper. See how a university lecture syncs with the traveling art exhibit. Often, I've found, the world just throws you favors when you consider everything a clue.
In lauding Quench Your Thirst With Salt (Zone 3 Press, 2013) by Nicole Walker, Robin Hemley describes how she “investigates all that is contradictory and curious in the micro climate of her immediate family and the macro climate of Utah to create not a dry treatise, not a windless flight of experimental prose, but a natural history of thirst in all its manifestations.”
I truly admire those who still leave their houses to do research. I like the idea that research comes first, then writing, but that's not quite how it works with me. I like to bring information and the outside world into my essays but I almost always begin with a short, personal anecdote that leads to something I need to qualify or quantify. For instance, I was writing an essay yesterday about microorganisms and how I wish I had defensive microorganisms in my brain like the ones I have in my stomach. Although I knew the names of the bad bacteria, E. coli, salmonella, I had to use Google to find the names of good bacteria (lactobacilli, which I realized I did know but couldn't spell, was one of them). What microorganisms fight E. coli, I asked. I have a lot of faith in the Internet that if I ask the question just right, it will lead—even though I may have to scan through fifty sites—to the answer. It's the open-ended nature of the Internet search engine that I like. The name of the old browser ask.com matches my philosophy and my itinerant topics. What is the name of that one microorganism? How does whale poop sequester carbon? When was the dishwashing machine invented? How many pounds of plastic swirl in the ocean? If I could stick to one topic, another form of research might work for me, but my natural way of writing is to start typing down the main stalk of the story, ask a question that leads me to a branch over here, ask another question that leads me to a branch over there. As long as I always go back to the main stalk, I don't get lost, and, eventually, something organic takes shape.
In You Feel So Mortal: Essays on the Body (University of Chicago, 2014), Peggy Shinner offers a collection of twelve searing and witty essays about the body: her own body, female and Jewish; those of her parents, the bodies she came from; and the collective body, with all its historical, social, and political implications. According to Lambda Literary, “Her interests are wide-ranging, fueled by a deep curiosity and a talent for research.”
Research is like fishing, (which I've never done!). Drop the net in the water and see what turns up. I usually start with something personal: feet, posture, autopsies, shoplifting. But my next impulse, close behind, is to tether it to something else, to find the places of collision with the larger world. I like to think of digression as methodology, to be pursued rather than avoided. How far can I go and still stay connected? My flat feet, so like my father's; Jewish feet (Jewish feet?!), he-goat feet, according to the age-old denigrations; Jews in the military; Jewish athletes; the skein continues. I ask questions, go to Google, the library, bibliographies and endnotes, make phone calls, but in some ways it doesn't matter what I find. I draw the net up, sort through the contents, and then abandon the treasure for a while, never sure what I'm going to use and what I'm going to leave behind. The process is messy and organic and mystifying and wholly satisfying (when it's working). It's not research-driven, but the research is central. It's driven, instead, by a set of underlying pressures, some overt, others merely sensed. And by the sheer joy of curiosity. I dredged up Charlie Chaplin's Tramp at some point, and his iconic feet made an appearance too.
Reading these four essayists, I experience dual narratives—the ones they’ve created for me on the page and the ones I imagine. I follow behind Frank as he wanders through the fog of a Newfoundland cemetery. I pass by Hollars, hunched over the microfiche reader in the darkened basement of a university library. I stand behind Walker as she sits at her computer, click-click-clicking from one site to another, and I lean against the table in the special collections while Shinner sifts through letters. This, to me, is one of the most engaging and profound elements of the personal/research hybrid—the essayist in search of the essay.
Matthew Gavin Frank is the author of the nonfiction books, Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer, Pot Farm, and Barolo, the poetry books, The Morrow Plots, Warranty in Zulu, and Sagittarius Agitprop, and 2 chapbooks. His essay collection/cookbook, tentatively titled The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic State-by-State Tour Through America’s Food, is forthcoming in 2016 from W.W. Norton: Liveright. He teaches at Northern Michigan University, where he is the Nonfiction Editor of Passages North. This winter, he tempered his gin with two droplets (per 750ml) of tincture of odiferous whitefish liver. For health.
B.J. Hollars is the author of two award-winning nonfiction books—Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America and Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa—as well as a collection of stories, Sightings. His hybrid text, Dispatches from the Drownings: Reporting the Fiction of Nonfiction was published in the fall of 2014. An assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, he lives a simple existence with his wife, their children, and their dog.
