There are certain historical periods when the essay suddenly comes to the fore, and is popular and talked about and relevant, before sinking back into a more typical commercially wan state. The post-World War II period and the decades that followed (1945–1970) were an exceptionally fertile period for American essays. One would have to go back to the mid-19th century American Renaissance of Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, and Margaret Fuller to find a comparable flowering.
Just to give some idea of the range and talent of the essayists in that era: there were masters of the form such as James Baldwin, E.B. White, Elizabeth Hardwick, Susan Sontag, and Edmund Wilson; critics in literature, film, painting, and dance such as Lionel Trilling, Leslie Fiedler, Robert Warshow, Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Edwin Denby, James Agee, Manny Farber, Parker Tyler, Pauline Kael, and Irving Howe; policy pundits such as Walter Lippmann and George F. Kennan; theologians on the order of Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr; novelists who moonlighted as essayists, including Norman Mailer, Mary McCarthy, Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, John Updike, Flannery O’Connor, and Gore Vidal; poet-essayists like Randall Jarrell; social scientists and historians, including Robert K. Merton, Margaret Mead, Erving Goffman, Richard Hofstadter, and David Riesman; nature and science writers like Loren Eiseley, Rachel Carson, Edward Hoagland, Annie Dillard, and Lewis Thomas; the food writers M.F.K. Fisher and A.J. Liebling; and New Journalists Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and Seymour Krim.
Why should this proliferation of the essay have occurred at this particular moment? One could offer several explanations. At war’s end, the United States was positioned as the dominant world power, which gave its writers a responsibility to reflect and criticize, with the vanity or expectation that the world would listen. The presence of European émigré thinkers who had fled fascism, such as Hannah Arendt, Theodor Adorno, Nicola Chiaromonte, and Thomas Mann, had raised the intellectual bar and invited a more cosmopolitan perspective, and a wish to emulate that sophisticated continental discourse. The figure of the public intellectual, who would be expected to transmit and explain complex ideas, was in ascension.
The general public was willing to take instruction from learned commentators without bristling; for example, poets John Ciardi and Kenneth Rexroth introduced their readers to masterpieces of world literature in their periodical columns. In tandem was the proliferation of weeklies, little magazines, and quarterlies that welcomed such voices, such as Partisan Review, Commentary, The Paris Review, Saturday Review, The New York Review of Books, The New Leader, The Hudson Review, The Village Voice, and The New Yorker. Even established mass-market journals like Esquire, Harper’s, Vogue, and Playboy, not to mention newspapers, all romanced the essay for a while. The astounding growth of American universities and colleges in the postwar era nourished academic disciplines and provided freelance writers and scholars with a living, with the proviso that they “publish or perish.”
Meanwhile, the tensions that rippled through the postwar era and beyond cried out for interpretation and commentary. There was the Cold War with the Soviet Union and its side effect, McCarthyism, which elicited heated debate when it did not provoke silence and fear; the armed conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, and the nuclear threat hovering over everyone; the enduring problems of racism, sexism, poverty, and ecological degradation; the clash between puritanical family values and sexual freedom—all of which spawned the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, and the environmental, gay rights, and antiwar movements, and their attendant essayistic formulations.
But let’s go back to the start of the postwar era and try to disentangle these strands. The jubilation that followed the defeat of the Axis powers was widespread. As Anatole Broyard described it in Kafka Was the Rage: “Nineteen forty-six was a good time—perhaps the best time—in the 20th century. The war was over, the Depression had ended, and everyone was rediscovering the simple pleasures. A war is like an illness and when it’s over you think you’ve never felt so well. There’s a terrific sense of coming back, of repossessing your life.” There was also newfound pride in the nation’s position: the 20th century was dubbed “the American Century” and New York City, home to the newly established United Nations, referred to as “the capital of the world.”
