Excerpt from 'The Making of the American Essay'

The Making of the American Essay

By John D'Agata

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 2016 John D'Agata
All rights reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-55597-734-4


To the Reader,
Anonymous Creation,
Anne Bradstreet For My Dear Son Simon Bradstreet,
Mary Rowlandson The Narrative of the Captivity,
Jonathan Edwards Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,
J. Hector St. John On Snakes; and On the Humming-Bird,
Washington Irving A History of New York,
Ralph Waldo Emerson Nature,
Henry David Thoreau Walking,
Herman Melville The Whiteness of the Whale,
Edgar Allan Poe A Chapter on Autography,
Emily Dickinson To Recipient Unknown,
Walt Whitman The Weather — Does it Sympathize with These Times?,
William Carlos Williams A Matisse,
T. S. Eliot The Dry Salvages,
W. E. B. Du Bois Of the Coming of John,
Mark Twain Letters from the Earth,
Kenneth Goldsmith All the Numbers from Numbers,
Jean Toomer Blood-Burning Moon,
Gertrude Stein If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso,
Laura Riding Jackson In a Café,
Charles Reznikoff Testimony: The United States,
F. Scott Fitzgerald The Crack-Up,
James Agee Brooklyn Is,
Walter Abish What Else,
E. B. White Once More to the Lake,
John Cage Lecture on Nothing,
Leonard Michaels In the Fifties,
Lillian Ross The Yellow Bus,
Norman Mailer Ten Thousand Words a Minute,
James Baldwin The Fight: Patterson vs. Liston,
Tom Wolfe The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,
Gay Talese Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,
William Gass In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,
N. Scott Momaday The Way to Rainy Mountain,
Joe Brainard I Remember,
Donald Barthelme Sentence,
Susan Steinberg Signified,
Renata Adler Brownstone,
Kathy Acker Humility,
Harryette Mullen Elliptical,



Early in the seventeenth century, when a group of Europeans decided to remake their world, the first thing they did was gather up ingredients. These included 20,000 biscuits, 600 salted codfish, 200 dried ox tongues, 320 chickens, 140 cows, 130 sheep, and about 60 horses. They packed 10,000 gallons of ale and 3,000 gallons of water. They filled barrels and crates with hammers and spoons, shovels and skillets and pitchforks and axes and cauldrons and muskets and candles and clothes. Among them was a handful of clergy, a pair of midwives, and an eighteen-year-old writer who was fluent in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and French, and who had read nearly everything in English literature at the time. And now, three months after leaving her home in England, Anne Bradstreet is clinging to the wet seat of a boat being rowed away from the ship that carried her across the Atlantic Ocean. They've all come to America because the Reformation in England was not reformed enough for them, and they want to build a world in which they can worship their own god without the interference of a pope or priests or rituals that they think are bordering on the ungodly. And so now they've arrived, in the blazing heat of the summer, and at the shore of a town that was founded a year earlier by three hundred people whom they had paid to clear forests, build homes, and plant fields that could be ready for them to harvest upon arrival. Behind Bradstreet's rowboat is a fleet of twelve ships that are filled to the brim with eight hundred affluent people, ready to disembark and start making this world theirs. However, as they row closer to the shore of New Salem, the immigrants see a landscape devoid of any houses — let alone chimneys, shops, hedgerows, streets. Wandering around the shore are half as many people as they'd originally sent over, and they are sweaty with famine, piercingly skeletal, dazed, frightened, and hanging on with desperation to the edge of the new continent. Bradstreet and the other settlers don't even bother unpacking. They return to their ships, sail a few miles south, and try to start their own town in a place they call "New Towne." Within a year, however, Anne Bradstreet moves again with her family ... And then again ... And then again ... In a ten-year period, Bradstreet will help settle five new towns, raise eight young children, fight off tuberculosis, and somehow still manage to produce more essays, aphorisms, poems, and letters than any other English writer of her time — either male or female, from either the New World or the Old. "A prosperous state makes a secure Christian," she once wrote, "but adversity makes him consider." If there's one thing American history can teach us about the essay, it's that sometimes the best intentions are undermined by better experiments.


For My Dear Son Simon Bradstreet

Parents perpetuate their lives in their posterity and their manners; in their imitation children do naturally rather follow the failings than the virtues of their predecessors, but I am persuaded better things of you. You once desired me to leave something for you in writing that you might look upon, when you should see me no more; I could think of nothing more fit for you nor of more ease to myself than these short meditations following. Such as they are, I bequeath to you; small legacies are accepted by true friends, much more by dutiful children. I have avoided encroaching upon others' conceptions because I would leave you nothing but mine own, though in value they fall short of all in this kind; yet I presume they will be better prized by you for the author's sake. The Lord bless you with grace here and crown you with glory hereafter, that I may meet you with rejoicing at that great day of appearing, which is the continual prayer of your affectionate mother, A. B.

