Robert Atwan, the founder of The Best American Essays series, picks the 10 best essays of the postwar period. Links to the essays are provided when available.
Fortunately, when I worked with Joyce Carol Oates on The Best American Essays of the Century (that’s the last century, by the way), we weren’t restricted to ten selections. So to make my list of the top ten essays since 1950 less impossible, 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.
To my mind, the best essays are deeply personal (that doesn’t necessarily mean autobiographical) and deeply engaged with issues and ideas. And the best essays show that the name of the genre is also a verb, so they demonstrate a mind in process--reflecting, trying-out, essaying.
James Baldwin, "Notes of a Native Son" (originally appeared in Harper’s, 1955)
“I had never thought of myself as an essayist,” wrote James Baldwin, who was finishing his novel Giovanni’s Room while he worked on what would become one of the great American essays. Against a violent historical background, Baldwin recalls his deeply troubled relationship with his father and explores his growing awareness of himself as a black American. Some today may question the relevance of the essay in our brave new “post-racial” world, though Baldwin considered the essay still relevant in 1984 and, had he lived to see it, the election of Barak Obama may not have changed his mind. However you view the racial politics, the prose is undeniably hypnotic, beautifully modulated and yet full of urgency. Langston Hughes nailed it when he described Baldwin’s “illuminating intensity.” The essay was collected in Notes of a Native Son courageously (at the time) published by Beacon Press in 1955.
Norman Mailer, "The White Negro" (originally appeared in Dissent, 1957)
An essay that packed an enormous wallop at the time may make some of us cringe today with its hyperbolic dialectics and hyperventilated metaphysics. But Mailer’s attempt to define the “hipster”–in what reads in part like a prose version of Ginsberg’s “Howl”–is suddenly relevant again, as new essays keep appearing with a similar definitional purpose, though no one would mistake Mailer’s hipster (“a philosophical psychopath”) for the ones we now find in Mailer’s old Brooklyn neighborhoods. Odd, how terms can bounce back into life with an entirely different set of connotations. What might Mailer call the new hipsters? Squares?
Read the essay here.
Susan Sontag, "Notes on 'Camp'" (originally appeared in Partisan Review, 1964)
Like Mailer’s “White Negro,” Sontag’s groundbreaking essay was an ambitious attempt to define a modern sensibility, in this case “camp,” a word that was then almost exclusively associated with the gay world. I was familiar with it as an undergraduate, hearing it used often by a set of friends, department store window decorators in Manhattan. Before I heard Sontag—thirty-one, glamorous, dressed entirely in black-- read the essay on publication at a Partisan Review gathering, I had simply interpreted “campy” as an exaggerated style or over-the-top behavior. But after Sontag unpacked the concept, with the help of Oscar Wilde, I began to see the cultural world in a different light. “The whole point of camp,” she writes, “is to dethrone the serious.” Her essay, collected in Against Interpretation (1966), is not in itself an example of camp.
Read the essay here.
John McPhee, "The Search for Marvin Gardens" (originally appeared in The New Yorker, 1972)
“Go. I roll the dice—a six and a two. Through the air I move my token, the flatiron, to Vermont Avenue, where dog packs range.” And so we move, in this brilliantly conceived essay, from a series of Monopoly games to a decaying Atlantic City, the once renowned resort town that inspired America’s most popular board game. As the games progress and as properties are rapidly snapped up, McPhee juxtaposes the well-known sites on the board—Atlantic Avenue, Park Place—with actual visits to their crumbling locations. He goes to jail, not just in the game but in fact, portraying what life has now become in a city that in better days was a Boardwalk Empire. At essay’s end, he finds the elusive Marvin Gardens. The essay was collected in Pieces of the Frame (1975).
Read the essay here (subscription required).