It’s odd, in retrospect, to consider how short-lived that era of good feeling was. It fell swiftly to anxiety. By 1948 the threat of an expansionist Soviet Union had given rise to the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, intended to ferret out Communists or fellow travelers in the Hollywood community, and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s probes of alleged spies in the federal government soon followed. The Republican Party, which had been locked out of power during President Franklin Roosevelt’s and Harry Truman’s five terms of office, saw anti-Communism as both a patriotic issue and an opportunity to begin to roll back the New Deal’s social programs. The anti-Stalinist Left was torn between acknowledging the Soviet Union’s threat and deploring wholesale attacks on radicals’ speech.
Some of the anxiety and malaise that took hold of the country can be seen as a hangover from the tragedies surrounding World War II. Norman Mailer put it this way in his 1957 essay “The White Negro”: “Probably, we will never be able to determine the psychic havoc of the concentration camp and the atomic bomb upon the unconscious mind of almost everyone in those years… The Second World War presented a mirror to the human condition which blinded everyone who looked into it. For if tens of millions were killed in concentration camps… if society was so murderous, then who could ignore the most hideous of questions about his own nature? Worse. One could hardly maintain the courage to be individual, to speak with one’s own voice, for the years in which one could complacently accept oneself as part of an elite by being a radical were forever gone. A man knew that when he dissented, he gave a note upon his life which could be called in any year of overt crisis. No wonder then that these have been years of conformity and depression. A stench of fear has come out of every pore of American life, and we suffer from a collective failure of nerve.”
For Mailer, there were only two choices: the meek Organization Man, and the existential outlaw-hipster living in the margins of society. The 1950s, especially during General Eisenhower’s two terms as president, 1953–1961, have been called “the Age of Conformity,” to quote the title of Irving Howe’s essay. I think that the era’s level of conformity can be overstated: there were many contrarian and critical voices at the time among the nation’s essayists. Certainly, however, the collapse of the Old Left, not just because of McCarthyite persecution of members of the Communist Party but also because of an increasing awareness of Stalin’s murderous regime, meant that Soviet-style Marxism came to be seen as “the God that failed.” That left most American writers and intellectuals pretty much in agreement, united behind a liberal consensus.
Call it a collective failure of nerve or a realistic adjustment, as you wish. In any case, Lionel Trilling, in the introduction to his book The Liberal Imagination, went so far as to say: “In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. This does not mean, of course, that there is no impulse to conservatism or to reaction. Such impulses are certainly very strong, perhaps even stronger than most of us know. But the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”
Before considering whether Trilling was correct in saying this, or for how long it would continue to be correct, let us remember he was writing it in 1950, before the word “liberal” was attacked and disparaged by both Left and Right. There is also the problem of what exactly is meant by “liberalism.” As Stefan Collini has written, “the term has been thrown around in such various and contested ways that it has become more or less unusable unless one specifies temporal and geographical boundaries quite closely.” Collini points out that in the United Kingdom, “liberal” is associated with free-trade economics, whereas in the United States it is often applied to “progressive and redistributive policies.” I am using it here in the sense of advocating progressive reform, not revolution. One such tenet of that progressive ideology was advocating for pluralism and difference, for ensuring the rights of all minority groups and equal access to the goods of society.
The defeat of the Nazis positioned America in the postwar era as a potential beacon of tolerance. It seemed an auspicious moment to complete the project of American democracy by rooting out inequalities and arriving at a benign acceptance of all who comprised “the Family of Man” (to cite the title of a popular fifties photography exhibit). Message films of the day, such as Gentleman’s Agreement, Crossfire, and Home of the Brave, sought to point out the absurdity and perniciousness of anti-Semitism and racism. The sociologist Robert K. Merton, who invented the “self-fulfilling prophecy” concept in a 1948 essay of the same name, demonstrated the illogic of racial and religious bias. Mary McCarthy’s depiction of the bigoted colonel in her essay “Artists in Uniform” did the same by way of personal narrative. These were all instances of what I am calling the liberal consensus.
It could even be argued that there is a symbiotic relationship between essayism—the practice or ideology of essay writing—and liberalism. My point is not to defend liberalism as a political philosophy but simply to show a mutually beneficial overlap between its temperament and that of the essay. Some attributes with which essays are often associated include skepticism, self-skepticism or thinking against oneself, open-ended speculation, freedom, adaptability, avoidance of system, and refusal of dogmatism. The essay seeks out the middle way. The impulse toward moderation goes all the way back to Montaigne, whom Trilling cited as the ideal for the liberal critic and who was always staking out equanimity and avoidance of extremes. As was Emerson, who said, “I think I have not the common degree of sympathy with dark, turbid, mournful, passionate natures… Very hard it is to keep the middle point. It is a very narrow line.”
