song of myself: american essay

The Best American Essays 2011 

Edwidge Danticat, Ed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Pub. Co

The Best American Essay Series this year takes the reader beneath the skin of personal experience. Its the 26th series of long form journalism pieces sourced from among America’s most insightful journalists, thinkers and authors.

Annually, a prominent writer is awarded the task of selecting the years’ shortlisted essays. This format, according to the values and premises of each editor, demonstrates the versatile form of the essay and its subjects, distilling complex ideas from diverse fields to a wider audience.

Edwidge Danticat is editor of The Best American Essays 2011.


Haitian born author Edwidge Danticat follows from last year’s editor, late journalist and author Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens championed essays by scientists and other specialist writers, focussing his selection on the importance of communicating the breakthrough benefits of Science, and  arespect for the scientific process in general, to a wider audience.

Danticat is author of Create Dangerously and the National Book Critics Circle award-winner for her autobiography, Brother, I am Dying. Sensitive to the challenges of writing from the self, Danticat’s selection is poignant, written almost entirely from journalists’ and authors’ first-hand observations. They include eyewitness accounts of self experience that meet the challenge of illustrating a wider issue. Danticat writes,

Such is the power of the stories we dare tell others about ourselves. They do inform, instruct and inspire. They might even entertain, but they can also strip us totally bare, reducing (or expanding) the essence of everything we are into words.

The 2011 essay selection speaks of the potential personal stories, as good stories do, to bring readers to greater understanding and empathy. The strengths of the technique lie in giving readers direct experience of rare, unusual or painful events. For many, these events would otherwise remain distant and remote. Mischa Berlinski‘s essay brings us right into Haiti’s harrowing earthquake;

The horizon swayed at an angle…the visual effect was precisely that of the grainy videos that would be shown later on television, as of somebody shaking a camera sharply. It was tremendously loud- like huge stones grinding…

Scene from Port Au Prince after the 2011 Earthquake, Haiti

Hitchens is also a contributor to this year’s edition. His ‘Topic of Cancer’ is deservedly acclaimed here for fearless self reporting during an author’s own cancer-ridden decline. First written for Vanity Fair, ‘Topic of Cancer’ began a series of articles by Hitchens. With his body rapidly approaching its Mortality, his writing reaches further toward immortality.

‘Lucky Girl’ from Bridget Potter takes readers to Brooklyn, 1962; to friends to beg for illegally bought contraception; to finding oneself unmarried and pregnant; to begging doctors to be pronounced ‘neurotic’ and so be allowed an abortion; to compulsory expulsion from school; to sharing the decision of 80% of single pregnant women who opted for illegal abortions that year over adoption; to trying to find a back-alley doctor within the remaining few ‘safe’ weeks for operation;  to trying to find money and fleeing to Puerto Rico and risking ones’ own life.

Sneaking into an empty office at work and locking the door, I picked up the phone. The overseas operator found the number and placed the call. The connection was crackly, and the man who answered neither confirmed nor denied that they would help.

The wider statistics of Potter’s experience are shared here, but the writing is acute enough that today’s political implications are powerfully, if indirectly addressed. Through the eyes of ‘Lucky Girl’ readers can imagine from a personal perspective what a nightmare scenario it recollects. Its power to astonish is that such a status can be still blithely contemplated in today’s political discourse, devoid of the kind of empathy Potter’s ‘Lucky Girl’ demands of its readers.

Personal experiences, masterfully told as here, help populate and pierce the screen of observation, bringing us into the sharply defined pixels of a larger narrative. Danticat’s selection of story essays demonstrate that senses really can be common, as can our humanity ♦

imodernreview critiques The Best American Essays 2010 in this previous article.