Joan Didion, "The White Album" (originally appeared in New West, 1979)
Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and the Black Panthers, a recording session with Jim Morrison and the Doors, the San Francisco State riots, the Manson murders—all of these, and much more, figure prominently in Didion’s brilliant mosaic distillation (or phantasmagoric album) of California life in the late 1960s. Yet despite a cast of characters larger than most Hollywood epics, “The White Album” is a highly personal essay, right down to Didion’s report of her psychiatric tests as an outpatient in a Santa Monica hospital in the summer of 1968. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” the essay famously begins, and as it progresses nervously through cuts and flashes of reportage, with transcripts, interviews, and testimonies, we realize that all of our stories are questionable, “the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images.” Portions of the essay appeared in installments in 1968-69 but it wasn’t until 1979 that Didion published the complete essay in New West magazine; it then became the lead essay of her book, The White Album (1979).
Annie Dillard, "Total Eclipse" (originally appeared in Antaeus, 1982)
In her introduction to The Best American Essays 1988, Annie Dillard claims that “The essay can do everything a poem can do, and everything a short story can do—everything but fake it.” Her essay “Total Eclipse” easily makes her case for the imaginative power of a genre that is still undervalued as a branch of imaginative literature. “Total Eclipse” has it all—the climactic intensity of short fiction, the interwoven imagery of poetry, and the meditative dynamics of the personal essay: “This was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt: the universe as a clockwork of loose spheres flung at stupefying, unauthorized speeds.” The essay, which first appeared in Antaeus in 1982 was collected in Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982), a slim volume that ranks among the best essay collections of the past fifty years.
Phillip Lopate, "Against Joie de Vivre" (originally appeared in Ploughshares, 1986)
This is an essay that made me glad I’d started The Best American Essays the year before. I’d been looking for essays that grew out of a vibrant Montaignean spirit—personal essays that were witty, conversational, reflective, confessional, and yet always about something worth discussing. And here was exactly what I’d been looking for. I might have found such writing several decades earlier but in the 80s it was relatively rare; Lopate had found a creative way to insert the old familiar essay into the contemporary world: “Over the years,” Lopate begins, “I have developed a distaste for the spectacle of joie de vivre, the knack of knowing how to live.” He goes on to dissect in comic yet astute detail the rituals of the modern dinner party. The essay was selected by Gay Talese for The Best American Essays 1987 and collected in Against Joie de Vivre in 1989.
Read the essay here.
Edward Hoagland, "Heaven and Nature" (originally appeared in Harper’s, 1988)
“The best essayist of my generation,” is how John Updike described Edward Hoagland, who must be one of the most prolific essayists of our time as well. “Essays,” Hoagland wrote, “are how we speak to one another in print—caroming thoughts not merely in order to convey a certain packet of information, but with a special edge or bounce of personal character in a kind of public letter.” I could easily have selected many other Hoagland essays for this list (such as “The Courage of Turtles”), but I’m especially fond of “Heaven and Nature,” which shows Hoagland at his best, balancing the public and private, the well-crafted general observation with the clinching vivid example. The essay, selected by Geoffrey Wolff for The Best American Essays 1989 and collected in Heart’s Desire (1988), is an unforgettable meditation not so much on suicide as on how we remarkably manage to stay alive.
Jo Ann Beard, "The Fourth State of Matter" (originally appeared in The New Yorker, 1996)
A question for nonfiction writing students: When writing a true story based on actual events, how does the narrator create dramatic tension when most readers can be expected to know what happens in the end? To see how skillfully this can be done turn to Jo Ann Beard’s astonishing personal story about a graduate student’s murderous rampage on the University of Iowa campus in 1991. “Plasma is the fourth state of matter,” writes Beard, who worked in the U of I’s physics department at the time of the incident, “You’ve got your solid, your liquid, your gas, and there’s your plasma. In outer space there’s the plasmasphere and the plasmapause.” Besides plasma, in this emotion-packed essay you will find entangled in all the tension a lovable, dying collie, invasive squirrels, an estranged husband, the seriously disturbed gunman, and his victims, one of them among the author’s dearest friends. Selected by Ian Frazier for The Best American Essays 1997, the essay was collected in Beard’s award-winning volume, The Boys of My Youth (1998).
Read the essay here.