Peggy Shinner is the author of You Feel So Mortal / Essays on the Body (University of Chicago Press, April 2014), which Flavorwire included among its 25 Great Books You Might Have Missed in 2014. Her work has appeared in BOMB, The Southern Review, Colorado Review, TriQuarterly, Fourth Genre, Bloom, and most recently on Salon. Newcity, Chicago's cultural weekly, named her one of the Lit 50 2014: Who Really Books in Chicago, and she has been awarded two Illinois Arts Council Fellowships and a fellowship at Ausable Press. Currently, she teaches in the MFA program at Northwestern University. She's online here.
Nicole Walker’s Quench Your Thirst with Salt won the Zone 3 Award for Creative Nonfiction and was released in June 2013. She is the author of a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg (Barrow Street 2010) and edited, with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction, (Bloomsbury, 2013) and, with Rebecca Campbell, 7 Artists, 7 Rings—an Artist’s Game of Telephone for the Huffington Post. A recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment from the Arts, she’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and Associate Professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona, where it rains like the Pacific Northwest, but only in July.
Robert Atwan, the founder of The Best American Essays series, picks the 10 best essays of the postwar period. Links to the essays are provided when available.
Fortunately, when I worked with Joyce Carol Oates on The Best American Essays of the Century (that’s the last century, by the way), we weren’t restricted to ten selections. So to make my list of the top ten essays since 1950 less impossible, I decided to exclude all the great examples of New Journalism--Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Michael Herr, and many others can be reserved for another list. I also decided to include only American writers, so such outstanding English-language essayists as Chris Arthur and Tim Robinson are missing, though they have appeared in The Best American Essays series. And I selected essays, not essayists. A list of the top ten essayists since 1950 would feature some different writers.
To my mind, the best essays are deeply personal (that doesn’t necessarily mean autobiographical) and deeply engaged with issues and ideas. And the best essays show that the name of the genre is also a verb, so they demonstrate a mind in process--reflecting, trying-out, essaying.
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.
Norman Mailer, "The White Negro" (originally appeared in Dissent, 1957)
An essay that packed an enormous wallop at the time may make some of us cringe today with its hyperbolic dialectics and hyperventilated metaphysics. But Mailer’s attempt to define the “hipster”–in what reads in part like a prose version of Ginsberg’s “Howl”–is suddenly relevant again, as new essays keep appearing with a similar definitional purpose, though no one would mistake Mailer’s hipster (“a philosophical psychopath”) for the ones we now find in Mailer’s old Brooklyn neighborhoods. Odd, how terms can bounce back into life with an entirely different set of connotations. What might Mailer call the new hipsters? Squares?
Read the essay here.
Susan Sontag, "Notes on 'Camp'" (originally appeared in Partisan Review, 1964)
Like Mailer’s “White Negro,” Sontag’s groundbreaking essay was an ambitious attempt to define a modern sensibility, in this case “camp,” a word that was then almost exclusively associated with the gay world. I was familiar with it as an undergraduate, hearing it used often by a set of friends, department store window decorators in Manhattan. Before I heard Sontag—thirty-one, glamorous, dressed entirely in black-- read the essay on publication at a Partisan Review gathering, I had simply interpreted “campy” as an exaggerated style or over-the-top behavior. But after Sontag unpacked the concept, with the help of Oscar Wilde, I began to see the cultural world in a different light. “The whole point of camp,” she writes, “is to dethrone the serious.” Her essay, collected in Against Interpretation (1966), is not in itself an example of camp.
Read the essay here.
John McPhee, "The Search for Marvin Gardens" (originally appeared in The New Yorker, 1972)
“Go. I roll the dice—a six and a two. Through the air I move my token, the flatiron, to Vermont Avenue, where dog packs range.” And so we move, in this brilliantly conceived essay, from a series of Monopoly games to a decaying Atlantic City, the once renowned resort town that inspired America’s most popular board game. As the games progress and as properties are rapidly snapped up, McPhee juxtaposes the well-known sites on the board—Atlantic Avenue, Park Place—with actual visits to their crumbling locations. He goes to jail, not just in the game but in fact, portraying what life has now become in a city that in better days was a Boardwalk Empire. At essay’s end, he finds the elusive Marvin Gardens. The essay was collected in Pieces of the Frame (1975).
Read the essay here (subscription required).
Joan Didion, "The White Album" (originally appeared in New West, 1979)
Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and the Black Panthers, a recording session with Jim Morrison and the Doors, the San Francisco State riots, the Manson murders—all of these, and much more, figure prominently in Didion’s brilliant mosaic distillation (or phantasmagoric album) of California life in the late 1960s. Yet despite a cast of characters larger than most Hollywood epics, “The White Album” is a highly personal essay, right down to Didion’s report of her psychiatric tests as an outpatient in a Santa Monica hospital in the summer of 1968. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” the essay famously begins, and as it progresses nervously through cuts and flashes of reportage, with transcripts, interviews, and testimonies, we realize that all of our stories are questionable, “the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images.” Portions of the essay appeared in installments in 1968-69 but it wasn’t until 1979 that Didion published the complete essay in New West magazine; it then became the lead essay of her book, The White Album (1979).
