Phillip LopateApr 16, 2021
The Golden Age of the American Essay
The three decades that followed World War II were an exceptionally fertile period for American essays. The explosion of journals and magazines, the rise of public intellectuals, and breakthroughs in the arts inspired a flowering of literary culture. At the same time, the many problems that confronted mid-century America--racism, sexism, nuclear threat, war, poverty, and environmental degradation among them--proved fruitful topics for America's best minds. In The Golden Age of the American Essay: 1945–1970 (Anchor Books, 2021), Phillip Lopate assembles a dazzling array of famous writers, critics, sociologists, theologians, historians, activists, theorists, humorists, poets, and novelists. Here are writers like James Agee, E. B. White, A. J. Liebling, and Mary McCarthy, adroitly pivoting from the comic indignities of daily life to world peace, boxing, and restaurants in Paris. Here is Norman Mailer on Jackie Kennedy and Vladimir Nabokov on Lolita. Here is Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail," alongside Richard Hofstadter's "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" and Flannery O'Connor's "Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction." Here are Gore Vidal, Rachel Carson, James Baldwin, Susan Sontag, John Updike, Joan Didion, and many more, in a treasury of brilliant writing that has stood the test of time.
Zach McCulley (@zamccull) is a historian of religion and literary cultures in early modern England and PhD candidate in History at Queen's University Belfast.