Who are the great essayists of our time?
November 16, 2006 10:08 PM   Subscribe

Who are the most insightful essayists of our time--not necessarily brilliant academics, but razor-sharp, profound, generalist thinkers and writers on society? Who are our present-day Toquevilles and Twains, our Bacons and Emersons?
posted by shivohum to Society & Culture (45 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
I have a soft spot for George Saunders. Here are some essays, and here's a short story, Sea Oak, and here's an excerpt from another.
posted by maryh at 10:27 PM on November 16, 2006

I really really like Frank Rich.
posted by vito90 at 10:28 PM on November 16, 2006

Interpreting both "present day" and "essayists" liberally:

John D. MacDonald (d. 1985).
John Leonard.
John Le Carre.
Baffler-era Thomas Franks.

The repellent Clotaire de Rapaille.
posted by Phred182 at 10:39 PM on November 16, 2006

Kurt Vonnegut and Bill Hicks.

Vonnegut definitely spent time doing formal essays. He's best known for his novels but if you strictly require essayist status, he qualifies.

Bill Hicks, on the other hand, was a stand-up comedian. You could easily type up his routines and walk away with an essay in your hands, but he's hard to call an essayist. He's someone I would call out with succinct and telling commentary about our society, who was recorded in the act of sharing it.

Do with that what you will :)
posted by scarabic at 10:45 PM on November 16, 2006

lewis lapham. i really miss his presence over at harpers. his understanding of history, and his ability to relate it to the present in a very compelling manner is super(b).

audio of a good speech of his (.wav)
posted by localhuman at 11:05 PM on November 16, 2006

He's a contentious subject here on metafilter, but I think David Foster Wallace is one of the best we've got. Check out the essay/travelogue "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" in the book by the same name. You'll know within 5 pages if he's up your alley.
posted by scarylarry at 11:07 PM on November 16, 2006

Grumble grumble...

With the celebrity status how about Chomsky and Hitchens?
posted by Pollomacho at 11:16 PM on November 16, 2006

I second Noam Chomsky. I also really like Joan Didion.
posted by gt2 at 11:35 PM on November 16, 2006

I used to enjoy P.J. O'Rourke, although he hasn't written anything sharp for a number of years.
posted by KimG at 12:14 AM on November 17, 2006

For a walk on the wild side maybe Hunter S. Thompson. Once you get past all the hooey surrounding Fear & Loathing you realize the guy was really sharp back in the day. I highly recommend The Great Shark Hunt for a taste of his late 60s and early 70s essays.
posted by wfrgms at 12:43 AM on November 17, 2006

Seconding Joan Didion. No original suggestions, tragically.
posted by po at 12:46 AM on November 17, 2006

Wait, wait, I might have one. But my opinion is horribly uninformed. I've long been a fan of Orson Scott Card, though.
posted by po at 12:52 AM on November 17, 2006

I may get pounded for this here, but Andrew Sullivan.
posted by LarryC at 12:58 AM on November 17, 2006

I second PJ O'Rourke.

And how about Michael Ignatieff?
posted by selton at 1:17 AM on November 17, 2006

Seconding Susan Sontag; there's also an entire generation of gay writers throughout the 80s and 90s that write about the aids epidemic as it tore through. Paul Monette is my favorite of these.
posted by metaculpa at 1:32 AM on November 17, 2006

John Berger
On art, culture, politics, history & the human condition.
posted by tveye at 1:41 AM on November 17, 2006

There's a bloke called Thomas Lynch who's maybe a little "soft" to fit your definition, but maybe not. This book of essays is a good start.

And another vote for P J O'Rourke, (if you can count ten years ago - the last time he was really, really good - as being "of our time")
posted by bunglin jones at 2:20 AM on November 17, 2006

Man Without a Country is Vonnegut's latest work and it's all essays. There's a certain dirty old man charm that lifts something like * into something profound.

I'd second HST if you want to capture the rage of being logical, liberal, and of sound moral judgment in modern America. I crack a smile whenever he begins tearing into the "greedheads."

My unique recommendations would be Andrew Sullivan and Matt Taibbi. I don't know what I like so much about Sullivan, but whenever I'm at his site I find myself going through the archives to get more. Taibbi is HST reincarnate, but he's not trying to be HST so it's not as pathetic as every other dim-witted gonzo journalist. He's just really good at what he does.

