Well, actually the top ten American essays since 1950, as chosen by Robert Atwan, the founder of The Best American Essays series (latest edition). Atwan says:

I decided to exclude all the great examples of New Journalism—Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Michael Herr, and many others can be reserved for another list. I also decided to include only American writers, so such outstanding English-language essayists as Chris Arthur and Tim Robinson are missing, though they have appeared in The Best American Essays series. And I selected essays, not essayists. A list of the top ten essayists since 1950 would feature some different writers.

Some are obvious choices (Baldwin, Mailer, Sontag, Didion), some I wasn’t familiar with, but all look worth reading (and most have links for online reading), so I thought I’d share the bounty.


  1. John Emerson says

    Not a serious criticism, but I have a remarkable dislike for *at least* four authors on that list, starting with Mailer. I guys I’m just essayphobic.

  2. Without clicking any of the links, I can say with some confidence that some of these essays are not notable enough to be included on the list, and other essays, with which I am familiar, should be on the list in their places. Also, the ranking needs to be adjusted in order to comport more fully with my judgment.

  3. Jeffry House says

    I read Susan Sontag’s essay on Camp, which is linked. Amazing to me that there is no mention of the connection of the phenomenon to gay people. Perhaps the repeated reference to Oscar Wilde is intended to alert the cognoscenti.
    It’s a clear example of how social changes can date a piece of writing.

  4. I also decided to include only American writers
    And he probably means just US writers. How provincial to arbitrarily rule out most of the writers in the English language for no reason other than the passport they carry – and then choose Norman Mailer, of all people. Why not call it “Ten Essays I Like From The USA”? That’s all it is. Where would we be without ten-best lists? Is there an overall winner: let’s call it “The Best Essay On Earth”?

  5. Here’s a complete set of links, only some of them the same: “Notes of a Native Son”, “The White Negro”, “Notes on ‘Camp'”, “The Search for Marvin Gardens”, “The White Album”, “Total Eclipse”, “Against Joie de Vivre”, “Heaven and Nature” (Google Books, essay is complete, but may be inaccessible outside the U.S. without a proxy), “The Fourth State of Matter”, “Consider The Lobster”.

  6. AJPGOOBTWS: How arbitrary to rule out Sjéra Tomas Sæmundsson just because he was little-known, lived in the 19th century, and wrote in Icelandic!
    Since I haven’t posted this here, though I have in five other places around the web, I’ll let it rip:
    “‘Málin eru höfuðeinkenni þjóðanna — Languages are the chief distinguishing marks of peoples. No people in fact comes into being until it speaks a language of its own; let the languages perish and the peoples perish too, or become different peoples. But that never happens except as the result of oppression and distress.’
    “These are the words of a little-known Icelander of the early nineteenth century, Sjéra Tomas Sæmundsson. He had, of course, primarily in mind the part played by the cultivated Icelandic language, in spite of poverty, lack of power, and insignificant numbers, in keeping the Icelanders in being in desperate times. But the words might as well apply to the Welsh of Wales, who have also loved and cultivated their language for its own sake (not as an aspirant for the ruinous honour of becoming the lingua franca of the world), and who by it and with it maintain their identity.”
    –J.R.R. Tolkien, “English and Welsh”

  7. Hear, hear!

  8. @Jeffry House: Did you give up before point no.50? CTRL-F “homosexual”.

  9. Jeffry House says

    Molly: You are right, it is there!

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