Annie Dillard, "Total Eclipse" (originally appeared in Antaeus, 1982)
In her introduction to The Best American Essays 1988, Annie Dillard claims that “The essay can do everything a poem can do, and everything a short story can do—everything but fake it.” Her essay “Total Eclipse” easily makes her case for the imaginative power of a genre that is still undervalued as a branch of imaginative literature. “Total Eclipse” has it all—the climactic intensity of short fiction, the interwoven imagery of poetry, and the meditative dynamics of the personal essay: “This was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt: the universe as a clockwork of loose spheres flung at stupefying, unauthorized speeds.” The essay, which first appeared in Antaeus in 1982 was collected in Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982), a slim volume that ranks among the best essay collections of the past fifty years.
Phillip Lopate, "Against Joie de Vivre" (originally appeared in Ploughshares, 1986)
This is an essay that made me glad I’d started The Best American Essays the year before. I’d been looking for essays that grew out of a vibrant Montaignean spirit—personal essays that were witty, conversational, reflective, confessional, and yet always about something worth discussing. And here was exactly what I’d been looking for. I might have found such writing several decades earlier but in the 80s it was relatively rare; Lopate had found a creative way to insert the old familiar essay into the contemporary world: “Over the years,” Lopate begins, “I have developed a distaste for the spectacle of joie de vivre, the knack of knowing how to live.” He goes on to dissect in comic yet astute detail the rituals of the modern dinner party. The essay was selected by Gay Talese for The Best American Essays 1987 and collected in Against Joie de Vivre in 1989.
Read the essay here.
Edward Hoagland, "Heaven and Nature" (originally appeared in Harper’s, 1988)
“The best essayist of my generation,” is how John Updike described Edward Hoagland, who must be one of the most prolific essayists of our time as well. “Essays,” Hoagland wrote, “are how we speak to one another in print—caroming thoughts not merely in order to convey a certain packet of information, but with a special edge or bounce of personal character in a kind of public letter.” I could easily have selected many other Hoagland essays for this list (such as “The Courage of Turtles”), but I’m especially fond of “Heaven and Nature,” which shows Hoagland at his best, balancing the public and private, the well-crafted general observation with the clinching vivid example. The essay, selected by Geoffrey Wolff for The Best American Essays 1989 and collected in Heart’s Desire (1988), is an unforgettable meditation not so much on suicide as on how we remarkably manage to stay alive.
Jo Ann Beard, "The Fourth State of Matter" (originally appeared in The New Yorker, 1996)
A question for nonfiction writing students: When writing a true story based on actual events, how does the narrator create dramatic tension when most readers can be expected to know what happens in the end? To see how skillfully this can be done turn to Jo Ann Beard’s astonishing personal story about a graduate student’s murderous rampage on the University of Iowa campus in 1991. “Plasma is the fourth state of matter,” writes Beard, who worked in the U of I’s physics department at the time of the incident, “You’ve got your solid, your liquid, your gas, and there’s your plasma. In outer space there’s the plasmasphere and the plasmapause.” Besides plasma, in this emotion-packed essay you will find entangled in all the tension a lovable, dying collie, invasive squirrels, an estranged husband, the seriously disturbed gunman, and his victims, one of them among the author’s dearest friends. Selected by Ian Frazier for The Best American Essays 1997, the essay was collected in Beard’s award-winning volume, The Boys of My Youth (1998).
Read the essay here.
David Foster Wallace, "Consider the Lobster" (originally appeared in Gourmet, 2004)
They may at first look like magazine articles—those factually-driven, expansive pieces on the Illinois State Fair, a luxury cruise ship, the adult video awards, or John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign—but once you uncover the disguise and get inside them you are in the midst of essayistic genius. One of David Foster Wallace’s shortest and most essayistic is his “coverage” of the annual Maine Lobster Festival, “Consider the Lobster.” The Festival becomes much more than an occasion to observe “the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker” in action as Wallace poses an uncomfortable question to readers of the upscale food magazine: “Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?” Don’t gloss over the footnotes. Susan Orlean selected the essay for The Best American Essays 2004 and Wallace collected it in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (2005).
Read the essay here. (Note: the electronic version from Gourmet magazine’s archives differs from the essay that appears in The Best American Essays and in his book, Consider the Lobster.)
I wish I could include twenty more essays but these ten in themselves comprise a wonderful and wide-ranging mini-anthology, one that showcases some of the most outstanding literary voices of our time. Readers who’d like to see more of the best essays since 1950 should take a look at The Best American Essays of the Century (2000).