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Historical Essays Of Famous People

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).

A list of famous people, chosen mainly from the nineteenth, twentieth or twenty-first centuries. This list includes famous actors, politicians, entrepreneurs, writers, artists and humanitarians.

  1. Marilyn Monroe (1926 – 1962) American actress, singer, model
  2. Abraham Lincoln (1809 – 1865) US President during American civil war
  3. Mother Teresa (1910 – 1997) Macedonian Catholic missionary nun
  4. John F. Kennedy (1917 – 1963) US President 1961 – 1963
  5. Martin Luther King (1929 – 1968)  American civil rights campaigner
  6. Nelson Mandela (1918 – 2013)  South African President anti-apartheid campaigner
  7. Queen Elizabeth II (1926 – ) British monarch since 1954
  8. Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965) British Prime Minister during WWII
  9. Donald Trump (1946 – ) Businessman, politician
  10. Bill Gates (1955 – ) American businessman, founder of Microsoft
  11. Muhammad Ali (1942 – 2016) American Boxer and civil rights campaigner
  12. Mahatma Gandhi (1869 – 1948) Leader of Indian independence movement
  13. Margaret Thatcher (1925 – 2013) British Prime Minister 1979 – 1990
  14. Christopher Columbus (1451 – 1506) Italian explorer
  15. Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) British scientist, theory of evolution
  16. Elvis Presley (1935 – 1977) American musician
  17. Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955) German scientist, theory of relativity
  18. Paul McCartney (1942 – ) British musician, member of Beatles
  19. Queen Victoria ( 1819 – 1901) British monarch 1837 – 1901
  20. Pope Francis (1936 – ) First pope from the Americas
  21. Jawaharlal Nehru (1889 – 1964) Indian Prime Minister 1947 – 1964
  22. Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) Italian, painter, scientist, polymath
  23. Vincent Van Gogh (1853 – 1890) Dutch artist
  24. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882 – 1945) US President 1932 – 1945
  25. Pope John Paul II (1920 – 2005) Polish Pope
  26. Thomas Edison ( 1847 – 1931) American inventor
  27. Rosa Parks (1913 – 2005)  American civil rights activist
  28. Aung San Suu Kyi (1945 – ) Burmese opposition leader
  29. Lyndon Johnson (1908 – 1973) US President 1963 – 1969
  30. Ludwig Beethoven (1770 – 1827) German composer
  31. Oprah Winfrey (1954 – ) American TV presenter, actress, entrepreneur
  32. Indira Gandhi (1917 – 1984) Prime Minister of India 1966 – 1977
  33. Eva Peron (1919 – 1952) First Lady of Argentina 1946 – 1952
  34. Benazir Bhutto (1953 – 2007) Prime Minister of Pakistan 1993 – 1996
  35. George Orwell (1903 – 1950) British author
  36. Desmond Tutu (1931 – ) South African Bishop and opponent of apartheid
  37. Dalai Lama (1938 – ) Spiritual and political leader of Tibetans
  38. Walt Disney (1901 – 1966) American film producer
  39. Neil Armstrong (1930 – 2012) US astronaut
  40. Peter Sellers (1925 – 1980) British actor and comedian
  41. Barack Obama (1961 – ) US President 2008 – 2016
  42. Malcolm X (1925 – 1965) American Black nationalist leader
  43. J.K.Rowling (1965 – ) British author
  44. Richard Branson (1950 – ) British entrepreneur
  45. Pele (1940 – ) Brazilian footballer, considered greatest of 20th century.
  46. Angelina Jolie (1975 – ) Actress, director, humanitarian
  47. Jesse Owens (1913 – 1980) US track athlete, 1936 Olympics
  48. Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961) American author
  49. John Lennon (1940 – 1980) British musician, member of the Beatles
  50. Henry Ford (1863 – 1947) US Industrialist
  51. Haile Selassie (1892 – 1975) Emperor of Ethiopia 1930 – 1974
  52. Joseph Stalin (1879 – 1953) Leader of Soviet Union 1924 – 1953
  53. Lord Baden Powell (1857 – 1941) British Founder of scout movement
  54. Michael Jordon (1963 – ) US Basketball star
  55. George Bush Jnr (1946 – ) US President 2000-2008
  56. Vladimir Lenin (1870 – 1924) Leader of Russian Revolution 1917
  57. Ingrid Bergman (1915 – 1982) Swedish actress
  58. Fidel Castro (1926 – ) President of Cuba 1976 – 2008
  59. Leo Tolstoy (1828 – 1910) Russian author and philosopher
  60. Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973) Spanish modern artist
  61. Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900) Irish author, poet, playwright
  62. Coco Chanel (1883 – 1971) French fashion designer
  63. Charles de Gaulle (1890 – 1970) French resistance leader and President 1959 – 1969
  64. Amelia Earhart (1897 – 1937) Aviator
  65. John M Keynes (1883 – 1946) British economist
  66. Louis Pasteur (1822 – 1895) French chemist and microbiologist
  67. Mikhail Gorbachev (1931 – ) Leader of Soviet Union 1985 – 1991
  68. Plato (423 BC – 348 BC) Greek philosopher
  69. Adolf Hitler (1889 – 1945) leader of Nazi Germany 1933 – 1945
  70. Sting (1951 – ) British musician
  71. Mary Magdalene (4 BCE – 40CE) devotee of Jesus Christ
  72. Alfred Hitchcock (1899 – 1980) English / American film producer, director
  73. Michael Jackson (1958 – 2009) American musician
  74. Madonna (1958 – ) American musician, actress, author
  75. Mata Hari (1876 – 1917) Dutch exotic dancer, executed as spy
  76. Cleopatra (69 – 30 BCE) Queen of Egypt
  77. Grace Kelly (1929 – 1982) American actress, Princess of Monaco
  78. Steve Jobs (1955 – 2012) co-founder of Apple computers
  79. Ronald Reagan (1911 – 2004) US President 1981-1989
  80. Lionel Messi (1987 – ) Argentinian footballer
  81. Babe Ruth (1895 – 1948) American baseball player
  82. Bob Geldof (1951 – ) Irish musician, charity worker
  83. Leon Trotsky (1879 – 1940) Russian Marxist revolutionary
  84. Roger Federer (1981 – ) Swiss Tennis player
  85. Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) Austrian psychoanalyst
  86. Woodrow Wilson (1856 – 1924) US president 1913 – 1921
  87. Mao Zedong (1893 – 1976) Leader of Chinese Communist revolution
  88. Katherine Hepburn (1907 – 2003) American actress
  89. Audrey Hepburn (1929 – 1993) British actress and humanitarian
  90. David Beckham (1975 – )  English footballer
  91. Tiger Woods (1975 – ) American golfer
  92. Usain Bolt (1986 – ) Jamaican athlete and Olympian
  93. Carl Lewis (1961 – ) US athlete and Olympian
  94. Prince Charles (1948 – )  Heir to British throne
  95. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (1929 – 1994) American wife of JF Kennedy
  96. C.S. Lewis (1898 – 1963) British author
  97. Billie Holiday (1915 – 1959) American jazz singer
  98. J.R.R. Tolkien (1892 – 1973) British author
  99. Billie Jean King (1943 – ) American tennis player and human rights activist
  100. Anne Frank (1929 – 1945) Dutch Jewish author who died in Holocaust

