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Notes from the Enemy’s Camp: On John D’Agata’s New History of the Essay

By Daegan Miller.

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John D’Agata (ed.), A New History of the Essay, in three volumes (Graywolf, 2016)

 

Let’s call this a collection of essays, then—a book about human wondering (Vol. 1: The Next American Essay [2003]).

I can tell you exactly why I got a PhD in history. Every word, I think, has a tiny gravitational force, nearly imperceptible on its own; but when thousands of them accrete into sentences and paragraphs and then into the stratigraphic layers of a book, words become worlds, habitable worlds, worlds, no two of them alike, whose atmospheres nurture different kinds of intellectual life. I decided to get a PhD in history because, in 1998, I read Thomas Pynchon’s novella, The Crying of Lot 49, and became lost, and wondered what it would be like to write history that wanders the line between fact and fiction in the way that The Crying of Lot 49 wobbles on the edge that pares fiction away from fact.

John D’Agata is also a wobbler. At around the time I was breathing in Pynchon, he was concurrently enrolled in MFA programs for poetry and nonfiction, though at home in neither. One way to make sense of the eccentric orbit of his three-volume anthological history of the essay, completed this year, is as an attempt to make a place for himself, not just in a profession, but in the world. And the thing about the world D’Agata has built is that, though it resembles the one that greets us each morning, it functions differently. Take time: his history begins with an ending (The Next American Essay [2003]), makes its way to an introduction (The Lost Origins of the Essay [2009]), and concludes in the middle (The Making of the American Essay [2016]). And though each anthology is chronologically ordered, they all orbit one particular year: 1975. It’s the year The Next American Essay begins. It’s the year after each of his following anthologies end. And it’s the year that D’Agata was born.

 

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For every artist is in constant communication with the past, vacillating repeatedly between an adherence to and a resistance of our heritage of conventions (Vol. 2: The Lost Origins of the Essay [2009]).

I first read The Crying of Lot 49 in 1998, but didn’t read it again until 2013, a few months after I finished my PhD. The vast majority of what I read in the intervening years were academic monographs, of which I zealously devoured hundreds, both because I was an eager student and because a monograph is really the only subgenre in which academic humanists, and especially historians, write. It’s a form whose conventions have remained unchanged since history emerged as an academic field in the late nineteenth century, a form almost religiously dedicated to the verifiable fact. Things weren’t always this way.

Before monographs, the line separating history from literature was blurred, even nonexistent. As the Harvard historian and frequent New Yorker contributor Jill Lepore has pointed out, eighteenth-century fiction writers liked to call their works histories, and those who wrote history often followed the lead of Herodotus, the ancient Greek chronicler of the Greco-Persian wars, who spiced up the past with exaggeration, editorialization, and pure flights of fantasy whenever he felt a dragging narrative needed a dramatic kick. But by the late nineteenth century, as the major academic disciplines started to cohere, some of those who wrote history started to long for the same sort of cultural authority enjoyed by the sciences, and they began reconceiving history as the scientific pursuit of objective historical truth, a thing freed from the impressionistic work of amateurs and instead written by professionals—by historians. Part of what drove these early professional historians was a gendered worry that amateur history was silly, frilly, and fanciful; instead, they embraced a rigorous, scientific method by which historical truth was to be painstakingly pieced together from archival sources, then methodically footnoted so that one’s research could be repeated and empirically verified (many of today’s historians, in a gendered echo of the profession’s past, claim to “interrogate” their sources, as if academic history is a war on the terror of forgetting).

This was a revolutionary turn in historical practice, and one of the great triumphs of modern, professional history has been a forging of gleamingly sophisticated research methodologies with which to perform increasingly complicated dissections of the past. Whereas it wasn’t that long ago that all professional history was the history of statesmen and generals, we now have histories that probe, with incredible dexterity, everything from the evolution of homosexuality in New York City to the formation of a Black identity amongst enslaved African during the Middle Passage.

