The Book of Twentieth-Century Essays

Ian Hamilton, Editor
Ian Hamilton, Editor Fromm International $30 (576p) ISBN 978-0-88064-251-4
Reviewed on: 09/04/2000
Release date: 09/01/2000
Paperback - 576 pages - 978-0-88064-274-3
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This substantial collection represents the best written in the English language during the past century. Hamilton (Walking Possession; The Trouble with Money) offers a decidedly British bent, including some essayists whom American readers may not immediately think of but who certainly belong in the pantheon of modern essayists--such as A.P. Herbert writing on why ""the whole attitude of modern civilization to the bathroom is wrong,"" and G.K. Chesterton on how ""the average woman... is a despot; the average man is a serf."" Also included are Virginia Woolf, Aldous Huxley, Lytton Strachey, V.S. Naipaul and Julian Barnes. Many other selections, while familiar, are often interestingly juxtaposed: Norman Mailer's ""The White Negro"" directly follows James Baldwin's ""Notes of a Native Son,"" and Kingsley Amis's ""Why Are You Telling Me All This?"" is followed by Joan Didion's ""Goodbye to All That."" In the foreword, Hamilton defines loosely what an essay is: ""The only rule I can think of is that an essay must always be conscious of its wordage."" He also mentions a few organizing principles to this anthology: ""a drift away from the essay-as-performance,"" essays that ""tend to be about the twentieth century."" He makes clear that a sense of irony, a mind for detail and a certain freedom from ideology are paramount virtues for the essayist. With the pendulum of literary attention swinging towards American writers of the 20th century, this anthology helps to check the gradual (yet insidious) collective forgetting of where our literary models have come from. (Sept.)
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