THE BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS: 1989 Edited by Geoffrey Wolff, Series Editor Robert Atwan,
New York: Ticknor & Fields, 298 pp., $17.95
FLASHBACK. 1970s. Public high school, English class. (It just happens to be the one I'm teaching, Bozeman, Mont.)
Sophomores: ``Why do we have to read this? I don't want to read this. This is boring. I hate to read.''
Teacher: ``Time out! Any book, poem, play assigned may be a dud, to you. Fine. But here's a simple fact you have to live with: If you find you don't like most of what we read the problem is yours, not literature's. End of discussion. Turn to page...''
That is an altogether healthy approach to this collection of essays, the fourth in an annual series, ``made up largely of personal writing ... intimate, candid, revealing, close to the pulse of human experience.'' Readers may not like some of these essays. But anyone who does not find most of them all that the editors claim them to be - ``stories that are at once artful, true and `believable''' - that reader owns the problem.
The editors scanned, read, and then selected 21 essays out of some 300 from mainstream and not-so-mainstream publications. Their collective impact offers an original discussion of the unique challenge the personal essay presents for a writer: striking a ``delicate balance'' between ``literary `persona' and literal persona.'' The genre lives or dies on the marriage of literary imagination and autobiographical memory.
However, such a union is two-edged. Objective observation, one of the mainstays of essays in general, is much more suspect when it is a personal essay. The personal essay easily tempts a writer to ``arrive'' at self-discovery in a way that is contrived, or self-serving. An autobiographical narrator compounds the reader's task if he or she engages in self-deception.
One other caution with this genre: Be on guard for anticlimactic endings. Denouements often echo like the tearing curtain in Hamlet. The young Prince thrusts to kill the uncle who defiled his mother only, mistakenly, to stab the hapless Polonius. The grand self-sought, becomes the not so grand self-found.
``The Best American Essays'' contains people with experiences we barely recognize, people whose lives differ so much from our own they attract through sheer wonder. Richard Ford's ``Accomodations,'' from ``Banana Republic Trips,'' is raised in his grandfather's hotel in Little Rock, Ark.; Leonard Kriegel's, ``Falling into Life,'' from ``The American Scholar,'' is stricken with polio at age 11.
Some writers experience events so strange their confusion would make strangers of us all, as in Judy Ruiz's ``Oranges and Sweet Sister Boy, from ``Iowa Woman.'' Her brother has surgically become her sister.
My favorites are: ``A Snapping Turtle in June,'' by Franklin Burroughs, from the ``Georgia Review,'' and ``Who Owns the West,'' by William Kittredge, from ``Harper's.'' One braves evil in his imagination, the other in his heart.
Burroughs relates how a large snapping turtle, a malevolent beast crawling through nature's id, blocks the path he strolls with his six-year-old daughter one summer day in Maine. Memories, more powerful and merciless than the turtles's jaws, lock. The experience evokes men and muscle and malice from his adolescence in South Carolina. The father muses, futilely, on how he might keep the destructiveness the creature represents from ever clamping on his daughter's life.
Kittredge came of age on the physical certainties of sky and land, sun and horizon, a 1950s boyhood in the high desert country of southeastern Oregon. But once his memory shifts from hunting waterfowl as a boy with a shotgun to hunting life as an adult with a pen, he quickly targets himself. He confronts the universal problem of regret. If only he had done something differently he could ``forget'' the guilt of self-betrayal.
There are a few essays that, however well-written, one just doesn't like because the author is dead wrong; the selection suggests a political drift or moral ambivalence averse to one's beliefs; or a style of writing that seeks to confuse deliberately rather than enlighten, probing darkness in the human spirit with more darkness.
Political conservatives can only hope the pathetic, elitist lament of Joan Didion (``Insider Baseball'' from the ``New York Review of Books,'') broadly reflects the literary left's blindness to the ``game'' of television politics. Bring on more teams managed by Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis. Even Dan Quayle will win in '96.
If there is one thing missing in this collection, and this may not be the editors' fault since they cannot offer what has not been written, it is the experiences of men and women who have led large organizations, held sway over hundreds, if not thousands of lives. Overly self-conscious egos are to be guarded against. Make too much of them and you are left on a minimalist bench peeling peaches with J. Alfred Prufrock.