To quote William H. Gass: “this lack of fanaticism, this geniality in the thinker, this sense of the social proprieties involved (the essay can be polemical but never pushy) are evidence of how fully aware the author is of the proper etiquette for meeting minds… If there is too much earnestness, too great a need to persuade, a want of correct convictions in the reader is implied, and therefore an absence of community.” Theodor Adorno, who declared that “the innermost form of the essay is heresy,” nevertheless insisted that “the essay does not strive for closed, deductive, or inductive, construction… The essay… proceeds so to speak methodically unmethodically.”
One of the potential weaknesses of liberalism, according to Trilling, is that in the interests of “a general enlargement and freedom and rational direction of human life,” it privileges the mind at the expense of the emotions and does not make enough allowance for dark, demonic, terrible, and mystical forces. In this way, too, I see a connection between liberalism and essayism. I suspect that the modern essay, unlike other modernist literature, shies away from the unconscious, the irrational, the violent or emotionally raw, and seems more at home in the appeal to common sense. Even those pleasurably perverse, cranky essays that seek to undermine an apparent good or defend an ostensible evil do so by employing a measured irony that allows the reader to glimpse both sides. Even writers such as Irving Howe and Susan Sontag who identified themselves as radicals wrote essays in a traditionally thoughtful, even-tempered, and persuasive manner, rather than an aesthetically avant-garde or emotionally extreme one.
Irving Howe, in his essay “This Age of Conformity,” was very wary of the liberal consensus, finding it too smug, cautious, and protective of the status quo. He thought that intellectuals had been bought off by employment in the “mass culture industries and the academy” and were losing their critical independence. “We have all,” he wrote, “even the handful who still try to retain a glower of criticism, become responsible and moderate.” He also disagreed with Trilling’s optimistic view that there had been an overall improvement in the cultural standards of America, through the spread of higher education, paperbacks, and high-brow tips in periodicals. Howe saw a dilution and vulgarization: “It seems to me that, thus far at least, in the encounter between high and middle culture, the latter has come off by far the better.” He was not alone. During the fifties and early sixties, many essayists regarded themselves as gatekeepers, guardians of standards that they warned were being eroded by the barbarian middlebrows.
Randall Jarrell, in his essay “The Sad Heart at the Supermarket,” discerned what he saw as pop culture’s vampiric relation to high culture, one that pandered to the lowest common denominator. So did Dwight Macdonald in his screeds against the middlebrow. In Macdonald’s words: “It is sometimes called ‘Popular Culture,’ but I think ‘Mass Culture’ a more accurate term, since its distinctive mark is that it is solely and directly an article for mass consumption, like chewing gum.” Consumerism, driven by Madison Avenue ad agencies, was seen as inducing a hypnotized sheeplike populace. Robert Warshow worried in an essay that his son might become too attached to comic books. Harold Rosenberg not only dissected mass culture’s dependence on intellectuals but took potshots at Warshow, Trilling, and Edmund Wilson.The essay seeks out the middle way. The impulse toward moderation goes all the way back to Montaigne, whom Trilling cited as the ideal for the liberal critic and who was always staking out equanimity and avoidance of extremes.
It was common practice then for public intellectuals to criticize each other, like members of a quarreling family. If that made for some nasty competitiveness, it also showed that ideas were taken seriously enough to be tested in written debate. This was particularly true for the group, largely Jewish, that was centered around Partisan Review, the New York Intellectuals. Their approach was shrewdly anatomized by Irving Howe, himself one of them: “In their published work during these years, the New York intellectuals developed a characteristic style of exposition and polemic. With some admiration and a bit of irony, let us call it the style of brilliance. The kind of essay they wrote was likely to be wide-ranging in reference, melding notions about literature and politics, sometimes announcing itself as a study of a writer or literary group but usually taut with a pressure to ‘go beyond’ its subject, toward some encompassing moral or social observation. It is a kind of writing highly self-conscious in mode, with an unashamed vibration of bravura. Nervous, strewn with knotty or flashy phrases, impatient with transitions and other concessions to dullness, calling attention to itself as a form or at least an outcry, fond of rapid twists, taking pleasure in dispute, dialectic, dazzle—such, at its best or most noticeable, was the essay cultivated by the New York writers.”
