Book Review: The Lost Origins of the Essay

The Lost Origins of the EssayJohn D’Agata, editorGraywolf Press, 2009Readers who remember John D’Agata’s first anthology, The Next American Essay, might cringe at the return of its Dave Eggers-style arrogance. “By ‘Next’ is meant those essays that will be inspired by these,” that collection declared. “By ‘American,’ of course, I mean not the nation. And by ‘Essay,’ I mean a verb.” And by “arrogant,” I mean a boy who sees fit to instruct his readers on the meanings of words in common usage, but The Next American Essay nevertheless was a superb anthology, leaping with life, full of lurid juxtapositions. So at the appearance of D’Agata’s follow-up volume, The Lost Origins of the Essay (again very handsomely produced by Graywolf Press), there’s dread mixed with anticipation.The dread starts with the thing’s title. Who preens enough to use “lost origins” in an essay collection that features Francis Bacon, Virginia Woolf, and, God help us, Montaigne? Where’s the “lost” in that, considering the presence of such fixtures in every single essay anthology ever made? And the author isn’t helping things any, intoning about his title “Because I think having a broader sense of history can inspire a deeper sense of identity.” Yeesh. Granted, he’s not a boy anymore, but still – even old men don’t talk like that if they want to be taken seriously.But once again, the ‘nevertheless’ follows right after – The Lost Origins of the Essay is a big, brilliant, absolutely invigorating anthology. Its net is cast much wider than in the first volume, for D’Agata’s conception here is that almost all narrative nonfiction that isn’t explicitly history comprises the “lost origins” (or, more properly, “long origins”) of the essay form we know today. So there are odd extracts from Sumer and Babylonia, as well as bits from Heraclitus, Theophrastus, Plutarch, and Seneca (the last three of which, we’re told, were translated by the editor). Africa is represented, as is China – and Japan, where the delightful Sei Shonagon (“she is gossipy, bitchy, snobby, fun,” D’Agata writes, “A complainer, a bragger, a tease, a sap”) gets her say. We come to Italy and approach the Renaissance and perhaps more well-trod ground; there’s Petrarch (also, we’re told, and perhaps we now blink in wonder, translated by the editor), a long rumination by Montaigne on Virgil, a refreshing inclusion of the great Thomas Browne, a travelogue by Basho, Swift’s oft-anthologized (but no less brilliant for it) “A Modest Proposal,” and 500 more pages of smartly chosen, wonderfully arranged stuff.There’s plenty of experimentation here, a deep cosmopolitan breath of inclusion, and some winding-up remarks by John Berger, Lisa Robertson, and Samuel Beckett (whose “Afar a Bird,” we’re told – and by this point we’re either too skeptical or too tired to resist – is translated by the editor). The end result is much akin to The Next American Essay: sometimes infuriating, always thought-provoking, and ultimately very, very satisfying. Whatever John D’Agata’s other talents may be (raconteur, one fears, and polymath – and linguist! Let’s not forget that), he’s one hell of an editor.