Taking a literary stroll through our times

Wednesday Book The Penguin Book of Twentieth-Century Essays edited by Ian Hamilton (Allen Lane, pounds 20)
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The Independent Culture
IAN HAMILTON'S superb, if highly personal, selection of 20th-century essays is yet another Millennium tie-in. However, this is no rushed affair. Hamilton is a considerable essayist himself, and his anthology has judiciously sifted the gems from the dross.

In this century of unparalleled atrocity, the Great War produced essays of satirical ferocity and raw power. The poet Edmund Blunden urgently communicates the carnage of the trenches in "The Somme Still Flows". At the outbreak of the conflict, he shared the patriotic ideals of his officer class. Then, after 60,000 allied troops were mown down on the first day of the Somme, Blunden returned home to inveigh against the hollow pieties of his leaders. In the poet's "sad scrawl of broken earth and murdered men", it seemed the 20th century had tumbled into chaos.

Hiroshima, Auschwitz and Stalin's technocratic Russia were all testimony to man's misuse of technology. Hannah Arendt, in her essay "The Concentration Camps", turns a cold eye on the most total evil of our time. The extrovert scientific confidence of Edwardians such as H G Wells is no more.

A key aspect of the mid-20th century, argues Hamilton, was the quarrel between popular and serious culture. Keats or Dylan? No artefact was too lowly for George Orwell's razor analysis. His legendary essay "England Your England" looked at seaside postcards for evidence of snobbery and smut. Years later, the French guru Roland Barthes would apply literary judgement to ephemera in much the same way. W H Auden's cheeky celebration of detective fiction, "The Guilty Vicarage", is also included.

Unexpected revelations emerge. Peter York and other designer ninnies were foreshadowed by the 1930s Punch journalist, A P Herbert. His "About Bathrooms" amounts to an apology for interior decoration and provides an amusingly mandarin analysis of the mundane. Hamilton selects other landmark essays. Koestler's famous attack on Aldous Huxley in 1967, "Return Trip to Nirvana", is an early installment in the Anglo-American drug debate. He challenges Huxley's crackpot credo that hallucinogens might provide us with a breathing space from modern life.

Our vogue for confessional memoirs was anticipated 60 years ago by F Scott Fitzgerald. His account here of the alcoholic heebie-jeebies, "The Crack-Up", is a masterpiece of the genre. Occasionally the therapist's couch shows in the writing. Yet rarely has the moaning after the night before been so pitilessly analysed.

Christopher Hitchens's own bravura performance, "On Not Knowing the Half of It: My Jewish Self", is a confession of a different order. Here the scourge of conservative America relates the chance discovery of his Jewish identity. It reads like a striking hybrid of Montaigne and Gore Vidal.

If there is a pattern in this anthology, it lies in Hamilton's tastes for waspish New Yorker-ese. EB White and James Thurber are clear favourites, as is the wildcat Baltimore journalist H L Mencken. Some of the best essayists this century are American; only a wordy journal like The New Yorker can accommodate the long stroll perfected by Gore Vidal. In Britain, there is simply no equivalent.

Only one essay here - Elizabeth Hardwick's disgusted appreciation of Lee Harvey Oswald - hints at how politics has become a glossy adjunct of advertising. Oswald's own assassination fantasies interlocked lethally with the image of JFK projected across the media landscape and the embrace of TV make-believe.

Unfortunately, this anthology has little to say about the giant communications umbrella that has unfurled over the entire planet this century. In fact, Hamilton has omitted science altogether. With lacunae like these, one might think that test-tube babies, the Internet and the moon landings never happened.

Yet Hamilton's selection is a glory to read. Inevitably, many of his friends are here (A Alvarez, Julian Barnes, Jonathan Raban). The essay looks in fine fettle, even if the impression remains of a charmed circle. Excited by pretty well anything of human concern, interest and puzzlement (except science), Hamilton has produced an immensely readable volume. He upholds the sterling virtue of good writing combined with emotional and intellectual engagement.

Ian Thomson