* * *

There is no new thing under the sun: there is nothing that can be said or done that has not been said or done before.

* * *

There is no object that we see, no action that we do, no good that we enjoy, no evil that we feel or fear, but we may make some spiritual advantage of. And he that makes such improvement is wise as well as pious.

* * *

Many can speak well, but few can do well. We are better scholars in the theory than the practice.

* * *

Youth is the time of getting, middle age of improving and old age of spending; a negligent youth is usually attended by an ignorant middle age, and both by an empty old age. He that hath nothing to feed on but vanity and lies must needs lie down in the bed of sorrow.

* * *

A ship that bears much sail and little or no ballast is easily overset, and that man whose head hath great abilities and his heart little or no grace is in danger of foundering.

* * *

It is reported of the peacock that, priding himself in his gay feathers, he ruffles them up, but spying his black feet, he soon lets fall his plumes; so he that glories in his gifts and adornings should look upon his corruptions, and that will damp his high thoughts.

* * *

Downy beds make drowsy persons, but hard lodging keeps the eyes open; a prosperous state makes a secure Christian, but adversity makes him consider.

* * *

Sweet words are like honey: a little may refresh, but too much gluts the stomach.

* * *

Diverse children have their different natures: some are like flesh which nothing but salt will keep from putrefaction, some again like tender fruits that are best preserved with sugar. Those parents are wise that can fit their nurture according to their nature.

* * *

Authority without wisdom is like a heavy axe without an edge: fitter to bruise than polish.

* * *

If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant; if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.

* * *

Few men are so humble as not to be proud of their abilities, and nothing will abase them more than this: what hast thou, but what thou hast received? Come, give an account of thy stewardship.

* * *

Corn, till it have past through the mill and been ground to powder, is not fit for bread. God so deals with his servants: he grinds them with grief and pain till they turn to dust, and then are they fit manchet for his mansion.

* * *

Lightning doth usually precede thunder, and storms rain, and strokes do not often fall till after threatening.

* * *

Fire hath its force abated by water, not by wind, and anger must be allayed by cold words and not by blustering threats.

* * *

All weak and diseased bodies have hourly mementos of their mortality, but the soundest of men, have likewise their nightly monitor by the emblem of death, which is their sleep (for so is death often called), and not only their death, but their grave is lively represented before their eyes by beholding their bed, the morning may mind them of the resurrection, and the sun approaching of the appearing of the Sun of righteousness, at whose coming they shall all rise out of their beds, the long night shall fly away, and the day of eternity shall never end. Seeing these things must be, what manner of persons ought we to be, in all good conversation?



So when exactly does the American essay begin to experiment? On February 10, 1676, a band of fifteen hundred Indians from the Wampanoag tribe attacked the village of Lancaster, a tiny outpost in the middle of Massachusetts that consisted of fifty-five families. Nearly a quarter of the town's residents were killed in the raid, and another twenty-four were taken captive as slaves. Among those who were taken was Mary Rowlandson, the thirty-nine-year-old wife of Lancaster's minister and the mother of three children, who were kidnapped as well. Because she was related to a town leader, Rowlandson was eventually ransomed back to her family, but not before being marched for three snowy months through the wilderness of the new and foreign world. "The portion of some is to have their afflictions by drops, now one drop and then another," Rowlandson later wrote about her experience. "But the dregs of the cup, the wine of astonishment, like a sweeping rain that leaveth no food, did the Lord prepare to be my portion." Rowlandson eventually published her reflections on that experience in a book that became wildly popular throughout New England. It is filled with what we might expect from a white Christian settler in seventeenth-century America: nearly every ordeal that Rowlandson describes is adroitly paired with a biblical passage revealing the religious significance in the brutality of her experience. "I have learned to look beyond present and smaller troubles," she writes, "and to be quieted under them." And no doubt this is what made her book so popular, for in keeping with Puritan teaching, the book enacts a repudiation of the "vanity of the world," an acceptance of Rowlandson's role as "a vessel of the Lord," who guides her, magically, "through the wilderness ... into safety." Indeed, the Puritan spiritual leader Increase Mather wrote a preface to the book in which he emphasizes more than anything else the text's miraculous ability to turn deeply personal experiences into relevant Puritan teachings — or, as Mather puts it, how "to talk of God's acts, and to speak of and publish His wonderful works." According to Mather, Rowlandson made the personal public, in other words. But not just public: she made it conveniently useful propaganda too. Orthodox spiritual leaders like Increase Mather taught their New World congregants that the Indians were the instruments of Satan, which meant that the kidnappings that proliferated in seventeenth-century New England were not the predictable outcome of white infringement on native lands but rather proof of God's efforts to test his children's faith. In the title he imposed on Rowlandson's book, Mather made this idea explicit:

