cover image The Best American Essays of the Century

The Best American Essays of the Century

. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), $30 (544pp) ISBN 978-0-618-04370-5

""Here is a history of America told in many voices,"" declares Oates in her introduction, revealing the heart of her intelligent and incisive collection of 55 essays by American writers. Never attempting to capture or replicate a single, authentic ""American identity,"" this collection succeeds by producing a comprehensive and multifaceted look at what America has been and, by extension, what it is and might become. While it's not explicitly political, the volume's multicultural intentions are visible. Beginning with ""Cone-pone Opinions,"" a 1901 Mark Twain essay that uses the wisdom of an African-American child as its central image, Oates has fashioned a collection that calls attention to the way that ""America"" is made up of competing, and often antagonistic, cultural and social visions. There is not only the apparent contrast between the populist, overtly political visions of W.E.B. Du Bois's ""Of the Coming of John,"" James Baldwin's ""Notes of a Native Son"" and Mary McCarthy's ""Artists in Uniform"" and the cultural elitism of T.S. Eliot's ""Tradition and the Individual Talent."" Oates has managed to find numerous pieces whose vision and philosophy resonate with one another without becoming homogeneous, so Gretel Ehrlich's meditation on pastoral aesthetics in ""The Solace of Open Spaces"" contrasts abruptly and ingeniously with Susan Sontag's urban-centered ""Notes on Camp."" In all, Oates has assembled a provocative collection of masterpieces reflecting both the fragmentation and surprising cohesiveness of various American identities. QPB and History Book Club selections; BOMC alternate. (Sept.)