David Foster Wallace, "Consider the Lobster" (originally appeared in Gourmet, 2004)
They may at first look like magazine articles—those factually-driven, expansive pieces on the Illinois State Fair, a luxury cruise ship, the adult video awards, or John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign—but once you uncover the disguise and get inside them you are in the midst of essayistic genius. One of David Foster Wallace’s shortest and most essayistic is his “coverage” of the annual Maine Lobster Festival, “Consider the Lobster.” The Festival becomes much more than an occasion to observe “the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker” in action as Wallace poses an uncomfortable question to readers of the upscale food magazine: “Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?” Don’t gloss over the footnotes. Susan Orlean selected the essay for The Best American Essays 2004 and Wallace collected it in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (2005).
Read the essay here. (Note: the electronic version from Gourmet magazine’s archives differs from the essay that appears in The Best American Essays and in his book, Consider the Lobster.)
I wish I could include twenty more essays but these ten in themselves comprise a wonderful and wide-ranging mini-anthology, one that showcases some of the most outstanding literary voices of our time. Readers who’d like to see more of the best essays since 1950 should take a look at The Best American Essays of the Century (2000).
“Politically Correct Bedtime Stories”, “How to Teach Physics to Your Dog”, “I Owe Russia $1200”, “A Day Late and a Dollar Short” – do you recognize those names?
The titles of these world-known books of famous authors are the vivid example of how to title an essay to make it attractive from the opening line. Naming a work of literature is a separate art. This article is going to focus on how to come up with a title for an essay to impress the reader with author’s original approach to the topic.
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Read the article to understand the way to attract the reader, no matter whether you write for a teacher or another audience. Are there any questions left? Try professional online writing service full of talented writers who will come up with the most powerful, intriguing essay title and the rest of the paper!
How to Come Up with a Title for an Essay
The answer to the question ‘how to come up with a title for an essay’ should start with the brief definition of this academic assignment to make a student understand the value of a good title. What is every student’s primary goal? Each student needs the highest grade. An essay is the most common type of academic paper assigned at the school and college level on any type of topic, with the main goal to cover a particular piece of information in the most comprehensive way. A successful essay is the one, which covers the topic in full, presents a sound thesis statement, provides valuable supporting arguments and evidence, and concludes the idea clearly.
One of the factors is how to title an essay. The name a seller gives to its product or parents give to their baby reflects the essence and predetermines the future of the object. In case of a literary piece, a powerful title for an essay is the one, which can make the reader understand the core problem to be discussed form the beginning. It helps to understand whether a potential reader needs that information.
The rest of the article explains how to create a title for an essay based on the professional writing tips and samples of the best ideas.
How to Choose a Good Title for an Essay
Explore the list of the primary tips explaining how to choose a good title for an essay.
- Finish the final draft of the essay before thinking about the title. It is simpler to come up with the relevant title knowing the entire essay’s structure and the arguments discussed. It is important to read the piece minimum twice to create a sound title.
- Decide on the tone of the academic piece – serious, funny, friendly, strict, informative, persuasive, warm, etc. A personal statement should include as many moods as possible to impress the admissions board. The title must match the tone of the paper.
- Highlight several keywords/key phrases to include in the title of your work to make the assignment optimized. Like famous bloggers optimize their articles on the Internet to obtain higher traffic, a student should do the same with his/her academic paper to attract the teacher's attention. This way, it is possible to earn a better grade. The keywords should be strict-to-the-point to be effective.
- Stick to the accepted formula offered by the academic experts meaning a title must start with the single or more introductory words that sound creative, followed by a line of the direct statement talking what the essay is about. This formula works perfectly.
- Discover a quote that corresponds to a single theme/central idea of the essay. Start entering the particular word into the search engine (Google, Yahoo) by adding the word “quote” to check several good websites with relevant in-text quotations. Pick the fragment of the quotation to use in your essay. In creative assignments, it is possible to apply a long song lyric. Writing a book/movie report or critical review requires a part of a thought-provoking quote from the source. For a paper on Macbeth, try "Toil and trouble: Murder and intrigue in Macbeth."
