A review of
The Lost Origins of the Essay
by John D’Agata
“What word is there to describe this kind of logic that sings?”
Every history is a story, a marshaling of evidence to support a particular reading of the past. Of the Silk Road or Nordic myth. Of Alexandria or pirates or the atom bomb. John D’Agata’s history is of the essay, that redheaded stepchild of literature which, he laments, is often mistaken for “a genre that is merely a dispensary of data—not a true expression of one’s dreams, ideas, or fears.” There is a problem, he argues, with thinking that the nonfiction tradition originates in records of fact, as in how many bushels of wheat a man once owed his neighbor. It denies the genre a tradition as art. “I think this misperception is prevalent today because we haven’t yet laid claim to an alternative tradition.… I am here in search of art. I am here to track the origins of an alternative to commerce.”
This search soars across centuries, continents, and literary forms, from an ancient text by Ziusudra of Sumer to The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon to the prose poems of Baudelaire to a “performative essay” on Bob Marley by Kamau Braithwaite to a stunning meditation on love, lust, and the lyric by Lisa Robertson. Along the way, D’Agata carves out a story about the art of nonfiction that is plausible, and possibly even true.
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