Ah, nothing like a bracing dose of literary criticism to start the day. Vinson Cunningham's essay is a model of what he has beheld. If this is a (fair & balanced) refusal to make concessions for the tender-minded, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
What Makes An Essay American
By Vinson Cunningham
About a month ago, on a trip to Dallas, Texas, I had dinner with a young DJ whose renown as a producer and engineer is steadily growing. We talked about life and music and art and money, and how he’d arrived at this juncture in his still-short career. Out of the blue, he asked me what I thought about the pastor and televangelist T. D. Jakes, whose megachurch, The Potter’s House, is located in Dallas. I hedged, said something about how Jakes—whose books and cassettes and, later, DVDs littered the bookshelves and bedside tables of the apartments I grew up in—has long struck me as a religious corollary to Oprah Winfrey, a vaguely more devout avatar of that now-pervasive gospel of good feeling and well-directed energy.
“I love him,” the DJ said, with surprising conviction, and I couldn’t help but ask why.
His appreciation, it turned out, was born of a kind of artistic recognition. He loves to listen to preachers, he said, because a great sermon is like a great DJ set. Each achieves its purpose via a slowly but strategically earned trust. At a party, this is straightforward: you play familiar songs at the outset, stuff certain to get the crowd moving and on your side. If, later on, you plan to play anything newer, or headier, or more esoteric, you’ll need this reservoir of goodwill. The preacher makes a similar calculation—those first tentative movements away from the safety of the text and into the wilds of exegesis and analysis need to be friendly, kind, “relatable.” Any hope of sneaking in some bold or challenging theological notion, or moral proposition, rests on the benignity of this initial encounter.
This made me think about what I do for a living. After all, the essay, in its American incarnation, is a direct outgrowth of the sermon: argumentative, insistent, not infrequently irritating. Americans, in my observation—and despite our fetish for the beauties of individuality and personal freedom—are always, however smilingly, trying to convince somebody, somewhere, of something, and our essayistic tradition bears this out.
Consider, as just one recent example, Claire Vaye Watkins’s essay “On Pandering,” published online by Tin House last November and discussed heatedly for weeks, even months, thereafter. Watkins begins by innocuously, if with a bit of bite, describing the ruralia that surrounds Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, where, “until recently,” as she writes, she taught at Bucknell University. She invites readers to think of Lewisburg as the convergence of a tripartite Venn diagram: “label circle #1 Amish country, label circle #2 coal country, label circle #3 fracking country.”
“During the time I lived in central Pennsylvania,” she writes, “the adjective I used most to describe the place to faraway friends was ‘murdersome.’ “ So far, so charmingly free of argument. Then Watkins weaves an insight about the inherent falsity of the college town—the feeling one gets of its having been created for students and their parents, as a kind of “country-mouse theme park”—into a sly statement of her theme: “I lived in a landscape of pandering.”
Then comes a cascade of anecdotes: a humiliating, sexist run-in with the literary “P. T. Barnum figure” Stephen Elliott; a quick history of what Watkins describes as a youthful pastime: “watching boys do stuff”; and then, least convincingly, her own epiphany that smoking pot might be more dangerous for a non-white friend than for her. Each story inches the reader closer to an understanding of what worries Watkins, what she at first searchingly fingers, and then, with gathering directness, fights against: that “the white supremacist patriarchy determines what I write.” By the essay’s end, Watkins has shrugged off any pretense of disinterest or mere observational curiosity, instead offering “some ideas” that gather a force akin to the preacher’s fire. It is impossible to read the essay’s last sentence—“Let us burn this motherfucking system to the ground and build something better”—without hearing a raised voice, or a chorus of answering amens.
It’s important to note that Watkins first delivered “On Pandering” as a speech, at Tin House’s Summer Writers’ Workshop. The document’s shift in purpose, from one-time rhetorical set-piece to widely disseminated tract, is reminiscent of Ralph Waldo Emerson, to whose famous addresses—secular sermons without exception—every American essayist, for good or ill, owes one thing or another. Emerson’s prose style could only have been developed out loud, and for the purpose of persuading (or, at least, entertaining) an audience—he careens back and forth in playful, liquid, rollicking sentences of varying lengths; he runs cool, then hot, then affectedly bored, sometimes within the space of a single phrase. He’s pushy, impulsive, impetuous, self-refuting, sort of causelessly rebellious and irreverent. If the Internet sometimes seems sodden with argument and counter-argument, with provocation enough to stretch on beyond the death of the republic (which, granted, hasn’t seemed that far off, lately), this, Emerson’s essays remind us, is nothing new.
As much as one might wish to lay claim to the sensibility of, say, Montaigne—the ruminative philosopher’s ideal, the notion of the essay as neutral attempt—most of us Americans are Emersons: artful sermonizers, pathological point-makers, turntablists spinning the hits with future mischief in mind.
