At Large and at Small: Familiar Essays by
Some years back the woman who would become my second mother-in-law pressed a small volume into my hands at Christmas. “I haven’t read it, but she’s Clifton Fadiman’s daughter, so it must be fabulous. You do know Clifton Fadiman, don’t you? ”
Truth be told, I didn’t and probably escaped with some pithy, honest remark that side-stepped the matter entirely. But she was right, the book, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, was fabulous.
And so I discovered Anne Fadiman whose books far too often end up as remainders.
As it turns out, I was already aware of Fadiman. I had merely, and uncharacteristically, failed to associate her name with the book a she wrote bout the Hmong living in Minneapolis, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. That’s probably because I read an extended excerpt and not the book itself. But I remember thinking as I read it that it was better anthropology than a lot of what the academic presses publish. And it stood head and shoulders above that genre I refer to as ‘The Human Zoo.’
This small volume (that’s mostly a physical description although it also applies to the length) contains 12 familiar essays. That adjective before the predicate noun is important. As a long-time reader of The Best American Essays series I can safely say that the form called essay is quite malleable. The familiar essay may be a little less so if only because it requires the agency of the author.
I suspect there may also be another reason for the choice of form. Clifton Fadiman published a piece entitled “A Gentle Dirge for the Familiar Essay” sometime in the mid-20th century. In it he lamented the impending death of the familiar essay (along with a lot of other things that strike the modern reader as a little, well, stuffy.) Countless writers have referred to it since and it seems to strike some as a challenge. In the case of Fadiman fille perfecting the form might well be an act of filial piety.
I did use perfect as a verb there and I didn’t use it loosely. Some writers crank out the verbiage. (William F. Buckley once explained away his own cataract-like output as merely a function of being forced to submit 500-well written words on a different subject every day.) Fadiman is a more lapidary writer and these dozen gems were polished over a period of several years. The author is fully present in each piece , often an active participant in what she’s writing about, whether it’s collecting or river rafting.
While the personal is present it never intrudes. Another writer probably wouldn’t get me to care about moving from New York to the Pioneer Valley but Fadiman did. Likewise I might not go along with another writer’s love of Charles Lamb (a fascinating nut that I’d like to know more about but fear I haven’t the time). Nor did the pieces on coffee or the flying of an American Flag after 9/11 strike an odd note. In each case the personal informed a bigger idea rather than aggrandized the writer.
One unusual feature of this volume was the 12 or so pages of source material listed at the end, arranged by essay. Quite often when you read about how writers spend their time you discover huge chunks allotted to reading. The ‘just write it’ school hates this. But writing is a process of growth. It requires an ongoing dialog with other writers. Too few acknowledge that much of the writer’s work occurs away from the screen and keyboard.
One last word on the personal: The last essay, Under Water, may be among the most powerful things I have ever read. The shortest piece in the collection, it begins by establishing Fadiman’s presence in a summer wilderness program. Quite quickly it moves to a tragedy of life-altering impact. Steeped as I am in a culture of death, I didn’t see it coming and was almost a puddle on the train at the end of the 6 brief pages.
Maybe that explains why I respond to Fadiman’s work; I seem to have a sixth sense for people who have been so scarred. Making a life while carrying scar tissue isn’t unique to Fadiman, me or anyone else. But using it to inform what you do and how you do it, that’s worth our respect. Anne Fadiman has both my respect and admiration.