By Megan Harlan
Updated September 08, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Atwan assemble ”a history of America told in many voices” in the outstanding, galvanic collection The Best American Essays of the Century. Mark Twain’s 1901 ”Corn-pone Opinions” — a blistering diatribe against conformity — sets the tone for these 55 essays from the last 100 years, organized chronologically, prove richly varied indeed. Oates says she favored pieces ”in which private contemplation touches on crucial public issues” — so James Baldwin’s brilliantly ironic meditation on race, ”Notes of a Native Son,” rubs shoulders with environmental writer Rachel Carson’s luminous ”The Marginal World.” Whether reportage (Didion’s ”The White Album”), cultural criticism (Sontag’s ”Notes on ‘Camp”’), or memoir (Nabokov’s ”Perfect Past”), all the essays transcend fashion and speak just as eloquently to us today as they did when they were first published. A