Another triumph of professional history has been the adoption of the monograph—a term usually used as shorthand for the scholarly book, though the articles academics write (and often refer to as essays), especially the ones that appear in the professional journals, are every bit as monographic as their bulked-out brothers. The monograph is the literary form without which any solid claim to objectivity would have simply melted into air, and you know you’ve got a monograph in your hands, whether of 30 pages or 300, by its peculiar conventions. Almost certainly you’ll stumble upon an extended thesis statement around which the introduction is structured, which will tell you exactly what the book’s point is and what you’ll find in the pages to follow. It usually runs something like: “This book argues x. Chapter 1 develops x by showing y, and chapter 2 shows z. In conclusion, x (again).” Monographs thrive on rational, reasoned argument and a rigidly linear plotting. They’re almost exclusively written in the clinical third person—indeed, slipping into the first invariably draws charges of self-indulgence. And, like technical writing, they strive for maximum disclosure, maximum transparency at all times: no foreshadowing, no jump cuts, no parataxis, no saving the punchline until the end.

Like any literary form, the monograph is highly artificial. I’d venture that no one’s experience of the past has ever felt like a monograph, and even that monographs are no fuller a representation of what has been than myths. Yet the trick that the monograph performs is to make all of its aesthetic conventions appear entirely natural, and therefore objective. It purports to capture the past as it truly happened, and it takes its formal inspiration from both the elegance of the logical syllogism and the clarity of scientific taxonomy. Indeed, monographs were originally invented by natural scientists who wanted to corral all the known facts of a single taxon into one place. It’s an aesthetic that demands a writer’s unflinching discipline and sober control and the sacrifice of any literary trace hinting at a subjective self, an asceticism that most if not all of us who sign up for the historian’s life find thrilling. In return, fallible authors earn the robe and cap that confirms us as authorities and lends to our books a thick sheen of professional objectivity.

D’Agata, I think, must hate monographs.

His trilogy is many things: a collection of 121 essays that begins 5,000 years ago with the end of the Sumerian empire and ends in 2003, when The Next American Essay is published; a history of the essay built upon those 121 primary sources; and, perhaps most urgently, an attempt to define the genre, which D’Agata undertakes in 119 short pieces, short calls, to which the collected essays respond.

Just what is an essay, then? D’Agata never really tells us. Or, rather, he does tell us, in 118 different riffs on his opening proposition that essays are “about human wondering.” The effect of following after D’Agata as he combs from scrap to definitional scrap is stunning. The essay is a vehicle for freethinking. It’s an experiment. It lacks confidence and brims with emotional doubt. It’s a transcript of its creator’s mind. It’s deeply deceptive, and might only reflect whomever the author wishes he were. It’s often written in the first person, or the third, but also the second, and sometimes smatterings of each. Essays are perception, indirection, failure, and experience; they’re human in their flirtation with the way things are and the way they might be. Essays can be true, or True, or poetic, or more-or-less completely made up. They can be all of these things at the same time. Or they can be rigorous transcriptions of the found, like David Shields’s brilliant “Life Story,” an essay built entirely of bumper-sticker slogans; “First thing’s first,” it begins, and, after winding its way through misogyny, sex, drugs and alcohol, boredom, children, pets, debt, divorce, and growing old, ends with this: “choose death.”

Seneca and Joan Didion were essayists, D’Agata tells us, as were Ennatum of Akkad and David Foster Wallace and the anonymous Cahto Indian, back around 1000 B.C.E, who spoke his people’s creation story. Azwinaki Tshipala, who lived in southern Africa in the third century, was an essayist, and a to-do list from the late-1990s makes Joe Wenderoth one, too. Everything, it seems, can be an essay, and everyone an essayist, and, I admit, as I churned through D’Agata’s nearly 2,000-page history, I found this granting of freedom intoxicating. I’m an essayist! I thought—until I was brought up hard. Even though D’Agata pitches a big-tent, he’s also the unmovable, unsmiling bouncer who makes it very clear that some things are simply unwelcome inside. Some things, for D’Agata, can never be essays. Things like monographs, since “a thesis statement,” as D’Agata writes in The Lost Origins of the Essay, “precludes real essaying. It denies the possibility for reflection, digression, discovery, or change.”

D’Agata gained tremendous notoriety with the publication of The Lifespan of a Fact in 2012, co-authored with Jim Fingal, the fact-checker assigned to verify the truth of an essay that D’Agata had submitted to The Believer about the 2002 suicide of sixteen-year-old Levi Presley. The book’s narrative tension comes from a 123-page shouting match between D’Agata, who arbitrarily changes the facts surrounding the boy’s death to fit his own aesthetic vision—at one point, D’Agata changed the number of heart attacks that occurred on a particular Las Vegas day from eight to four because “I like the effect of these numbers scaling down in the sentence from five to four to three, etc.”—and Fingal, every author’s worst nightmare of an ultra-literal fact checker. Imagine a guy who goes to the website to spot-check whether or not D’Agata spelled “Swedish Fish” correctly—and then reports back on it.

