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The final Ticknor & Fields' volume came out in 1993.The idea for a series of books devoted to the year’s best essays first came to me in the spring of 1984.I felt encouraged he didn’t dismiss the idea out of hand but was discouraged by his suggestion that perhaps such a series would be best handled by a university press or a college publisher.
Except for a few stories (one a classic by Cynthia Ozick), I wasn’t impressed with the O’Henry collection and my review focussed on what I thought had become a narrative gimmick: writing first-person stories in the present tense (“I am in a laundromat on West Fourteenth Street washing clothes and reading Grace Paley”).
The review was punningly titled “The Literary Present” as I tried to suggest that this special use of the present participle might be viewed as the equivalent of the old French literary tense known as “passe simple.” My use of “literary” suggested something inauthentic about the narrative.
But the question remained: would a trade publishing house have an interest in such an anthology.
The prospects didn’t look good but I thought it was worth a try.
My goal was to call attention to the essay as a vital literary genre, and I wanted the series to receive more than academic sanction.
I came to the essay through both academia and college publishing.Looking back, it seems like a good thing I didn’t realize how diminished the status of the essay truly was.This ignorance allowed me to persevere with what to some seemed like a hopeless idea.Though the book contained some fiction, we included a considerable amount of contemporary nonfiction from such writers as Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Ellen Willis, Pauline Kael, Vivian Gornick, and Terry Southern.Influenced by the rise of both popular culture studies and New Journalism, the book was, as we well knew, somewhat behind the times, but it succeeded nevertheless. Perelman -- Bop / Langston Hughes -- Future is now / Katherine Anne Porter -- Artists in uniform / Mary Mc Carthy -- Marginal world / Rachel Carson -- Notes of a native son / James Baldwin -- Brown wasps / Loren Eiseley -- Sweet devouring / Eudora Welty -- Hundred thousand straightened nails / Donald Hall -- Letter from Birmingham jail / Martin Luther King, Jr.The Best American Essays was published in both hardcover and paperback until 2008.So most likely the idea for the essay series occurred to me a week or so earlier, in mid-May.Exactly two years later, I turned in the manuscript of the first volume of the series, The Best American Essays 1986. Before I wrote up a proposal I’d mentioned the idea informally at a party to the late Roger Straus, the head of the prestigious publishing house, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, where my wife at the time was publicity director (Helene Atwan is now director of Beacon Press).Obviously, the writer wasn’t actually writing in the present but about the past and simply relying on the present participle to create what I perceived to be an artificial immediacy.As I wrote the review, indifferent to many of the stories, I wondered why there wasn’t an annual book dedicated to essays.