JANUARY 10, 2016
“NATURE IS doing her best each moment to make us well,” Thoreau once wrote. “Do not resist her!” Since I was young, I have walked in nature whenever I can. I am far from alone. But the woods we walk in are different from Thoreau’s. I’ve heard his famous wood thrush no more than twice in a dozen years. Mostly, I hear hermit thrushes, a more common bird here. But the song of the hermit thrush is beautiful too, and every time I hear it, “Nature is in her spring” and “it is a new world and a free country, and the gates of heaven are not shut.” Except, of course, that gates are shut, almost everywhere. And there is threat of more closure, longer border walls.
Ten years after Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans, exposing deep layers of institutional racism, author Roxane Gay wrote for NPR: “Another day, another all-white list of recommended reading …” The New York Timessummer reading list, she continued, quoting Jason Parham, “has achieved ‘peak caucasity.’” The publishing industry is near 90 percent white.
Last year, the environmental organization Green 2.0 surveyed “191 environmental non-profits, 74 government environmental agencies, and 28 leading environmental grant making foundations,” and found:
[T]he racial composition in environmental organizations and agencies has not broken the 12 percent to 16 percent “green ceiling” that has been in place for decades. […] Confidential interviews with environmental professionals and survey data highlight alienation and “unconscious bias” as factors hampering recruitment and retention of talented people of color. […] The Result: An overwhelmingly white “Green Insiders’ Club.”
Carolyn Finney, in her 2014 book Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, quotes a self-described middle-class African-American woman who explained to The New York Times her decision against a family national-parks road-trip: “Four black folks from Oakland, Calif., cruising the back roads of Montana? Are you nuts?”
If Thoreau were to compose Civil Disobedience today, would he protest this? Not from Walden, of course — nobody’s swinging DIY hammers on rustic cabins near Walden today, where houses go for as much as $9 million. What would Thoreau make of the fact that, for many Americans, taking a road trip to Yellowstone means risking physical harm — or the fact that, as Gay recently put it in a New York Times opinion piece, “The Seduction of Safety, on Campus and Beyond,” “There is a degree of safety members of certain populations will never know”?
Who can say? Sandy Stott, a former colleague who taught Thoreau to teens at Concord Academy for 20 years, says Walden can be read, in part, as a protest of the capitalist-industrial world and its casualties, at one point “turning to the narratives of the former residents of this stretch of woods, freed slaves and Irish workers, all of whom lived at distance from town.” Kathryn Schulz, in a recent essay for The New Yorker titled “Pond Scum,” argues that Walden is “the original cabin porn: a fantasy about rustic life divorced from the reality of living in the woods, and, especially, a fantasy about escaping the entanglements and responsibilities of living among other people.” As for Thoreau, she writes, he was “self-obsessed: narcissistic, fanatical about self-control, adamant that he required nothing beyond himself to understand and thrive in the world.”
Regardless of one’s reading of Thoreau, what is clear, as Finney writes in Black Faces, White Spaces, is that environmental organizations and communities need to “fashion new narratives that are inclusive and reflective of our past and offer new possibilities by expressing and acknowledging the complexity of our stories and the meanings we attach to them.” How, Finney asks, do we create and celebrate stories “that embrace our complex history?”
The idea that stories improve us, much as nature does, is not news. There is now research demonstrating what we’ve known intuitively all along: that reading, and in particular reading widely — i.e., “multicultural learning experiences” — encourages creative thinking, exposes and breaks down barriers between “self” and “other” and between “nature” and “culture.” Reading makes us more empathic and more aware of others’ experiences, desires, and needs. Sometimes it inspires us to act on behalf of others, or the earth, or both. Richly diverse narratives carry “the power to provide us with tools to create a future that defies a limited imagination,” writes Finney. “When we know different, we do different.”
In his make-no-bones afterword to American Protest Literature, Howard Zinn writes:
The most obvious […] contribution to social change that literature can make is simply to inform people of something they know nothing about […].
There are other situations where we believe we know something but don’t really know it in a visceral way, don’t really know it emotionally, to the point where it moves us to action.
Published in 2007, as “the first anthology to collect and examine American literature ‘that holds the nation to its highest ideals, castigating it when it falls short and pointing the way to a better collective future,’” American Protest Literature covers serious ground. As one Bloomsbury Review put it, “We should all read American Protest Literature, for as U.S. citizens, we are all students of the democratic experiment, and social change is still needed — more than ever.” The book includes more than 120 writers, in 11 sections: The American Revolution; Native American Rights; Abolition and Antislavery; Women’s Rights and Suffragism; Socialism and Industry; Against Lynching; The Great Depression; Civil Rights and Black Liberation; Second-Wave Feminism; Gay Liberation; and The Vietnam War and Beyond. But there is no section on the environmental movement. No “nature” writer at all. Not even Thoreau.
