John Jeremiah Sullivan, who edits The Best American Essays 2014, opens with an Introduction on Montaigne’s role in developing the essay (Mariner/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Its forms are loose and strict.
That helps the 21 contemporary writers who contribute to the collection under review to convey the personal and political, if I may borrow a phrase from the 1960s. The essays bounce from confessions to descriptions and impressions, and I can’t say one approach is the best.
I can say this. The dynamism of the essay form works in a number of ways today.
Lawrence Jackson’s essay on growing up in deindustrializing Baltimore is powerful. His narrative, at times reading like stream-of-consciousness, suggests the sensibility of Claude Brown, author of Manchild in the Promised Land.
These writers of course are generations apart. Still, there is a striking symmetry between them.
Jackson’s take on coming-of-age in the long 1980s of the Reagan Revolution contextualizes and personalizes black youth’s marginal status, and what can fill that void. The police are omnipresent, and hardly helpful, “Five-O” in his essay, and “one-time” in the 2015 film Straight Outta Compton.
Jerald Walker explores fatherhood and the color line, with a nod to Frederick Douglass, the famed 19th century abolitionist. In the essay, Walker lands in an uneasy situation, navigating skin pigmentation relations in and out of his household in a rural town in Massachusetts.
It is sad to say to be a parent can mean to outlive a precious child. Ariel Levy’s “Thanksgiving in Mongolia” paints a gut-wrenching experience of motherhood.
In a stark coming-of-age essay, Barry Lopez loses his virginity. Who takes it and how from a boy’s view reads a bit like a tale about predator priests in the Catholic Church.
On that abusive note, Chris Offutt recalls his experience with adult-minor, same-sex relations. This essay is set in the South, and delivers a slice of that region’s unique Gothic feel; think Flannery O’Connor.
In “The Devil’s Bait,” Leslie Jamison examines the health of patients who suffer from Morgellons disease. What she does (not) find at a conference of sufferers interrogates our conventional notions of sickness and wellness.
Wells Tower’s father is ill, the premise of their visit with friends to Burning Man. This essay conveyed the individual and social particulars of participating in this modern-day festival.
Emily Fox Gordon lays bare slices of the aging process. It requires, among other physical adjustments, coming to grips with an unknown future.
Yiyun Li left her homeland of China for America. In the USA, she in a letter to a friend wrestles with existential questions that speak to her immigrant writer status, and a growing consciousness of how place and time can shape self-identity.
A theme in Vivian Gornick’s essay is listening to voices, hers, friends’ and strangers’. Walking the streets of New York City provides the writer with ample opportunities to step outside the boundaries of atomized individuality, and try to make sense of the human condition as she experiences it.
The 21 essays in this book are sharp-eyed and smart. Montaigne would likely agree.