The Golden Age of the American Essay: 1945–1970

Anchor Books Apr. 2021. 544p. ISBN 9780525567332. pap. $17.95. LIT
In selecting these 40 essays, Lopate’s (To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction) goal was to convey the quality and variety of texts published over a 25-year period. The collection begins with James Agee’s “The Nation: Democratic Vistas,” which explains the expectations of some Americans at the end of World War II. Other topics include religion, such as Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Humor and Faith,” and by contrast, Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” which reflects on religion’s responses to U.S. elections. Although published in 1964, Hofstadter’s essay begins with a sentence that could have been written in the 21st century: “American politics have often been an arena for angry minds.” The collection includes essays by James Baldwin (“Stranger in the Village”) and Martin Luther King Jr. (“Letter from a Birmingham Jail”), but it mostly focuses on white male authors like Paul Goodman and Saul Bellow. Other essays include Norman Mailer’s thoughts on Jackie Kennedy and Rachel Carson’s condemnation of pesticides.
VERDICT In this collection, readers might see the value of the essay format as a way to share opinions. Lopate’s collection is a worthwhile slice of the history of the essay and its lasting contribution to American writing.
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