Creating a top list of the best essays that were ever written is a mission impossible. To make our selection easier, we decided to make a periodic list that includes only American writers and save the other essayists for another list. The following essays are listed in reverse chronology, so don’t consider this as a top list. All choices are absolutely brilliant. Reading them in the order provided below will enable you to start with the modernistic approach and slowly make your way towards the trends and ideas of the 50ties.
1. “Consider the Lobster” by David Foster Wallace (2004)
Although this piece appears to be a magazine article at first glance, you soon reveal the layers and enter into the mind of one of the greatest essayistic geniuses in recent history. When Consider the Lobster was published in Gourmet culinary magazine, it generated a controversial debate among the readers. The question Wallace imposes is uncomfortable even for the greatest gourmands: is it ethical to enjoy eating a sentient creature that was boiled alive? Don’t neglect the footnotes; although Wallace tends to digress, everything is connected into a brilliant whole that will make you think about your eating choices.
2. “The Fourth State of Matter” by Jo Ann Beard (1996)
Jo Ann Beard is an important figure in the contemporary American literature that today’s students often forget about. The Fourth State of Matter made dramatic impressions to the public when it was first published in The New Yorker. Although it is a personal essay, this piece is masterfully objective at the same time. Maybe you won’t find yourself personally connected to the story, but no reader can remain untouched by the tension in this serious essay. When the paths of life collide, there is a profound moment of stillness that Jo Ann Beard observes with perfect clarity.
3. “Heaven and Nature” by Edward Hoagland (1988)
Edward Hoagland is considered to be one of the best American essayists of the 20th century. Besides having a magical talent with worlds, Hoagland is also one of the most sensitive observers of nature. If you want to choose one of Hoagland’s pieces, make it Heaven and Nature – a fascinating observation of the nature that presents his sharp-witted style in its best form. After you read this powerful essay, you will surely continue exploring more of Hoagland’s work.
4. “Against Joie de Vivre” by Phillip Lopate (1986)
The conversational, witty spirit of Lopate’s writing will make you think, frown and smile at the same time. The pieces of this essayist are always worth discussing. Joie de vivre, the knack of knowing how to live, has never been presented such point of view before. You won’t find justifications of hedonism in this piece; Lopate gives a reasonable and honest commentary that isn’t left without its fair share of controversy.
5. “Total Eclipse” by Annie Dillard (1982)
According to Annie Dillard, the essay is just as powerful as a poem and a story, but cannot fake emotions like the other forms of writing. Total Eclipse is an essay that proves her stand – the imaginative power of an essay should not be underestimated. In this piece, the meditative aspects of a personal essay are interwoven with whimsical poetic expression and the decisive depth typical for short fiction. Dillard’s interpretation of the total eclipse she witnessed with her husband shows her ability to observe and portray an event with mesmerizing power.
6. “The White Album” by Joan Didion (1979)
This is one of the best autobiographical essays in American literature. Didion describes her constant psychological struggles during the 60s through the San Francisco State riots, the Manson murders, a recording session with the Doors, and other events that paint a connected mosaic of life in California during this era. You won’t find any nostalgic feelings in this personal essay; only the disturbance and paranoia that were hidden under the “ease” of that lifestyle. The absurdity of the events and her graceful acceptance of the facts can really strike at the heart.
7. “The search for Marvin Gardens” by John McPhee (1972)
McPhee wrote this piece during a revolutionary era, so the sudden changes of that time define the essence of his arguments. The combination of descriptive expression with cause and effect style results with a structure worth analyzing. This essay explores the Monopoly board game, which is based on the exclusive neighborhoods and new streets of Atlantic City. It’s amazing to see how McPhee manages to turn that seemingly shallow game into a debate of philosophical proportions concerning the American dreams and the current socio-economic parameters. Monopoly is more than a game; it’s a representative of the life Americans once had and the dirt and decay we now see.
8. “Notes on “Camp”” by Susan Sontag (1964)
This is Sontag’s groundbreaking piece, which can be described as an enthusiastic attempt to write on contemporary sensibility. It is difficult to understand the title from today’s perspective, but you should know that the word “camp” was then referred to the gay world. When you read Sontag’s presentation of the concept, you will realize that this term can still have meaning in today’s complex culture. The deeply-perceptive approach of this essayist invites us to start seeing the cultural world in a different light. Although the lack of humor and abundance of intelligence in this essay makes it somewhat hard to read, it is still a piece you cannot neglect.
9. “The White Negro” by Norman Mailer (1957)
This essay made great impressions to the public when it first appeared in Dissent. Mailer connects the phenomenon of jazz and swing music to a great number of young white people who enjoyed it during the 20s, 30s and 40s. The so-called white Negro adopts the black culture along with the music, so is characterized with black “jive” language and clothing style mainly associated with black people. In today’s culture, when the concept of “hipsterism” is so popular, this essay is still modern and enjoyable. Although Mailer is mainly concerned to elaborate this peculiar subculture, the essay can also be approached from a psychological point of view.
10. “Notes of a Native Son” by James Baldwin (1955)
Even though Baldwin never considered himself to be an essayist, he still wrote one of the best essays in American literature. This highly-personal piece describes the disturbing death of the author’s father, and the deeply troubled relationship he had with him. The abusing, thought-provoking events and relations in this essay can be connected to the entire American culture, particularly Harlem. Baldwin’s attempt to deal with the hatred his father left behind is heartbreaking and leaves a tormenting impression after reading this piece. Regardless of their attitude towards racial politics, this essay is beautiful, hypnotic and memorable for all readers.
Reveal the mesmerizing power of essayistic expression through the work of brilliant essayists!
Many people have difficulties to understand the essay genre. The main reason behind that conception is the fact that students are forced to write essays on topics they don’t like, so they cannot easily discover the beauty of essayistic style. The ten masterpieces listed above will definitely make you reconsider your approach towards essays.
When you read the work of some of the most powerful voices of contemporary American literature, you will realize that an essay can be amusing, irritating, thought-provoking, alluring and agonizing at the same time.