But, in the end, despite its often mean spirited, juvenile, literary-bro tone (D’Agata calls Fingal a dickhead at a particularly low point in the book), it’s an important fight with high stakes: where lies the truth? In a checkable fact or in a reader’s experience? And who speaks it: the “nonfiction police,” or artists? Near the end of About a Mountain (2010), the book that Believer essay eventually grew into, D’Agata writes:

If I point to something seeming like significance, there is the possibility that nothing real is there.

Sometimes we misplace knowledge in pursuit of information.

Sometimes our wisdom, too, in pursuit of what’s called knowledge.

It took me a long while, too long, I think, to realize that, though the book purports to be an objective transcript of Fingal and D’Agata’s caustic e-mail exchanges, it’s probably not. The tell comes about two-thirds of the way through, when D’Agata (or his literary equivalent) writes, “Jim: have you ever stopped to consider that maybe [history and fiction] aren’t the only two options available…? That maybe our understanding of the world can’t be categorized into either ‘fictional’ or ‘historical’ slots—with nothing in between?”

John D'Agata (right) with his fact checker, Jim Fingal.

John D’Agata (right) and his fact checker, Jim Fingal.

 

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The way I see it, if fiction means “shape” and novel means “new” and poetry means “make” and drama means “do,” there ought to be a space that’s reserved for our unknowing—that gorgeous messy practice of perpetual pursuit, the attempts that are as much about apprenticeships with knowing, as they are with failure too (Vol. 3: The Making of the American Essay [2016]).

To essay, as D’Agata well knows, has two meanings, each standing at an angle to the other. The first is related to the word “assay” and is synonymous with a trial, with testing, with proof, a meaning that helps explain why many academic historians refer to their article-length work as essays. It’s this sense of the word that paints the essay as nonfiction, and, despite all the contrarian kicking in The Lifespan of a Fact, it’s this sense of the word that D’Agata clearly relishes. His essays are overflowing with facts. D’Agata plays with them, stacks them, shuffles them, and then artfully deals them out, a hand of tarot cards from which his reader divines meaning.

Halfway through About a Mountain, D’Agata gives us a four-page list of everything in Las Vegas that would be contaminated if the nuclear storage facility deep inside nearby Yucca Mountain were to be commissioned, and then if all the security measures were to fail and Las Vegas were to be irradiated. It’s an excruciatingly boring four-pages of reading, until you realize that it’s not a monographic list—

Every nut that secures the bolts.

Every washer that goes between them.

Every traffic lamp and bulb and post.

Every sidewalk square and concrete curb.

Every newspaper stand.

Every call girl ad.

—but a poem about a specific place and the total erasure, the complete loss of all connection, all the way down to the city’s many screws, that comes when atoms run riot. It’s not fact that irritates D’Agata. It’s facticity, the idea that fact alone gives us the world.

This is in part why he scrambles his books’ chronology: if you change the temporal order of a set of facts, you change their meaning. And it’s also why he refuses to give any one definition of the essay, for the word also means to attempt something. An essay, for D’Agata, is a setting out with no clear sense of where one is going in perpetual pursuit of a truth that is always just a little bit fleeter of foot than its author. This is why he detests theses.

Yet, as history—specifically, as a history of the essay—I think D’Agata’s trilogy holds up quite well. For instance, the trilogy is nothing if not deeply researched: those 121 collected essays are his primary sources. And though he never really sets them in a wider social or cultural setting, preferring instead to nest each essay inside a thin cocoon of events that occurred in the essay’s birth year, they stand among each other in a long intellectual and aesthetic tradition, providing mutual context. Actually, that’s not quite right: the essays don’t simply provide shoulders for their neighbors to lean on; instead, D’Agata chose them and arranged them in his own idiosyncratic way so that they might speak to each other.