How to Title an Essay Based on Professional Tips?
Readers judge the book by its cover. 3 basic elements every student should keep in mind to learn how to title an essay are:
- Main topic summary
- Hook sentence
- Thing that makes an essay stand out from the pool of papers
It is a hard job to meet these criteria. The 3 expert tips will help to how to pick a title for an essay.
- Apple appropriate vocabulary: Being unable to stop writing on time including every single word a student knows is worse than being unable to start writing. Get to the point without wasting the time of your reader. Apply several relevant keywords/key phrases as triggers that will grab the reader’s attention and force to keep on reading the text.
- Stay away from the abbreviations/jargon/slang: In most situations, an academic paper should exclude any type of slang/jargon/abbreviations. A student should interpret an abbreviation minimum once in the text when it shows up for the initial time to use it further in the text. A variety of complex abbreviations will scare off the audience.
- Keep it simple & clear: It is about making things short and staying accurate. The primary mission of a good title for an essay is to name a paper, meaning there is no need to tell the whole story in the opening line. Think about favorite movie /ad’s slogan that draws your attention. Go to the websites of the professional copywriters of the world and collect the best ideas on a separate paper. A newsfeed is another good place to observe.
How to Make a Creative Title for an Essay?
By knowing how to make a creative title for an essay, the author automatically learns the ways to make a product for sale out of his written piece. Mind these 20 brilliant ideas to learn how to write a title for an essay!
- Pick a single sentence from the entire text of the draft – a clear, complete topic sentence may be a great title idea.
- Do not forget about What, Who, When, Why, How, or Where questions. A title that starts with a question has higher chances to make the reader intrigued and read the work from cover to cover.
- Think about a surprising image that has nothing to do with the chosen topic.
- The header does not necessarily have to tell the truth on the given topic – by starting with the lie, it is possible to capture the reader’s pure interest.
- Try to describe the topic with a single word/phrase.
- Collect the best ideas related to the field of study and rewrite them.
- One more thing to help a student with the choice of the opening paper’s line is the list of top catchy essay titles examples.
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30 Catchy Essay Titles Examples
How to come up with an essay title? Another helping hand is the list of the impressive examples a reader will not forget.
Argumentative Essay Titles Examples
- You can heal your life
- 8 habits of effective people
- Ways to win friends & influence people
- Arthritis & common sense
- Steroids kill sportsmen brains
- The era of technological zombies is coming
- Corrupted world of politics
- Threats & opportunities of using mobile phones
- Virtual dating as the scourge of our times
- Reasons why a person should better keep silent
Eye-catching Essay Titles Examples
- Is suicide a brave act of cowardice?
- Who has a right to murder?
- The moral aspects of cloning
- Plagiarism – the primary academic crime
- Sex education in schools makes no sense
- The meaning of all-round education in modern world
- Monkey talks: The way animals communicate with each other
- 50 shadows of Darwinism
- GMOs – the savior of hunger-related issue
- Hiking at night
English Essay Titles Examples
- Does justice exist?
- Can parents nurture child’s talent?
- Searching for love: The day I met my soulmate
- Over-sheltering kids and the consequences of excessive care
- A moment of solitude: The day I realized the importance of time
- The way sorrow feels: Student’s first experience
- The most heartbreaking moments of life
- Do not challenge the goose
- A healthy look at television paranoia
- Tales of an introvert: Things that help to reveal the silent nature
Check the list of compare & contrast essay ideas here.
The Final Words
How to title an essay? To conclude, a student should remember 4 easy rules necessary to introduce a nice title:
- Content awareness
- Tone reflection
- Keywords/Key phrases
Would you like to get some online help with the essay title? Our company has established a premium essay title generator, which will come up with the best ideas based on the smart algorithm. Giving a title to your essay is half the battle. The mission is to write the rest of the essay the way it matches the expectations a reader may have after reading the title. That is why experts recommend hiring professional academic writers from a variety of fields to obtain the top-quality content to impress the teacher and other potential readers!