The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed: Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, Commended by Her to All Who Desire to Know the Lord's Doings to, and Dealings with, Her

The title Rowlandson herself originally gave to the book emphasizes an entirely different intention:

A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, a Minister's Wife in New-England: Wherein Is Set Forth the Cruel and Inhumane Usage She Underwent amongst the Heathens for Eleven Weeks Time, and Her Deliverance from Them

Hers is a title that emphasizes experience over knowing. By foregrounding herself not only as the protagonist in the book but as a woman in the world — "Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, a Minister's Wife in New-England" — by detailing her affliction — "Cruel and Inhumane Usage" — by specifying a time frame — "Eleven Weeks Time" — and perhaps most important by acknowledging her antagonists before she does her savior — "the Heathens ... and Her Deliverance from Them" — Rowlandson creates a concrete framework through which her captivity can be embodied, felt, and embraced as more than merely an existential threat. Indeed, her "deliverance" is even recast here as a grammatically dependent clause, thus resetting the terms by which she wants her story read: yes, Rowlandson rediscovers her faith while she is being held captive, but not before she has to watch her own child starve, not before she steals food from a child to save herself, not before she realizes, with heartbreaking clarity, that she doesn't miss her husband, that the heathens are not all bad, that sometimes they are kind, that maybe the war is wrong. "I can remember the time," Rowlandson writes in her book, "when I used to sleep quietly without workings in my thoughts, whole nights together, but now it is other ways with me." This other voice that occasionally emerges from the book is quiet, hesitant, and tinged with skepticism, and when it's set against the confidence that's exhibited elsewhere, a troubling and pervasive dissonance is exposed, a kind of rupture that we can imagine Rowlandson tumbling through in the book, trapped within that rift between knowing how to deflect a difficult personal experience with elegantly abstract Christian exegesis, and not knowing how to do anything at all but open up her eyes with resignation to the world. I think this is the first great essay that America produced.


The Narrative of the Captivity

The First Remove

Now away we must go with those barbarous creatures, with our bodies wounded and bleeding, and our hearts no less than our bodies. About a mile we went that night, up upon a hill within sight of the town, where they intended to lodge. There was hard by a vacant house (deserted by the English before, for fear of the Indians). I asked them whether I might not lodge in the house that night to which they answered, What will you love English men still? This was the dolefullest night that ever my eyes saw. Oh the roaring, and singing and dancing, and yelling of those black creatures in the night, which made the place a lively resemblance of hell. And as miserable was the waste that was there made, of horses, cattle, sheep, swine, calves, lambs, roasting pigs, and fowl (which they had plundered in the town) some roasting, some lying and burning, and some boiling to feed our merciless enemies; who were joyful enough though we were disconsolate. To add to the dolefulness of the former day, and the dismalness of the present night: my thoughts ran upon my losses and sad bereaved condition. All was gone, my husband gone (at least separated from me, he being in the Bay; and to add to my grief, the Indians told me they would kill him as he came homeward) my children gone, my relations and friends gone, our house and home and all our comforts within doors, and without, all was gone (except my life) and I knew not but the next moment that might go too. There remained nothing to me but one poor wounded babe, and it seemed at present worse than death that it was in such a pitiful condition, bespeaking compassion, and I had no refreshing for it, nor suitable things to revive it. Little do many think what is the savageness and brutishness of this barbarous enemy, aye even those that seem to profess more than others among them, when the English have fallen into their hands.

Those seven that were killed at Lancaster the summer before upon a Sabbath day, and the one that was afterward killed upon a week day, were slain and mangled in a barbarous manner, by One-eyed John, and Marlborough's praying Indians, which Captain Mosely brought to Boston, as the Indians told me.

The Second Remove

But now, the next morning, I must turn my back upon the town, and travel with them into the vast and desolate wilderness, I knew not whither. It is not my tongue, or pen can express the sorrows of my heart, and bitterness of my spirit, that I had at this departure: but God was with me, in a wonderful manner, carrying me along, and bearing up my spirit, that it did not quite fail. One of the Indians carried my poor wounded babe upon a horse, it went moaning all along, I shall die, I shall die. I went on foot after it, with sorrow that cannot be expressed. At length I took it off the horse, and carried it in my arms till my strength failed, and I fell down with it: Then they set me upon a horse with my wounded child in my lap, and there being no furniture upon the horse's back, as we were going down a steep hill, we both fell over the horse's head, at which they like inhuman creatures laughed, and rejoiced to see it, though I thought we should there have ended our days, as overcome with so many difficulties. But the Lord renewed my strength still, and carried me along, that I might see more of his power; yea, so much that I could never have thought of, had I not experienced it.


Excerpted from The Making of the American Essay by John D'Agata. Copyright © 2016 John D'Agata. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.