If you listen just right, you’ll hear them testify that the essay is not, as is almost universally thought, a thoroughly European invention conceived immaculately by Michel de Montaigne in the late-sixteenth century (though D’Agata does credit him with christening the form), but is nearly as ancient as writing itself, a form whose deepest roots lie in Middle Eastern soil 5000 years ago, a form also independently arrived at by pre-contact American Indians, and ancient Africans, and a host of Chinese writers who put pen to paper while Montainge’s ancestors were bumbling about in the half light of the Dark Ages. If you listen just right, D’Agata’s collection will tell you that the essay is not a genre—which is why D’Agata never defines it—but something universally human, an action and an orientation towards the world, an attempt to make meaning from the raw material of fact. And if you listen just right, it’ll finally come clear that “collection” is not the correct term for D’Agata’s trilogy, which is, instead, a history of unknowing, of which D’Agata places himself as an inheritor (this is why each book revolves around his birth), and an extended, three-volume argument, performed as much as proffered, that facts never mean what they say, that there can be a poetry of fact. Facts are metaphors that can be rung like bells, and the essay, a form fabricated from fact, an attempt to strike a fact in such a way that it sets a thousand other facts resonating sympathetically, thereby raising from the cold, rational, dead past a living chorus of souls all in harmony.

D’Agata’s brilliance, it seems to me, lies in never unshackling the two senses of the essay from each other.

 

***

If art is to grow, to survive, to remain culturally relevant, it has to question the rules that it’s inherited from earlier generations. It has to break those rules when necessary, find new rules with which to challenge itself, new reasons and new strategies for breaking those new rules, and then brand-new sets of rules to grapple with again (Vol. 3: The Making of the American Essay [2016]).

I shouldn’t like John D’Agata’s tripartite history of the essay. I have, after all, an Ivy-League training as an historian, of which I am proud. I was brought up to be an excavator and curator of facts, and D’Agata has made it his life’s work to carve at the very things that I was taught to revere. “There are no facts,” D’Agata begins in his first salvo, The Next American Essay, quoting Emerson, “only art.”

I shouldn’t like John D’Agata’s tripartite history of the essay, and I should be using instead the gleaming sharp tools of my trade to deconstruct, piece by piece, the world he has so assiduously built for himself. But I am a wobbler, too, the sort of person whose intellectual world is promiscuously built of both novels and monographs. Besides, I’ve always had a soft spot for revolutionaries, and D’Agata, whom I’ve come to think of as a literary anarchist, seems ultimately to dream the dream of all radicals: freedom. There’s nothing natural about the monograph, no historical authority to its claims of truth.

There’s danger here, of course: no matter how I twist his stated willingness, at least in The Lifespan of a Fact, to swap fact out for art, I can’t feel anything but horror at the fudging of the details surrounding Levi Presley’s suicide. Facts matter, and it’s important to get them right. Nor am I ready to forswear the monograph, which I think D’Agata sells short. Despite its dour outward appearance, even it marches to a utopian tune: people are ultimately rational, it believes, and rational people make decisions based upon verifiable fact, and if you can just get two people to agree on a set of facts, and then get them to play by the rules of logical argumentation, then the possibility of change suddenly becomes real. Finally, though I’d be claiming too much if I argued that the monograph is currently undergoing an aesthetic and epistemological evolution, there are academic historians—more than a handful of them—stretching, even stepping outside of the monograph’s tight bounds, thought they most often wait until tenure to do so.

What is the point of history? In four years of undergraduate education, and seven years of graduate training, and two years of postdoctoral research, I have almost never heard this question broached, but when I have, the answer has invariably been, “to reconstruct the past.” Or sometimes, “to provide context for the present.” I’m not sure what D’Agata’s answer would be, if I could ask him: a poem, a set of harmonically linked facts; maybe he’d just hurl a snarled fuck off my way. But I like to think that he would proffer a thumb-blackened copy of The Making of the American Essay and point, with the calloused pads of his homeless writer’s fingers, to the line that reads, “The world, we all know, is already a nonfiction. Let the essay be what we make of it.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Daegan Miller has worked as a ditch digger, carpenter, stone mason, woodcutter, photographer, teacher, and technical writer. He’s ashamed to admit that he even spent two soul-killing days working at a greyhound race track. He  earned his PhD in history from Cornell University and was an AW Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is now a writer, and his first book will soon be published by the University of Chicago press. Twitter: @DaeganMiller

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, October 17th, 2016.