One thing to observe about the essays that dominated the postwar era on into the mid-1960s was the prevalence of a formal intellectual tone. Regardless of how their positions may have differed or how much they lambasted each other, they were all writing to show off their intelligence and learning. Though bristling with intended charisma, they still seemed attached to the impersonal ideal that T. S. Eliot had advocated in his famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Seymour Krim, a late arrival on the scene, described how difficult it could be for a young aspiring critic to adopt the approved manner: “For people of my age and bent… the whole PR [Partisan Review] phenomenon along with the Kenyon Review, the Sewanee, the Hudson Review… and all the others unfertilized into being by the Anglo-Protestant New Critical chill was a very bad, inhibiting, distorting, freakish influence. It made us ashamed to be what we were and the cruel acid of its standards tore through our writing and scarred our lives as well; in our prose we had to put on Englishy airs, affect all sorts of impressive scholarship and social register unnaturalness and in general contort ourselves into literary pretzels in order to slip through their narrow transoms and get into their pages.”
In the sixties, that high formal tone of Trilling or Gore Vidal that had signified quality in American nonfiction prose began to break down. Brasher vernacular voices emerged first among the New Journalists: Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, and Krim himself (who took inspiration from the Beats’ Jack Kerouac) put forward a flashy, no-holds-barred, jazzy, sometimes stream-of-consciousness style and an insistent way of inserting themselves as protagonists into the reported story. Even the more elegant New Journalism prose stylists, such as Joan Didion and Norman Mailer, proceeded from more subjective autobiographical assumptions. It would not be long before the essay genre itself became dominated by the personal essay. This shift away from the impersonal was in line with a growing distaste for the all-knowing authority of the public intellectual, who was perceived as academic or elitist.
Another outcropping of more casual, unbuttoned essay prose came from pop culture criticism. The staying power and inherent vitality of popular culture had outlasted the snobbish disdain of the gatekeepers and caused writers everywhere, even in the academy, to take it more seriously. In step with the sixties’ explosion of youth culture and the antiwar movement, pop culture was looked to as a source of rebellious energy, a weapon against the staid establishment. Susan Sontag expressed approval of the Beatles, rock ’n’ roll, and science fiction movies: the kids were all right. (Thirty years later, she had second thoughts: “To laud work condescended to then as ‘popular’ culture did not mean to conspire in the repudiation of high culture and its complexities… What I didn’t understand… was that seriousness itself was in the early stages of losing credibility in the culture at large, and that some of the more transgressive art I was enjoying would reinforce frivolous, merely consumerist transgressions.”)
In retrospect, you might say it was a trade-off: essayists no longer felt obliged to demonstrate their intellectual bona fides, which unleashed a new vitality into their prose even as it cut them off from a conversation with the ancestral traditions of the form. Throughout history, essayists have conversed with each other in dialogues that might span decades or centuries. Montaigne quoted Seneca, Plutarch, and Cicero; William Hazlitt wrote an appreciation of Montaigne; Virginia Woolf wrote about Hazlitt and Montaigne, and so on. The essay tradition has been a linked conversation, an invitation to form friendship with the reader and to affirm or joust with one’s fellow essayists. So Susan Sontag wrote a beautiful eulogy to Paul Goodman about their failed friendship; James Baldwin wrote a searching analysis of his relationship with Richard Wright, which shifted from mentor to peer to one of ruefully alienated affection.It could even be argued that there is a symbiotic relationship between essayism—the practice or ideology of essay writing—and liberalism.
