A rewarding collection from the annual Pushcart Prize anthology series, now numbering 25 volumes.
Founded by editor Bill Henderson in the mid-1970s, the Pushcart Prize honored what he considered to be the best offerings from the country’s small presses and literary journals. The period, writes volume editor Brandt, corresponds with “a remarkable rebirth of both the art and the prestige of the essay,” and this gathering speaks very ably indeed to the power of a well-crafted piece of nonfiction to speak volumes in a short space. It begins, strangely, with one of the few clunkers, a diffuse piece on street life on the Mexican border that is long on idiom and local color but short on point; from there, however, the book quickly gathers steam. Brandt’s selections are nicely balanced, mixing work by men and women, by academics and nonacademics, by established and beginning writers; many of the contributions, including both personal and critical pieces, have gone on to appear in other anthologies and collections of the individual authors’ works. Among the many highlights are Leslie Fiedler’s nicely peevish essay “Literature and Lucre,” about just that; Clark Blaise’s longish reflection on growing up Canadian, “Memories of Unhousement”; Donald Hall’s widely cited manifesto “Literature and Ambition,” Joyce Carol Oates’s thoughtful “Notes on Failure”; and Lewis Hyde’s remarkable “Two Accidents,” about the role of chance in art and life. Some of the best work, however, comes from writers who are largely unknown outside the small-press orbit: Irma Wallem’s touching essay “Sex,” set in a nursing home; Thomas Lynch’s “Jessica, the Hound, and the Basket Trade,” which gives readers an insider’s view of the mortician’s lot; and Lars Eighner’s spirited, punkish “On Dumpster Diving,” which reveals the treasures to be found in a grocery store’s trash.
Fine bedside reading, and a better-than-average textbook for composition students.