This omission of the environmental movement and its chroniclers from a book published two years after Katrina and dedicated to the literature of American history’s most prominent social movements seems emblematic of the enduring notion that social is not related to environmental. As if people are — or more damaging still, should be — separate from nature.
Finney opens and closes Black Faces, White Spaces — a powerful and complex blend of history, memoir, and scholarship — with a deeply felt rendering of her parents, who, for 50 years, worked as caretakers of a 12-acre estate in Mamaroneck, New York, where they also raised their daughter. “Like any family,” Finney writes, “we grew stories about ourselves in that place.” Not long ago, after the Westchester Land Trust bought the estate, Finney received a copy of the celebratory letter mailed to announce the news. In it, the Land Trust thanked the estate owners but made no mention of her parents, who had dedicated their life’s work to this land they loved. In 2003, when Finney first started her research, she went to the library in search of literature representing the experiences of people of color in place. She was, she said, disappointed. Inspired by her parents, “who were high-school educated but knew a lot more about the land than a lot of people,” she got creative, tracking down “art forms, journals, newspaper articles, oral histories, and memoirs.”
After publication, Finney said that some of her former colleagues in the department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management (ESPM) at UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources deemed Black Faces, White Spaces “not serious enough,” “not rigorous.” Her response: “It takes rigor to write a book that’s accessible to people.”After some of her colleagues voted against her tenure, while others vigorously supported her, Finney decided to leave Berkeley, this summer accepting a position in the Department of Geography at the University of Kentucky. There, she said, administrators created a new position to support her approach, opting to include public engagement work in her contract.
She said that while she feels the loss of leaving her academic community at Berkeley, if she had it to do over again, she would make the same choices. “I was having this amazing year out in the world,” she explained,
and a horrible year in my department. Here I was getting invited to talk about Black Faces, White Spaces and what I was writing about was happening to me in this predominantly “white space” at Berkeley. So I rolled my personal experience into my guest lectures. It was 2015 — how could I be the only tenure-track African American in the College of Natural Resources at Berkeley? It’s not only a challenge at this institution — it’s a challenge everywhere.
At Middlebury College, Kathryn T. Morse, who is Chair of the History Department and teaches American Environmental History, among other classes, told me, “The majority of the students majoring in environmental studies are still white or privileged or both.” In listing books for her students, she said she asks herself, “How do I reach that audience that is still kind of stuck?”
Both nature writing and the wilderness movement traditionally “celebrate nature as wilderness separate from civilization, where no humans exist,” said poet Melissa Tuckey, co-founder of Split This Rock, a “national network of socially engaged poets,” and editor of the forthcoming Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology (University of Georgia Press), during an email exchange. “This way of thinking ignores the presence of non-white people in these ‘wild areas’ and creates a dichotomy between humans and nature, breaking our connection to it.” She said, “The divide in the worlds of nature writing and environmentalism is reinforced by historic divisions.”
In her book, Finney draws this landscape in full:
While Pinchot and Muir explored, articulated, and disseminated conservation and preservation ideologies, legislation was being enacted to limit both movement and accessibility for African Americans, as well as American Indians, Chinese, and other nonwhite people in the United States. This included the California Lands Claims Act of 1851, the Black Codes (1861–65), the Dawes Act (1887), and the Curtis Act (1898).
She evokes an expanded view of Muir:
While his environmental ethic included wilderness, it clearly did not include nonwhites. On his “Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf” in 1867 through lands that had been devastated by war, he spoke of Negroes as largely lazy and easy-going and unable to pick as much cotton as a white man.
The effect of reading the passages Finney dedicates to this history is not unlike the experience of seeing a scene in full after having had access only to the cropped snapshot, framed and hung to admire.
Finney calls up research showing “that racism plays a significant role in limiting black participation in ‘the great outdoors.’” In “9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher,” published in Orion in August, J. Drew Lanham, a forest wildlife biologist and professor at the Department of Forest Resources at Clemson, describes his experience: “Be prepared to be confused with the other black birder,” he writes. “Yes, there are only two of you at the bird festival. Yes, you’re wearing a nametag and are six inches taller than he is. Yes, you will be called by his name at least half a dozen times by supposedly observant people who can distinguish gull molts in a blizzard.”
