The familiar essay: a delight in the hands of Anne Fadiman
Head and heart join together beautifully in 'At Large and At Small.'
Would someone please hire Anne Fadiman to edit another magazine so she'll keep writing essays?
As editor at large of Civilization magazine, Fadiman produced the wonderful pieces, mainly about books, collected in 1998 in "Ex Libris," a volume I've probably bought for more people than any other in my life.
She wrote 11 of the 12 essays in At Large and At Small for The American Scholar, which she edited from 1997 to 2004. Their publication in book form is cause for rejoicing.
But it's also a cause for concern, since the flow of essays stopped when (in a move that demonstrates that good grades do not always equal great smarts), the Phi Beta Kappa Society, publisher of The American Scholar, let her go.
Fadiman, a self-proclaimed "enthusiastic amateur, not a scholar," writes so knowledgeably and charmingly about her passions – which include Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, circadian biorhythms and disruption of same by coffee, and "the compulsion to order experience" – manifested in her youthful butterfly collecting – that her readers become passionate about her.
Originally published under the apt pseudonym Philonoë – "lover of intellect" – these essays will be familiar to readers of The American Scholar, though that is not what Fadiman means by "familiar essays." The familiar essay is a genre that reached its heyday in the early 19th century with one of her great crushes, Charles Lamb. His legacy, she laments in "The Unfuzzy Lamb," is kept alive mainly by university English departments, "the ICUs of literature."
Fadiman explains her devotion to the familiar form in the book's lovely Preface: "Today's readers encounter plenty of critical essays (more brain than heart) and plenty of personal – very personal – essays (more heart than brain), but not many familiar essays (equal measures of both)."
A typical Fadiman essay begins with an engaging personal anecdote before branching out into the history of the subject in question. As her extensive bibliography indicates, research aplenty goes into each piece. But it's all so delightful, it's like eating a meal that is both good for you and delicious.
"Mail," for example, opens with a portrait of her father, writer Clifton Fadiman, waiting for his day to really start with the arrival of the daily post. From there, she examines British postal history, noting that mail was delivered 10-12 times a day in pretelephonic 17th-century central London. She recounts her own struggles with e-mail and concludes that we get the level of service we need.
"A Piece of Cotton" is a sensitive meditation on the American flag and Fadiman's newfound respect for it after 9/11. Before tracing its Latin roots to vexillum, she explains that the old farmhouse she and her husband bought the summer before 9/11 came with an American flag.
"On September 13, two days after the attacks, we raised it, with our children's help, to half staff." Being a Fadiman, she adds, "We'd read up on half-masting protocol, which dictates raising the flag briskly to the peak and then slowly bringing it halfway down."
Another classic Fadiman line, in her essay on ice cream, again folds in information as deliciously as blend-ins: "I recently calculated (assuming an average consumption of one pint of ice cream per week, at 1,000 calories per pint, and the American Medical Association's reckoning of 3,500 calories per pound of stored body fat) that had I eaten no ice cream since the age of 18, I would currently weigh –416 pounds."
Then she adds the clincher: "I might be lighter than air, but I would be miserable."
A confessed "loquacious workaholic" and lover of sesquipedalians – long words – Fadiman shares her prodigious vocabulary with her readers, always carefully defining her more abstruse mots justes (such as polysemous, defined as "having multiple meanings") for the less lexicographically lubricated among us.
She also confesses that "in the spirit of participatory journalism," several essays were "written under the influence," though not of alcohol, since she long ago decided she preferred caffeine.
She notes, "I ingested a shocking amount of Häagen-Dazs while I wrote about ice cream. I sustained a terrific caffeine buzz while I wrote about coffee. I wrote every word of the night-owl essay between midnight and dawn."
Would that every writer were so thorough – and half as entertaining.
• Heller McAlpin is a freelance writer in New York.