Might I recommend also my former professors pet project, English Eclectic. He's a medieval historian removed from his job for a drug arrest two years ago and is now trying his hand as a mortgage broker. It's like putting Newton in a McDonald's uniform. His blog is off the wall and touches every conceivable topic. For better or worse, he has no restraints - he'll talk about anything and share his opinions, no matter how awkward. It's fascinating getting the historical tidbits interspersed with cultural and political observations.
posted by trinarian at 2:24 AM on November 17, 2006

I'm partial to Zizek's popular press work. He dips liberally into his academic background but brings it home in the end, IMHO. Writes a lot about international politics. (Lots of links at the end of the wikipedia article.)
posted by wemayfreeze at 2:43 AM on November 17, 2006 [1 favorite]

Chomsky in a debate is definitely "razor sharp" :)
posted by -harlequin- at 3:02 AM on November 17, 2006

Call me crazy but I think the equivalent to a Twain would be more like Garrison Keillor.
posted by Gungho at 4:10 AM on November 17, 2006

Janet Malcolm.
posted by jayder at 5:35 AM on November 17, 2006

I would second a lot of these: Sontag and Didion for sure, Lewis Lapham. D.F.W.'s essays are marvelous, but I'm not sure that they fall into the same general category as Orwell, Tocqueville, et. al., since they are more 'new journalism.' In that category I'm surprised no one has mentioned John McPhee, who is definitely near or at the top (as in "A Roomfull of Hovings," for example).

Other writers who come to mind as excellent essayists in the classic sense, some of them still living and writing: Richard Hofstadter, Lionel Trilling, Marilynne Robinson, Luc Sante. And a lot of the New York Review of Books crowd, too.
posted by josh at 5:37 AM on November 17, 2006

Gungho, you're crazy. Keillor strikes me as complacent, banal and smug, while (though he certainly had attitude) none of those adjectives could be applied to Twain.

#localhuman: Thanks for the clue... I hadn't been aware that Lapham had left Harpers, but see my description of Keillor above, and add "long-winded". It will be interesting to see how his new venture transpires.

As far as contemporary essayists I actually enjoy, I do miss Stephen Jay Gould. And I always enjoy reading anything by Rebecca Solnit or Oliver Sacks. And Chomsky. And Didion.
posted by trip and a half at 5:41 AM on November 17, 2006

Not as intellectual/learned as a lot of other suggestions in this thread, but Sarah Vowell is damn funny, and, imho, really quite deep as well.
posted by AwkwardPause at 6:04 AM on November 17, 2006

Fourthing or whatever Joan Didion. I've just read 'Slouching towards Bethlehem' for the first time and it's just phenomenal. Next on the list is her latest, 'The Year of Magical Thinking'.
posted by altolinguistic at 6:17 AM on November 17, 2006

Studs Terkel. More of an interviewer perhaps, but I'm going to put him in anyhow.
Andrei Codrescu.
More on the tech side is Steven Berliner Johnson

If we include Andrew Sullivan, do we then include Michael Kinsley?
posted by adamrice at 6:56 AM on November 17, 2006

I'm partial to to the above mentioned PJ O'Rourke and Hitchens as well (particularly, Parliment of Whores and Unacknowledeged Legislation Respectively).

David Foster Wallace's journalism/essays also tend to be far more accessible than much of his fiction and they are fantastic. The bit on pornography in Consider the Lobster was the best thing I have read on the subject.

Also, Martin Amis' essays are quite good.
posted by Heminator at 7:20 AM on November 17, 2006

I am fond of Bernard-Henri Levi, his work is quite reminiscent of Toqueville, in a fashion.
posted by msali at 7:33 AM on November 17, 2006

I agree that Wallace is one of the best, if not the best essayist alive. His "Shipping Out" essay can be read here; his essay on Lost Highway and David Lynch can be read here; a PDF of his lobster essay is here; &c, &c....I could go on.

I'd also recommend the book of essays "Orphans" by Charles D'Ambrosio. Really top-notch quality there.