Camille T. Dungy is author of Smith Blue; Suck on the Marrow; and What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison and a professor of English at Colorado State University. In 2009, Dungy published Black Nature, a beautiful, widely influential, and redefining anthology of African-American nature poetry. Spanning over 400 years, 180 poems by 93 poets range from Phillis Wheatley’s “On Imagination” — “from the first book of poetry ever published by a black person living in the American colonies” — to such contemporary poets as Tara Betts, Major Jackson, and Natasha Trethewey. There are many reasons why some people have been historically marginalized in the environmental movement and in its literature, Dungy said during a phone conversation. “The most vulnerable are the least powerful, so they get the least coverage, and certainly the least precedent-changing publication.”
For some of the poets included in the book, she writes in her introduction, “there is no place in the land where one can idle inattentively or harbor romanticized views. Interactions with the natural world demand respectful, honest attention and vigilant care.” Many of the poems, she writes, “point to […] the manner in which the natural world has been used to destroy, damage, or subjugate African Americans.” In her essay “Tales from a Black Girl on Fire, or Why I Hate to Walk Outside and See Things Burning,” published in The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World, Dungy, who grew up in the “semiarid hillsides of Southern California,” explores the terrain. “I was told to be cautious around anything that might ignite and people who find pleasure in starting a blaze,” she writes. “Just as I’d grown up aware of the historical dangers of being black and discovered outside, I knew to fear fire.”
“Black Nature,” she writes, “provides a crucial tool for broadening our concept of what it means to write about nature.” To help readers see nature anew, to “reconceptualize the boundaries for environmentally minded writing,” Dungy structured her anthology in 10 cycles: Just Looking; Nature, Be with Us; Dirt on Our Hands; Pests, People Too; Forsaken the Earth; Disasters, Natural and Other; Talk of the Animals. What the Land Remembers; Growing Out of The Land; Comes Always Spring.
In 2011, Lauret E. Savoy, a professor of environmental studies and geology at Mount Holyoke College, and Alison Hawthorne Deming, a poet and essayist, published their landmark anthology The Colors of Nature, which Booklist called an “unprecedented and invaluable collection.” In an email, Savoy wrote that she’d hoped the book’s readers would recognize that nature writing “could and should explore the relationships linking culture, place, ‘race,’ and identity.” The book includes stunning work by Jamaica Kincaid, Joseph Bruchac, Yusef Komunyakaa, Nikky Finney, Kimiko Hahn, Robin Wall Kimmerer, bell hooks, David Mas Masumoto, Francisco X. Alarcón, and many others. “We were so fortunate to have superb writers of diverse backgrounds — African American, Asian American, Latino/a, Native American, Arab American, and ‘mixed’ heritage,” Savoy said.
The Colors of Nature began during a conference called Art of the Wild on writing about nature and the environment. “I was one of a handful of people of color” at the event, Savoy said,
and one of only two African Americans in a group of more than 100 participants. I was asked there — as I am often asked — twin questions: “Why don’t African Americans care more about the environment?” and “Why is there so little ‘nature writing’ by ‘minorities’?” My responses to those inquiring met — and still meet — with disbelief. The answers are, of course, that “we” do and that there is such writing.
But to see it, we need first to recognize what Savoy calls “a segregation of ideas, how narrow the defining frames of ‘nature writing’ and ‘environment’ have been.” And yet “environmental thought, activism, and writing in the United States have old and diverse roots.” She writes:
The writings of those who escaped slavery, Frederick Douglass among them, considered how such an oppressive agricultural system also distorted relations to land, degrading both the enslaved and the soil. More than a century ago Zitkala-Sa (Lakota-Dakota) and Sarah Winnemucca (Paiute) noted the close linkages between Euro-American racism and environmental attitudes that led to the degradation of what had been Indigenous land — and they wrote about these links! W.E.B. Du Bois’s essay on the African roots of the First World War, which appeared in the May 1915 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, is as much an environmental essay as any piece written then on the need for a national park system, which was established in 1916. Du Bois even wrote about his visits to the Grand Canyon and Acadia and his own sense of nature in the book Darkwater. But how many people know this?
In Darkwater, Du Bois also explains why African Americans at the time hesitated traveling to national parks as tourists: segregated “Jim-Crow” waiting rooms and trains were just one form of racism they’d encounter.
The segregation of ideas continues, Savoy says. “And even some who are aware of the diversity of voices today may not know of those who came before, those who are our ‘ecological ancestors,’ to use Kimberly Ruffin’s term.” I count myself among these, and must note that there are many, many writers missing here, that this essay itself is incomplete.
