A literary anthology and textbook incorporating some three dozen presumably teachable essays—some of which are not essays at all.
Why would Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony: The United States (1934), a classic of modernist poetry, figure in an anthology devoted to the essay? We’ll never know, apart from the whispery suggestion that the poem had its origins in court transcripts that were then broken into lines of verse “to accentuate common speech”—thus, presumably, qualifying as an essay. But what of T.S. Eliot’s “Dry Salvages,” the third of his famed four quartets? Again, D’Agata (Creative Writing/Univ. of Iowa; About a Mountain, 2010, etc.) offers an indistinct distinction in which an essay is presumably a piece that addresses “how each of us individually processes perception, how experience is layered, and knowledge uncertain.” At this point, Montaigne would be reaching for his rapier. The value added to an anthology of any sort is the interpretation of the pieces that make it up on top of whatever rarity or literary quality they might have. In this regard, the editor’s glancing notes are far from useful; although admittedly poetic and spiritually embracing, his remark that the book finds its contents “situated as essays always are between chance and contrivance, between the given and the made” is completely unhelpful. As for rarity? Any anthology that includes Henry David Thoreau’s “Walking,” available in dozens of other anthologies and hundreds of websites, lacks vigor; several hundred pages are in the public domain and readily available elsewhere. What about literary quality? In that regard, the anthology shines, for there are some very good things, including selections from the captivity narratives (not essays, mind you) of Mary Rowlandson, albeit without meaningful interpretation of her place in literary history; from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s now little-read The Crack-Up, ditto; and from Gay Talese’s essential but still already much-reprinted “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.”
The editors of the Norton anthologies need not worry: their position in literature and in the market remains secure.