In reading Best American Essays of the Century edited by Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Atwen, I was disappointed by the 1960s essays. Of course, three of the essays are excellent: Martin Luther Kings's great argument "Letter from the Birmingham Jail," M. Scott Momaday's piece about his Kiowa grandmother "The Way to Rain Mountain," and Elizabeth Hardwick's moving piece of King's assassination "The Apotheosis of Marin Luther King."
There is a disappointing essay about Vietnam: Michael Herr's "Illumination Rounds." The brief biography at the end says Herr was a free-lance reporter in Vietnam whose reporting appeared in a book. Then the biography says the ludicrous statment, "Herr helped to imprint the war on the national consciousness." The war was already well imprinted on national consciousness before Herr stepped foot in Vietnam in 1968. Who writes this nonsense?
Herr's article is second rate reporting about soldiers he met and helicopter rides he took as he himself says as if he were "spectator to something that was part game part show." Herr refers to Graham Greene who wrote a superb novel The Quiet American about Americans in Vietnam in the mid-1959s. Greene was able to have an attitude shine through as to the idiocy of the U.S. enterprise in Vietnam in his novel and also created credible Vietnam characters. In contrast, Herr seems to avoid having an attitude and has no Vietnamese characters. Instead Herr gives us the U.S. imperial "I" of Vietnam missing Vietnamese. What Herr has is anecdotes of his meetings with various American soldiers written in this high modernist style where one--if one has taken college literature classes and can interpret imagery--can infer Herr's attitudes. It seemed to me that high modernist literary style was suited to imperialist discourse.
At the same time I read Norman Mailer's utterly astounding book-length essay Armies of the Night for the first time. Of course, Mailer's writing about his arrest in an anti-war demonstration at the Pentagon in October 1967 is a superb, and an exceprt should be included in any volume of best American essays. But Mailer as well as Lowel and Dwight McDonald and Paul Goodman and other middle aged writers all joined the young to protest and get arrested. Mailer nails what's wrong with many other middle aged writers--Philip Roth, Oates herself, Tom Wolf, Joan Didion--writing about the 1960s when he says he was at first upset with his youthful co-protestors because the youth had no sense of sin about sex or drugs. Often Roth, Wolf, Didion in their 1960s writings seem to be writing at a critical distance about out-of-control youth for their parents' generation. Writers who came of age in the 1940s and 1950s adapted to sexual and political repression--Roth is a great example--and hate the idea of youth without a sense of sin rebelling against sexual repression or political repression. Mailer is the exception. Mailer's attitude changes toward the youth when he spends time with them in jail-- and that change made this a great essays. He was no longer writer at a critical distance, no longer writing just for the middle aged but he is writing for everybody.
AlsoMailer was a soldier in World War II and has a Southern wife, so he's sympathetic not just to his fellow protestors--whether famous writers or young radicals--but also to solders and marshals guarding the Pentagon. His description of the few thousand protestors who, after 50,000 went home, stayed the night camping out at the Pentagon, is wonderful. The marshals beat them up and arrested them, but the few thousand stayed. Mailer says they went through a rite of passage as Americans had gone through from the American revolution to my father's rite of passage on his plane flying into France the day after D-day. I love Mailer's essay because he gets the anti-war movement.
Defintely the last 30 pp of Mailer's Armies of the Night gets my vote as one of the great essays of the 1960s. The Oates/Atwen volume also lacks any good soldier autobiographies, lacks any good essay about the women's movement starting, lacks any good essay about the Chicano movement, lacks any good essay about the counterculture, lacks any essay with any understanding of black militants. If any readers could suggest such essays, I'm interested in hearing from you.
Causes Julia Stein Supports
Doctors Without Borders