Return of the American Essayist

Against Everything: Essays, Mark Greif, Pantheon, 320 pages

For roughly five years, through the latter half of the last decade, my life was lived abroad. When not deployed to Iraq with the Army, I was stationed in a series of small German towns and villages. Neither Baghdad nor Schweinfurt were very “American,” by any rendering of that vague and elusive term. And anyone who has been stationed abroad with the military understands that the conditions—living intimately with a small group of people in a context created and administered by a distant bureaucracy—fosters the cultivation of a subculture all its own, recognizable only as an approximation or caricature of the larger American culture left behind.

I could feel this weird entropic relationship with the changes in American culture playing out when I talked to my friends back home. Books I’d never heard of, music I’d never listened to, news that never made the front page of Stars and Stripes, all began to accumulate into a force field of cultural detritus, pushing us apart. What was happening back home? What was the “intellectual situation”?

The magazine n + 1, founded in New York by a handful of then-unknown (and now “famous” in that particular anti-celebrity of cultural critics and poets) young intellectuals in 2004 became for me a kind of subscribers-only synecdoche of everything that I was missing during my time overseas. Described by co-founder Keith Gessen as “like Partisan Review, but not dead,” n + 1 took on the precocious task of explaining America to itself. Or, if not America, then the parts of American culture that interested the masthead. And if not speaking directly to America’s cultural center of gravity, then at least addressing the villagers who desired to have the village explained to them in a certain high-minded register. It became for me the lodestone to direct my wandering mind, to sate my literary curiosity while at war. I had enough keeping me grounded, but n + 1 kept me tethered to the abstract. I mean, they even called the front of the magazine “The Intellectual Situation.” I kept back issues stuffed in my ruck alongside canteens and socks.

Mark Greif, an n + 1 co-founder who is now a professor at the New School, wrote what were for me the most memorable long essays in the magazine. Chief among them were “Octomom and the Market of Babies,” “The Concept of Experience,” and “What Was the Hipster?” The last of the three was even released in individual book form in 2010, which I dragged apartment to apartment as I moved around Brooklyn after the Army, using it as a kind of field guide to the disappearance of the strange cultural fauna whose decay still haunted the landscape.

With Greif’s best essays finally collected into a single book, Against Everything, and published this year, it’s important to note the moment and place from which they arise. That is, after all, what most of these essays are about, or seek to transcend. The earliest in the collection dates to 2004, and most are from 2010 or before. (The most recent is from 2015, but that one is almost an outlier.) Being a decade or so old, this book can almost be read as a period piece in the same vein as Broyard’s Kafka Was the Rage or one of Edmund Wilson’s decade-studies.

The young, overeducated, and underpaid New York media scene of the mid-aughts seemed to vacillate between two distant but connected poles. One end was predicated upon the nascent blogging scene and best represented by Gawker. (This was the Gawker of the first few incarnations; Gawker was a beast that changed shape and meaning many times throughout its lifespan.) Besides existing entirely online, the bloggy voice was witty, sarcastic, and quasi-nihilist, and it existed entirely in moment-to-moment ephemera. In that world, the bon mot stood in place of long, reasoned analysis. It was the tribe of snark. The other end of the spectrum, represented by n + 1, was almost the exact opposite. It was primarily a print phenomenon, first of all (n + 1 has a website, of course, but it’s basically just an electronic facsimile of the printed magazine). And instead of sticking a snarky dagger in the back of whatever public figure was making a fool of himself at the moment, this other school of discourse would take an event or concept and, in languid and thoughtful prose, slowly unwind it to reveal some hidden meaning. Both modes were ways in which a certain generation of people, living in a certain place, tried their hand at figuring out America. But of the two, the n + 1 method felt more liberating and less neurotic. In it, there was something approaching joy.

As Greif explains in the introduction, his writing begins with “the closest things to us”: food, children, sex, noises. In hewing so closely to his own experiences, Greif’s essays take on a dizzying range and depth. There’s something incredibly American about, not just the sheer variety of subjects (Minor Threat, Iraq, organic food, the ’08 crash, reality television) that Greif takes on, but the unflappable belief in his own ability to get down to the secret heart of things simply by mulling them over. There’s a peculiar optimism in the project, and a confidence that’s as brave as it is naïve. As pragmatic as it is experimental. Individual sentences, breathtaking in their brashness, form the foundation on which he builds his thought:

“It’s a fortunate fate to have your lifetime be contemporary with the creation of a major art form.”

“I’ve wondered why there’s so little philosophy of popular music.”

“Experience tries to evade the disappointments of the world by adding peaks to it.”

“The reason to eat food is no longer mainly hunger.”

Greif mentions the influence of Thoreau in his introduction, and while it’s pretty obvious that his progenitors are the Transcendentalists (and the Pragmatists, Lionel Trilling, and Susan Sontag), Emerson’s transparent eyeball seems a more likely antecedent than Thoreau’s existential imperatives to live out an ethos. Greif is, after all, just a college professor thinking and typing in a well-furnished room. And while his work absorbs all the strengths of the tradition in which it moves—the dizzying belief in the power of human thought, the confidence that one can think up a new world—it also carries along all the weaknesses. A counter-tradition, exemplified by Eliot, Yvor Winters, and the Fugitives, would point out that in Greif’s world there simply isn’t recognition of things like sin, an external deity, the sorrowful ravages of time, or evil (except as a sort of emotional reaction). Robert Penn Warren wrote in his poem “Homage to Emerson, on Night-Flight to New York” that only in a pressurized cabin at 38,000 feet does Emerson seem “right.” Similarly, however beautiful the prose, only five floors up a Brooklyn brownstone does Greif seem unassailably correct.

The weaknesses are there. But the strengths are too, and ten years on they seem even more compelling. The free-ranging thought, without preconceived notion of where it might end up, increase the collection’s value in hindsight while also dating it. A lot has changed in “that whole scene” in the last decade. What might pass for public thinking among the crowd that would have once composed the audience of n + 1 has calcified into political camps, which means the proliferation of simple, predetermined solutions and a narrowing range of interests. Writing, thinking, and talking have become “discourse,” jargon-laden even in non-academic writing, too weighted down with its own self-importance to achieve escape velocity.

And so I was made a bit melancholy while reading this book, nostalgic for a moment in letters that felt more liberated and liberating, where a joyful and serious left-of-center public thinker could ruminate on any number of subjects without hunkering down into the programmatic. Greif is educated, but he wears it lightly. That gives his prose the chance to be something radically accessible—like one of the all-ages punk shows he gushes about. But it also allows his writing to grow into beauty; to, as he himself says of the democratic imagination, incorporate “the sick and unknown not just for the sake of justice, but for a reckless joy.”

Scott Beauchamp is a veteran and writer based in Portland, Maine.