Minorities were drawn to the essay form as a useful way to define and refine group identity, to embrace or situate oneself at a distance from the tribe. Gerald Early has shrewdly analyzed this linkage: “It is not surprising that many Black writers have been attracted to the essay as a literary form since the essay is the most exploitable mode of the confession and the polemic, the two variants of the essay that Black writers have mostly used. (Few Black writers have written what might be strictly called belles lettres-style essays.) The conditions under which many Black writers felt they had to write (and live), and their coming to terms with these conditions, have constituted their most driving intellectual obsession. Thus, the Black essay has been, in truth, a political provocation and a flawed example, if not a full representation, of a philosophical rumination even if the work itself was sometimes entangled in a wealth of sociological detail.
Black writers could not help but see their writing as political, since they saw their condition in these terms and their writing and their condition have been largely inseparable.” Early goes on to say that much of this writing had been done by a bourgeois elite, who were often driven out of guilt to romanticize “the poverty culture of lower- or under-class Blacks,” and who found themselves caught between speaking for the African American experience but often not to the majority of Blacks. This may partly explain the prose styles of a James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, or Albert Murray, who incorporated rhetorical Anglicisms, qualifying interjections, and ornate syntax—all of which was expected of essayists—while adding gritty, colloquial tonalities from the blues and the street.
The civil rights movement was given its most direct articulation by Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and his “I Have a Dream” and anti–Vietnam War speeches. Though these may have taken shape initially as speeches or letters, they were in fact essays in the classical sense, circling their subject matter with complexity, doubt, and interrogation. James Baldwin passionately articulated the anger, sorrow, and disappointment of African Americans and their despair at the poor condition of ghetto neighborhoods, at the same time as he put forward a self-portrait of stunning specificity. Meanwhile, Ralph Ellison and his friend and fellow Harlem writer Albert Murray took friendly issue with Baldwin for overstressing the miseries of Blacks in America and leaving out their joy, humor, creativity, and resilience.
Increasingly during this period, women came to the fore as essayists. They had long been underrepresented on publishers’ lists. Now they emerged as celebrated spokespersons for both gender and region. There were Southerners such as Flannery O’Connor and Elizabeth Hardwick, and a number of West Coast women—Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion—who moved east to claim their seat at Gotham’s table while expressing irritation at the smug provinciality of the New York intelligentsia. When the women’s movement caught fire in the 1970s, feminism was given ideological shape and urgent witness by essayists such as Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Vivian Gornick, and Andrea Dworkin. Earlier, Rachel Carson sounded the alarm about chemical pollution in her seminal book Silent Spring, and a whole generation of environmental essayists followed her lead.
Essays got talked about, as they still do. George F. Kennan’s “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro,” Leslie Fiedler’s “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!,” James Baldwin’s essays in The Fire Next Time, Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp,” Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” and many others were staples of dinner party conversation. As James Wolcott has stated, “essays can make news, excite the chattering classes, provoke op-eds, catch a cultural phenomenon in a butterfly net, clear away the deadwood of received opinion or simply make the reader privy to the writer’s thought processes and preoccupations.”
Not surprisingly, many of the era’s novelists took a crack at essay writing, especially when magazines enticed them with big paydays, sending them off to report on political conventions or sporting events. Some, including Ralph Ellison, Philip Roth, Flannery O’Connor, and William Styron, proved equally adept at both forms. Saul Bellow never put his full energies into essay writing, electing to save them for his essayistic fiction. Since essays have never enjoyed the same status as novels, writers who practiced both forms understandably preferred to be regarded primarily as novelists. That being said, it would seem that more than a few—James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, Mary McCarthy, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer—did their most lasting work in essays and extended nonfiction. The most lively, memorable, believable characters they created on the page were their essayistic I-narrators: Jimmy, Joan, Susan, Mary, Gore, Aquarius. Whether this outcome was because the novel had temporarily reached an impasse between played-out realism and overly tricky postmodernism, or because the turmoil of those postwar years and beyond was better suited to a form that encouraged quick response, the essay was having one of its moments.
From The Golden Age of the American Essay, edited by Phillip Lopate. Copyright © 2021 by Phillip Lopate. Reprinted by permission of Anchor Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.