In addition to offering a wider frame on how we perceive “nature writing,” Savoy also hoped readers “would come to see how each of us carries history and a complex cultural legacy, the past(s) becoming present in what we think and do, in who we are. That braided strands of this land’s human history and geologic-natural history touch all of our lives, perhaps without our knowing it.” It is this belief, she said, that she set out to explore in Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape, a book that naturalist and Cambridge Fellow Robert Macfarlane — author of Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination; The Wild Places; The Old Ways; and Landmarks; among other titles — recommended during an email exchange two days after Trace’s November 10 release. A “U.S. west-coast bookseller” had just recommended it to him, Macfarlane wrote. “I’m presently reading it and it’s brilliant.”
In blazing, beautiful prose, unblinkingly researched and reported, Savoy explores how the country’s still unfolding history, along with ideas of “race,” have marked her and the land. She also traces, in a mosaic of journeys across a continent and time, her mixed-blood ancestry, carefully taking apart the frame at dovetail joints, curiously inspecting and turning over the smallest points of connection, omission, dislocation, and break.
She begins as a child, “a little girl in California” —
in a neighborhood with few children, my reliable companions were sky’s brilliant depth and the tactile land. […] I devised a self-theory that golden light and deep blue sky made me. Sun filled my body as it seemed to fill dry California hills, and sky flowed in my veins. Colored could only mean these things.
Savoy travels, in memory and in time, from child to adult, from the edge of the Grand Canyon at Point Sublime, to South Carolina’s Walnut Grove Plantation, to the metal barrier at Naco’s US-Mexico border crossing, to the banks of the Potomac River and an unmarked, windswept burial ground nearby. As Terry Tempest Williams commented, “I have never read a more beautiful, smart, and vulnerable accounting of how we are shaped by memory in place.”
In one passage, Savoy recalls reading Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac when she was a girl, 14 years old. At the time, she felt drawn to “his call for an extension of ethics to land relations,” a call that “seemed to express a sense of responsibility and reciprocity not yet embraced by this country but embedded in many Indigenous peoples’ traditions of experience — that land is fully inhabited, intimate with immediate presence.” And yet, she continued:
I couldn’t understand why, in a book so concerned with America’s past, the only reference to slavery, to human beings as property, was about ancient Greece.
What I wanted more than anything was to speak with Mr. Leopold. To ask him. I so feared that his “we” and “us” excluded me and other Americans with ancestral roots in Africa, Asia, or Native America. […]
Did Aldo Leopold consider me?
As Dungy, Finney, Morse, and others have noted, it is important to acknowledge that, in the environmental justice genre, there has been more inclusivity than in the genre referred to as “nature writing” — a broader view, more books, more voices. The Environmental Justice Reader; Coal: A Poetry Anthology; At Home on This Earth: Two Centuries of U.S. Women’s Nature Writing; Fire and Ink: An Anthology of Social Action Writing; Earth Shattering; and Facing the Chains are just a few of the titles recommended by authors and editors in the field during recent conversations.
Finney challenges “the assumption that the best framework to understand any environmental issue or experience had by African Americans is an environmental justice framework.” Expanding the view, Finney said, also means going beyond an environmental justice response and an environmental justice or protest literature label.
I never use the word justice, not because I don’t believe in it (I do), but because there is often an assumption made that when I say “environment and race” that I must be talking about Environmental Justice. But black and brown people are not simply victims. They have been victimized, yes, but they are also creative and resilient. And they/we just may have something to offer to environmental conversations about how we all should collectively move forward.
Finney also no longer uses the term “outreach,” “as someone who’s been ‘outreached’ to,” she laughs.
Outreach implies a one-way relationship with the power being in the hands of those who initiated that relationship. I’m more interested in relationships of reciprocity where both parties have to learn and change. And sometimes this means giving up and letting go of some of our power, privilege, and comfort. What are we willing to risk?
Tuckey, who guest-edited the January 2016 edition of Poetry magazine titled “Eco Justice Poetry portfolio,” discussed the work of curating Ghost Fishing, which was inspired and informed by Dungy’s work, she said in an email exchange. “Collecting poems for the anthology,” she wrote,
I’ve learned to appreciate the role of culture in connecting us to the environment, as well as the historic way that colonization, war, white supremacy, and other forms of dispossession have robbed generations of their connection to the land; how poetry and other arts have served throughout as a form of resistance, an act of resurgence and cultural memory.
