What is an anthology? It is always a little too much and a bit too little. Too much, I mean, in particularly physical terms. The anthologies I own -- "The Oxford Anthology of British Literature," "The Best American Short Stories of the Century" -- are prodigious volumes, not the little bouquets of verse denoted by the Greek anthologia. I leave them on my shelves. Sometimes, when I want to exert myself, I go over to where they sit next to the dictionaries and the grammarian handbooks. Otherwise, they sit dusty while I type something into Google. In the Internet Age, the weight of words has ripened into a quaint phrase.
John D'Agata's "The Lost Origins of the Essay" is an anthology that declares itself in poundage. And yet, however voluminous, no anthology is ever quite sufficient. Such books are always digests. Here, texts -- complete or excerpted -- are sequenced chronologically or thematically, each with a 100- to 300-word introduction. The selections seem preordained.
As bumptious as this may sound, the enthusiasms of "The Lost Origins of the Essay" are generous and eclectic. It is less compendious, more investigative. But, I wonder, are the origins of the essay truly lost? Indeed, the essay is an elusive form (we are better off avoiding the term "genre") that has suffered from a chronic inferiority complex. It is underrated, undersold, misunderstood, misshelved -- or so goes the common complaint of the essayist. But then, whether philosopher or memoirist or observer, the essayist has an ill temper if not a troubled heart. Dissatisfaction is her characteristic affect.
Perhaps I should have begun with a different question: What is an essay? Theodor Adorno, whose meta-essay on the subject does not find its way into D'Agata's collection, offers one answer: "Luck and play are essential to it. It starts . . . with what it wants to talk about; it says what occurs to it . . . and stops when it feels finished rather than when there is nothing to say. Hence it is classified as a trivial endeavor."
"The Lost Origins of the Essay" is not trivial. "Six thousand years ago, in the middle of the desert," the book begins, in an introductory note to the reader, "an industrious and lucky tribe lived where two rivers converged." We are in Sumer, where writing was invented. Here we are in profound pursuit.
What proceeds are dialogues and character sketches, spiritual memoirs and satires, lists of aphorisms and immoderately long fantasies. There are authors we'd find in any short history of world literature -- Seneca and Plutarch, Montaigne (naturally), Kenko, Basho, Virginia Woolf, Octavio Paz, Natalia Ginzburg. The titles that startle us here are not obscure works, only misplaced: Borges' "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" and Clarice Lispector's "The Egg and the Chicken" are indisputably fictions. William Blake's "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" is strange (and marvelous!) but poetry nonetheless.
Yet easily I forget these categories, delighted to discover Christopher Smart's "My Cat Jeoffrey," to read again of Francis Ponge's "Pebble" -- "Split off from the fundamental mass, it rolls, it blows about, it demands a place on the surface, and all life withdraws from the dreary stretches where, turn and turn again, it is dispersed and reassembled in the frenzy of despair." It blows about . . . but this is not a rescue of the unclassifiable and discarded. So what is lost?
As an anthology, "The Lost Origins of the Essay" quickly fails to be one. There are no reliable introductions, no justification for the abrupt geographical shifts, no pretense toward classification. There is not even an index. But read as an extended essay on the essay, the book is associative, meandering, full of propositions and counter-propositions.
And D'Agata is the central persona: the editor-inquisitor or, better, our impassioned, distracted tour guide. Between selections, he interposes his own meditations on the essay. Some are useful: "[T]he essay is the equivalent of a mind in rumination," he writes in one early note, "performing as if improvisationally the reception of new ideas, the discovery of unknowns, the encounter with the 'other.' " Some reach for pith, as in "every essay is a journey of a thought into risk." Still, as ardently as D'Agata persuades us that the essay is something vital and necessary, that creative minds have been essaying since the beginning -- and as eager as I am to agree with him and to follow him into each excellent selection -- I am, I must admit, a bit disoriented by his effort to dislodge our prejudices against "nonfiction."
Susan Sontag once observed that when we isolate style in a work of art, we are really debating the ethical and political. Similarly, I wonder if the insecurity over genre here might betray other anxieties -- questions of how we read and why; concerns about the specialization of literary study, the institutionalization of creative writing, the deplorable state of the sentence. At the heart of D'Agata's argument is the idea that we've forgotten the essay can and does do more than "dispense data." But instead, as he shows us, the essay thrives, the essay persists.
"The Lost Origins of the Essay" extends the project D'Agata began with a previous anthology, "The Next American Essay," in 2003. "By 'Next' is meant those essays that will be inspired by these," he wrote at the end of that collection of contemporary pieces. In this new work, he champions those more historical writers who dreamed of something new, who tried to write out of their own time.
"I am here in search of art," D'Agata announces. "I am here to track the origins of an alternative to commerce." Perhaps this is why he specially critiques the 18th and 19th century periodical writer, the essayist qua essayist a la William Hazlitt or Addison and Steele, who, "relegat[ed] the essay to a kind of literary transaction."
Regardless, D'Agata is expressly uninterested in masters of formula. The essay does its best work, he wants to argue, when it is discomfiting and not readily defensible, which is to say when it is wearing a disguise.