In February, Guernica magazine published “What We Owe History,” an interview with John D’Agata ’95, professor of English and director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa.
D’Agata is the author of “The Lifespan of a Fact” (with Jim Fingal) and “About a Mountain,” which was named by the New York Times as one of the 100 Best Nonfiction Books Ever Written. In the interview, he discusses his books, the merits of formal experimentation and his conception of the essay.
“I think that in a lot of readers’ minds the essay is a lot more utilitarian than it is art,” D’Agata says in the interview. “And so one of the projects of this series has been to encourage us to pay more attention to form, as you put it, and to what’s technically happening on the page. Because I think if we can do that then readers might be more willing to think of these texts as purposefully constructed works of art.”
He says he hopes “to call into question the dominance of content over form in the history of the essay. I want us to recognize that there’s art involved in making this stuff, because we still don’t approach the constructed nature of the essay with the same appreciation that we do poetry or fiction.”
D’Agata’s first collection of lyric essays, “Halls of Fame,” was published by Graywolf Press and was a finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Lannan Foundation, the Howard Foundation, and the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies. He is the editor of “A New History of the Essay,” a three-volume series from Graywolf that includes “The Next American Essay” (2003), “The Lost Origins of the Essay” (2009), and the forthcoming “The Making of the American Essay” (March 2016).
A summa cum laude Hobart graduate, D’Agata was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and earned High Honors. He later completed an M.F.A. in both poetry and nonfiction at the Iowa Writers Workshop.
In 2006, he joined the faculty at the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, the top-ranked program in the country, which D’Agata now directs. At Iowa, he teaches courses on the history of the essay, experiments in essaying, and a variety of workshops.
He is currently working on a translation of a book by the ancient Greek writer Plutarch, as well as a new collection of his own essays.