More famous people

  1. Simon Bolivar (1783 – 1830) Venezuelan independence activist in South America.
  2. Marie Antoinette (1755 – 1793) French Queen, executed during the French revolution
  3. Cristiano Ronaldo (1985 – ) Portuguese footballer.
  4. Emmeline Pankhurst  (1858 – 1928) English suffragette.
  5. Emile Zatopek (1922 – 2000) Czech athlete
  6. Lech Walesa (1943 – ) Polish leader of Solidarity movement
  7. Julie Andrews (1935 – ) British singer, actress
  8. Florence Nightingale (1820 – 1910) British nurse
  9. Marie Curie (1867 – 1934) Polish / French scientist
  10. Stephen Hawking (1942 – ) British scientist
  11. Tim Berners Lee (1955 – ) English creator of World Wide Web
  12. Lance Armstrong (1971 – ) American cyclist
  13. Shakira (1977 – ) Colombian singer
  14. Jon Stewart (1962 – ) American comedian
  15. Wright Brothers  Orville (1871 – 1948) and Wilbur (1867 – 1912) American inventors, aviation pioneers
  16. Roman Abramovich (1966 – ) Russian oligarch
  17. Tom Cruise (1962 – ) American actor
  18. Rupert Murdoch (1931 – ) Media owner of News Corporation
  19. Al Gore (1948 – ) US presidential candidate and environmental campaigner
  20. Sacha Baron Cohen (1971 – ) English comedian
  21. George Clooney (1961 – ) American actor and political activist
  22. Paul Krugman (1953 – ) American Nobel Prize winning economist
  23. Jimmy Wales (1966 – ) American creator of Wikipedia
  24. Brad Pitt (1963 – ) Actor
  25. Kylie Minogue (1968 – ) Australian singer and actress
  26. Malala Yousafzai (1997 – ) Pakistani human rights activist
  27. Stephen King (1947 – ) American author

More Famous people

Famous historical figures: A list of famous people throughout the ages, which includes people from ancient civilisations to the present.

100 Famous Women: A list of 100 famous women from the arts, sport, literature, acting and politics.

100 most influential people – A list of 100 most influential people as chosen by Michael H. Hast, from his book 100 most influential people in the world. Includes; Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Lord Buddha, Confucius, St Paul and Johann Gutenberg.

People who changed the world – Famous people who changed the course of history including Socrates, Newton, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Queen Victoria, Catherine the Great, Einstein and Gandhi.

Women who changed the world – Famous women who changed the world. Features female Prime Ministers, scientists, cultural figures, authors and royalty. Includes; Cleopatra, Princess Diana, Marie Curie, Queen Victoria, and Joan of Arc.

Famous People Through History

Famous by Nationality

Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Top 100 Famous People”, Oxford, UK. www.biographyonline.net, 31/01/2016. Last updated 28 Feb 2018.

1000 Years of Famous People at Amazon

Famous People by Category

Famous by religion

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