Nature writing has created this image of environmentalist as white guy who goes out into the wilderness. Not to knock what they’ve done and are doing, but there have always been culturally diverse writers and women writing about the natural world as well, bringing other ways of seeing this human-nature connection — not nature as a remote place to recreate in tranquility, but nature as a place intimately connected to human habitation, culture, and identity.
As we consider how to respond as writers to environmental disaster, disaster that asks us to reconsider old paradigms such as the division between humans and nature, we are limited if we do not make space for this history and these voices. For indigenous people and writers of color, these disasters and disruptions are not new — they are part of a wider history.
Disruptions and disasters are part of a wider history, it’s true. Yet so, too, are serenity and discovery, wonder and awe, gratitude and pleasure, the sublime — in other words, the fullness of what it means to be human on this earth. Dungy writes, “We’ve got to take this conversation out of the echo chamber and into a broader space. To bring more voices into the conversation about human interactions with the natural world, we must change the parameters of the conversation.” This is — for me, anyway — exactly what Black Nature does. In the words of Booklist’s starred review, “the poems, beginning with Lucille Clifton’s ‘the earth is a living thing,’ are ravishing.” Here is Clifton:
surely I am able to write poems
celebrating grass and how the blue
in the sky can flow green or red
and the waters lean against the
chesapeake shore like a familiar
poems about nature and landscape
surely but whenever i begin
“the trees wave their knotted branches
is there under that poem always
an other poem?
There is evidence that the landscape of writing about the environment, about nature, is slowly expanding beyond long-standing genre boundaries. Says Dungy: “When I published Black Nature, I would hear from people, ‘I never really thought about black people writing about natural world …’ But it’s been happening for 400 years. That voice has been erased and silenced.” She observes, “I also think that the last two major poetry anthologies” — The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral and The Ecopoetry Anthology — “had exponentially more writers of color than before Black Nature. Black Nature really did change who people looked for …”
John Stauffer, co-editor of American Protest Literature and professor of English and American Literature, American Studies and African American Studies, now includes readings on the environment in his class at Harvard, Culture and Belief: American Protest Literature from Tom Paine to Tupac. He recommends Thoreau, he said, “emphasizing him as the founder of modern environmentalism in the U.S.,” and Rob Nixon, author of Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. He assigns selections from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom, Zora Neale Hurston’s Dust Tracks on a Road, and Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature. “Many of my students are already going to do a final project on environmentalism, which is heartening, as the movement has drawn from protest literature of other movements, especially abolitionism, feminism, labor.” Of co-curating American Protest Literature, he said, “If I did it again, I would certainly include the environment now.”
This spring, at Middlebury College, for her Environmental Studies students, Kathryn Morse will add Finney’s and Savoy’s work to a reading list that includes W.E.B. Du Bois, Evelyn White, Jamaica Kincaid, Eddy Harris, David Mas Masumoto, Camille Dungy, and Helena Maria Viramontes, among many others. Last spring, her students hosted a screening of An American Ascent, a documentary film based on James Edwards Mills’s book The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors, a powerful work that tells the story of the first all-African American ascent of Mount McKinley — this summer renamed Denali (“the great one”), the name Alaskan Natives have been calling America’s highest mountain for generations. Savoy covered the name change in an essay for The Daily Beast titled “From Denali to McKinley to Denali: U.S. Place Names Tell You Who’s in Power,” writing, “to consider place-names as givens is to see a reflecting surface and not what lies beneath.”
The week of Trace’s release, Savoy remarked:
Imagine “environment” broadly — not just as surroundings; not just as the air, water, and land on which we depend, or that we pollute; not just as global warming — but as sets of circumstances, conditions, and contexts in which we live and die — in which each of us is intimately part. This definition falls short without those experiences of place that are exiled or degraded, toxic or alien or migrant or urban or indentured. […] There is no requirement that a writer deal with any particular subject — yet, it seems to me, for the genre and those who call themselves “environmental writers,” there has been avoidance. The discourse has proceeded in a narrow frame, with too few voices, perspectives, and storied lives of people not of solely Euro-American descent — experiences that transcend history and point to deeply embedded conflicts in this nation.