Also, maybe, Dave Hickey.
posted by mattbucher at 7:44 AM on November 17, 2006

Andrei Codrescu has always held my attention.

but apparently he can't hold his domain!
posted by Mr. Gunn at 8:19 AM on November 17, 2006

Although I don't often agree with his opinions, Steve Sailor is doing some really interesting and unique writing.
posted by callmejay at 8:37 AM on November 17, 2006

Who are our present-day Toquevilles and Twains, our Bacons and Emersons?

Adding a vote for (late 60s - 70s) Didion, but after reviewing 33 answers, including mine, my conclusion is, there really aren't any.

How depressing.

On the bright side, there are a bunch of present-day H.L. Menckens, so there's at least some good stuff to read.
posted by Phred182 at 8:56 AM on November 17, 2006 [1 favorite]

No list is complete without the great Phillip Lopate. Also, Ron Rosenbaum and David Foster Wallace. And check out this Ask MeFi thread.
posted by timnyc at 10:32 AM on November 17, 2006

Wendell Berry. In particular The Hidden Wound. I'm also a fan of a lot of what's in Recollected Essays, but IMHO, Wound is the finest stuff he's written.

Orson Scott Card, though.

I like Orson Scott Card when he's genuinely trying to illuminate a pathway he's walking down. When he has an adversary, however, I've noticed he has a distinct tendency to turn his storytelling abilities towards ugly and sometimes non-sequitor tales about them. I therefore find him somewhat useless on politics.
posted by weston at 10:38 AM on November 17, 2006 [1 favorite]

Paul Goodman is my favorite, though he died in '72. At one point he was invited to speak at a National Security Industry Alliance conference (basically the military-industrial complex gathered together). In his speech, he suggested that the best thing the group could do was immediately dissolve itself. Before he spoke, he invited some student friends of his to picket the auditorium during his speech.

He also wrote a sentence that represents my political views very well:
For green grass and clean rivers, children with bright eyes and good color, and people safe from being pushed around—for a few things like these, I find I am pretty ready to think away most other political, economic, and technological advantages.
As an anarchist, he had a pretty broad definition of being pushed around.
posted by nasreddin at 10:38 AM on November 17, 2006

I also enjoy reading essayist/blogger-musician/artist/globetrotter/eccentric Momus, although he's usually full of sh*t.
posted by timnyc at 10:46 AM on November 17, 2006

I'll second Wendell Berry. He's the probably only current essayist who has really challenged some of my fundamental beliefs and made me rethink them. I don't always agree with him, but I feel like I can't dismiss what he's saying very easily. The fact that he writes from mostly outside the academic / mainstream intellectual worlds and their assumptions has a lot to do with this, I think. Thomas Frank has much of the same appeal, though he doesn't challenge me as much since I tend to agree with him more. Naomi Klein is good, but what she is doing is more analytical journalism than pure essays much of the time.

In more traditional veins, Richard Rorty, Umberto Eco, DFW, Louis Menand, and James Wolcott are all good, but none of them strike me as really central or relevant to the culture at large. Pretty slim pickings public-intellectual-wise these days. I go to a large and varying selection bloggers for this kind of stuff more often than not these days.
posted by jdunn_entropy at 2:37 PM on November 17, 2006

Christopher Hitchens was brilliant up until 11 September 2001 or shortly thereafter, when he went completely mad. His older collections For the Sake of Argument and Prepared for the Worst contain some of the best and funniest essay writing I have ever encountered. If you only know him by his recent output you are missing out.

I also quite like Clive James.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 2:38 PM on November 17, 2006

I don't know if he's one of the great essayists of our time but I've really enjoyed the Nick Hornby essays that I've read. Titles include Fever Pitch, 31 Songs, The Polysyllabic Spree and Housekeeping vs. the Dirt.
posted by dgeiser13 at 6:25 PM on November 17, 2006

Wendell Berry is great, I can't believe he didn't pop into my mind, also:
Masanobu Fukuoka Wes Jackson
Bill Mollison
posted by sneakyalien at 3:45 PM on November 19, 2006

Not as intellectual/learned as a lot of other suggestions in this thread, but Sarah Vowell is damn funny, and, imho, really quite deep as well.

You know, you could probably throw in a lot of the This American Life contributors, Sarah, David Sedaris, Ira...
posted by Pollomacho at 11:56 PM on November 19, 2006

annie dillard
posted by henryis at 4:38 PM on November 22, 2006

George F. Will.
posted by cribcage at 9:37 PM on March 13, 2007

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