An eclectic anthology of 55 essays chosen by Oates (Blonde, p. 11, etc.) comprising a generous selection of less known but deserving work from mostly big-name writers.
The collection is intended to be a greatest-hits volume of the 20th-century American essay and to stand as a companion to The Best American Essays franchise, which has been published annually since 1986. The essays included here cover the years from 1901 to 1997 and are arranged chronologically according to their original date of publication. In her introduction, Oates explains her ambitions as an editor: she tackled the project from the point of view of a literary conservator, trying to preserve worthy essays from the forgetfulness of history and vagaries of literary fashion. In order to make the task of selecting from a century's worth of writing manageable, Oates set out strict criteria: eliminating the work of writers who did not publish at least one volume of nonfiction during their career (thus ousting any one-hit-wonders), as well as those who wrote journalism or reportage. In this regard Oates self-consciously avoids creating a chronicle of the past century and, instead, collects an array of emotional journeys and obsessions. According to this formula, essays about of race and identity easily come to dominate: Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail," James Baldwin's "Notes of a Native Son," and Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" stand out. A further eight essays also take race as their topic. Other major themes include science and nature, social change, artistic endeavor, and the struggle against nostalgia. Browsing the titles indicates that only a few touchstone essays are included, although most selections have been extracted from nonfiction books whose titles are better known. As a whole, the anthology does not deliver on the grandiose promise of its title. Instead, it delivers the "Best" essays not frequently anthologized. With so few surprises and most of the selections coming from the usual suspects, the overall effect is underwhelming.
Above average, but definitely not the "Best."