In September, in an essay for the New Statesman called “Why We Need Nature Writing,” Robert Macfarlane declared “a remarkable turn.” Macfarlane’s most recent book, Landmarks — which, as he wrote in a recent email, “concerns the dazzling diversity of place- and nature-language across more than thirty dialects and languages of Britain and Ireland” — has been hailed as “passionate and magical,”“a sort of ‘gift’ text,”“irradiated by a profound sense of wonder.” In his essay, he wrote, “A 21st-century culture of nature has sprung up, born of anxiety and anger but passionate and progressive in its temperament, involving millions of people and spilling across forms, media and behaviours.” Macfarlane goes on to say he would love to name a hundred writers, “but lists soon get boring.” Lists of books may get boring, but the stories in them and the people who write them do not, and so the human impulse to share, often in conversation. He, too, seems unable to resist.
Last winter, during a panel, sponsored by Orion, with Rebecca Solnit, author of Wanderlust and A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, Macfarlane talked about the evolution of nature writing and listed books he loves. Books like Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place and her garden essays, and Keith Basso’s Wisdom Sits in Places. “How is nature writing like pornography?” Solnit joked at one point. “You know it when you see it.” “So much that’s good that doesn’t fit the category comfortably,” she said. As Macfarlane put it in his essay, “There is no one true way of writing about nature and place. […] More voices need to be heard from ethnic-minority writers and from a wider range of identities and backgrounds.” On December 3, The New York Times announced its 10 Best Books of 2015. On the list were three writers of color, seven women.
When we talked, Finney asked,
Do you want to remain only in your own perspective? Evaluating the world only though your own perspective? It comes to relationships. How do we change relationship to place? How do we expand what we know? And how do we know what we know? We need to be willing to be uncomfortable to take a risk, reading more wildly, widely.
What does that mean? “I often read stuff that’s not on its surface looking like it has anything to do with the environment,” said Finney. “When you’re in the bookstores,” she continued, “you can go to the section that says Environment, but I say try other sections. Try Memoir, try Women, Native American, the Arts.” Pick up Ingrid Pollard, she said, the black photographer from England who created a book called Pastoral Interlude, which placed black people on the British landscape. “How different it looks with a black person there.”
Try sci-fi and sci-fi film, she said. “It opens up worlds of imagination. Elysium, for instance, or “World War Z,” a movie based on the book by Max Brooks. (“The movie didn’t capture half of what he wrote.”) One of the things Finney loved about the original book, she said, was that Brooks thanked Studs Terkel in his preface, because he uses oral histories in the book. “The book has multiple characters from all over the world in conversation with each other,” she said, “and that made me think about place, nature, environment, people from different walks of life.” Macfarlane also looks here. In an email correspondence, he wrote, “Some of the most exciting thinking about identity and landscape seems to me to be happening in science fiction and speculative fiction, which I teach in these terms: the extraterrestrial pastoral as a means of radically rethinking notions of belonging and place.”
Finney lists Zora Neale Hurston and Sally Morgan. “Morgan thought she was white Australian, then learns she’s part Aboriginal. This changes her experience of place.” Her book, an autobiography called My Place, Finney says, “opened up my mind. Most of us are complex with what we carry down — family histories and personal histories.” She lists Belonging by bell hooks, saying that hooks has returned to Kentucky, the place she is from. “Belonging isn’t a long book, but it is deep; hooks explores the meaning of belonging to a place and the privilege inherent in that.” Finney recommends American Beach: A Saga of Race, Wealth, and Memory, by Russ Rymer. “That book was about nature and place, preserving and protecting the beach, the forest and the African American history in that place.” It is about MaVynee Betsch, who, in the words of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, “fought to save the world’s rain forests and the site of the Florida plantation on which her ancestors were slaves.”
Finney continues, listing A Rap on Race by James Baldwin and Margaret Mead, “arguably both brilliant people. A gay black man who was a writer and an artist, and a straight white woman who was an anthropologist.” “This book,” she said, “helped me think about difference and how we can have conversations across our differences.” She talks about Tupac Shakur’s The Rose that Grew from Concrete. “That’s why I would ask people to see more wildly. It’s there,” she says. “You just didn’t see it.”
Did you hear about the rose that grew
from a crack in the concrete?
Proving nature’s laws wrong it
learned to walk without having feet …
“In Literature it is only the wild that attracts us,” Thoreau once wrote. Finney is working on a book tentatively titled Desire Lines, an architectural term, she explains, that describes the paths we create when we walk in directions we are naturally drawn to — directions we desire, rather than those circumscribed — by a sidewalk, say, or a border or a wall. Desire lines are everywhere, if you look. “Storytelling,” she says, “is democratic at heart.”
Catherine K. Buni is a writer whose work has been published by The Atlantic online, Backpacker, The Millions, The New York Times, Outside, Orion, and The Rumpus, among others.
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).