A NEW HISTORY OF THE ESSAY: THE ANTHOLOGIES OF JOHN D'AGATA

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READ JOHN D'AGATA'S INTRODUCTION AND JAMES WOOD'S FOREWORD TO THE SERIES HERE.

 

Since 2003, essayist John D’Agata has been exploring the contours of the essay through a series of innovative, informative, and expansive anthologies that have become foundational texts in the study of the genre. With today's publication of The Making of the American Essay, this exhilarating project comes to a conclusion, assembling all three anthologies under the title A New History of the Essay. Across this series (which also includes The Lost Origins of the Essay and The Next American Essay), D’Agata’s introductions to each of his selections—intimate and brilliantly provocative throughout—serve as an extended treatise, collectively forming the backbone of the entire project. And now D'Agata has also created a companion text (accessible HERE as well as on the For Educators page) that introduces the series, addresses the origins of the word “non-fiction,” and offers a concordance of essays organized by mode, forms, and themes. It is the perfect entry-point to A New History of the Essay, conveying both the eloquence and the urgency with which D'Agata engages with the essay form. "Let floods come, let dreams come, let something unexpected overtake us and make us new," D'Agata tells us. "The world, we all know, is already a nonfiction. Let the essay be what we make of it."

 

“For well over a decade now, John D’Agata has been the renovator-in-chief of the American essay. As practitioner and theorist, writer and anthologist, as example and the enabler of examples, D’Agata has refused to yield to the idea of non-fiction as stable, fixed, already formed. . . . Instead, he has pushed the essay to yield more of itself, to find within itself an enactment of its own etymology – an essaying, a trying, a perpetual attempt at something (after the French verb essayer, to try). He has emphasized that the essay should make, and not merely take; that it should gamble with the fictive and not just trade in the real; that it should entertain uncertainty as often as it hosts opinion; that the essay can be as lyrical, as fragmented, as self-interrupting, and as self-conscious as the most experimental fiction or verse. . . . ‘Let the essay be what we make of it,’ is D’Agata’s refrain, and his three large anthologies have made good on that promise.”—James Wood, from the foreword

 

“John D’Agata is America’s most intellectually eloquent reader of the essay. His passion for the form has led him to search for and discover a treasure trove of what the genre is capable of. With this third and final volume of his long labor of love he gives us a defining work of reference that will serve generations to come of essay readers the world over.”—Vivian Gornick

 

“John D’Agata is a groundbreaking literary activist. It is due to him and these anthologies that the most exciting writing today is happening in the realm of nonfiction, in particularly the realm of the essay, which he has, near-single-handedly, rescued from the literary dustbin and turned into a vital contemporary art form. A New History of the Essay is essential reading for anyone interested in the future of nonfiction.”—Heidi Julavits

 

“John D’Agata has given our civilization an inexhaustible gift with his three massive compendia of the recent past, the remote past, and the ingenious present and speculative future of the essay. Monumental and intellectually and imaginatively generous, these books are not only absorbing reading but wonderful examples of how, in the right hands, the act of anthologizing becomes an art in its own right.”—Vijay Seshadri

 

“John D’Agata’s alternative histories of the essay are anthologies in the same way the aurora borealis is actually a bunch of charged collisions; in his books we get to see pieces of art crash against his own restless brilliance. In this third installment, he is once more a stunning curator, giving us the story of the American essay as a strange, nimble creature—vexed and incandescent in its uncertainties, constantly surprising in its negotiations of anguish, mischief, and awe. Here we find ancient varieties of wonder and doubt provisionally fleshed in captivity tales and curiosity cabinets; we find silence and insomnia, blood and swollen moons. This American history is also a history of unknowing itself: a record of the human impulse to metabolize the world and a record of this impulse continually meeting the world’s infinitudes.”—Leslie Jamison

 

“Please, if the world gets blown to smithereens tomorrow, let this series be the one that tells the next civilization all that we thought and dreamt and said. John D’Agata has done something truly remarkable here: as archivist and archaeologist, as artist and impresario of the purest literary form—the essay—he has left a dazzling record of, as he puts it, ‘our human wondering.’ A New History of the Essay is learned and idiosyncratic, addictive and wildly entertaining. It belongs on every shelf.”—Michael Paterniti

 

“It’s clear that the past fifteen-or-so years saw a rethinking and a rebirth of the essay, and equally clear that John D’Agata’s work was essential in both. He pushed the form forward with one hand and extended our grasp of its roots with the other. He remains as exciting to read as to argue with, and his hunting in the worlds of lost nonfiction has shown me many new writers and texts. The Making of the American Essay completes a series on the subject and brings the achievement of all three books into focus. It is major.”—John Jeremiah Sullivan

 

“At last The Making of the American Essay completes John D’Agata’s anthology series, A New History of the Essay. Here the crucial middle years—how we got here—have been filled in, and we can understand anew just how the essay, our American essay, has grown and lived and been written and rewritten. This canon-making is a major undertaking and an astonishing act of literary generosity for which we all should be grateful. As D’Agata puts it, ‘The world, we all know, is already a nonfiction. Let the essay be what we make of it.’ Emphasis on the make—these are the essays we have made, and of these essays we are made—but also on the we. The essay may be a solo thing, but these are songs for all of us to sing.”—Ander Monson

 

“Nothing could be sweeter than another hugely ambitious and visionary gathering of essays from John D’Agata and Graywolf. In the preceding anthologies I’ve sat in my chair and circled the world, sought out the past, and looked into the future. Now set squarely in America, once again the essay, that most humble and solitary of forms, finds its epic account, rising out of a flood and sweeping toward a horizon of ellipses, a leaving off and a farewell that generously makes room . . . for more . . . more of our voices, more of our shapes, more of our secrets and uncertainties, more of the teeming and inventive energy inside the simplest facts . . . and more of us, reader and writer alike, because in the end this wild and wandering epic is our song to sing.”—Charles D’Ambrosio