Toward the end of the introduction to his latest anthology, The Making of the American Essay (2016), published earlier this year, the essay-evangelist John D’Agata recounts the creation myth of the Cahto, a Native American people indigenous to coastal California. The world, in their telling, was meticulously constructed by two deities and then arbitrarily washed away by an enormous flood. “But before they reconstruct the world they lost in their creation story,” D’Agata writes, “the Cahto make a point of lingering on the details of the flood’s devastation, noting how it methodically disassembled the world around them by erasing each part of it, piece by piece by piece: the mountains, trees, birds, people, weather, dirt, and light.” D’Agata reads this chronicle of annihilation as a celebration of nothingness itself, an indication of the excitement of the artist before a blank canvas—in the presence of pure potential. Into this void steps the essay, situated as it is “between the given and the made.” The world, he says, “provides nonfiction, and humans provide the rest.” This—“the rest”—is D’Agata’s definition of the essay, which leaves him room to trace the genre’s American flowering with a striking, and, in the end, unconvincing, breadth.
D’Agata’s liberties are legion: “Blood Burning Moon,” a fictional sketch from Jean Toomer’s modernist work Cane (1923, 2011), appears in the anthology; so does “The Whiteness of the Whale,” a chapter from Moby-Dick; so does “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso,” a poem by Gertrude Stein. None of these is an essay, and D’Agata’s insistence on recasting them—and, in so doing, flouting the interests and intentions of their creators—is evidence of the flawed idea that underpins his effort. Just as telling is the inclusion of harmless belletristic exercises from artists otherwise known for their pugilistic talents. James Baldwin, the most preacherly American writer of the past century, is represented by his pleasant but ultimately aimless recounting of a fight between Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston. Renata Adler, whose lethal essayistic style is best indicated by her famous excoriation of Pauline Kael, appears by way of “Brownstone,” which, again, is not an essay but rather a short story (first published in The New Yorker) that appeared in “Speedboat,” Adler’s first novel, as a vignette. Emerson’s “Nature” is rightly present, as is one of its direct precursors, Jonathan Edwards’s sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”—but amid so much fiddling around, so many exceptions that prove the rule of our nonfiction tradition, the importance and lasting influence of these foundational texts is lost.
All of this has to do with D’Agata’s career-long intellectual project, which has been to “radically redefine” the essay—that phrase is from a recent interview, published in Guernica—by deëmphasizing the form’s fealty to fact, and, instead, insisting on its status as art for art’s sake, equal in its florid otherworldliness to any novel or poem. In the same interview, explaining the apolitical eccentricity of his compilations (“The Making of the American Essay” marks the completion of a triptych, together comprising what he calls a “New History” of the form), D’Agata speaks of his desire to “divorce the essay from being read exclusively as a form that’s tied to its subject matter, or that is propelled by its subject matter.” But what, really, can this mean? Writing is communication, and form is only meaningful—only artful—insofar as it aids and inflects the travel of a thought from one mind to the next. What is literature without the propulsion of a subject: fallen king, Grecian urn, eaten plums, or national travesty? What D’Agata describes, and what The Making of the American Essay presents—form unbothered by the roilings of the world, the essay untethered from its fiery American roots—is a beautiful house, unfurnished forever. Nothing political, provocative, or argumentative breaches his walls, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that little fun does, either.
Of course, the relationship between idea and expressive vehicle is looser, if not quite nonexistent, in other arts, especially the visual ones—often excitingly so. It’s interesting, then, to observe the steadily increasing prominence of frankly polemical work within the walls of the museum. In a recent essay, for New York magazine, on how identity politics have come to “constitute a real aesthetic movement,” on the same scale of art-historical significance as Impressionism or Cubism, the art critic Jerry Saltz recalls the still-settling impact of the “so-called multi-cultural, identity-politics, political, or just bad” Whitney Biennial of 1993. The show—which was helped into the world by Thelma Golden, now the director of the Studio Museum in Harlem—featured commentary on contemporary troubles such as the Rodney King beating and the AIDS crisis, and, along the way, earned the ire of the critical class. Saltz regards the show as ground zero in the creation of today’s artistic culture, in which “biography, history, the plight of the marginalized, institutional politics, context, sociologies, anthropologies, and privilege have all been recognized as ‘forms,’ ‘genres,’ and ‘materials’ in art.”
One way to see this sea change is as a final rebuke of later Modernism’s tendency toward solipsistic enclosure: there is, after all, a point beyond which a painting about paintings about painting becomes a symptom of the world’s absurdity, not a tonic or a refuge. Another way to see it is that our visual art has become more essayistic in nature—which is to say: sermonic, assertive, usefully relevant to a polity ever more prone to the bizarre. Perhaps more artists have realized what becomes apparent after leafing through The Making of the American Essay: that conflict is elemental to America and to its creative expression; that a well-crafted argument is art, not its opposite; that beautiful, harmless things are best left on the shelf and out of reach; that the more fiercely—and, yes, sometimes annoyingly—our sensibilities clash, the better off our country might be. Ω
[Vinson Cunningham joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2016. His writing on books, art, and culture has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Book Review, Vulture, The Awl, the Fader, and McSweeney’s. He received a BA (English) from CUNY-Hunter College.]
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