Essays for Collecting and Dissecting

THE BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS 1994 Edited by Tracy Kidder Series Edited by Robert Atwan; Houghton Mifflin; 321 pp., $24.95 cloth $11.95 paper.

REASONABLE CREATURES: ESSAYS ON WOMEN AND FEMINISM By Katha Pollitt; Alfred A. Knopf,; 186 pp., $22.

THE PRIMARY COLORS: THREE ESSAYS By Alexander Theroux; Henry Holt,; 268 pp., $17.95.

MICHEL DE MONTAIGNE, the essayist par excellence, virtually originated the form of short nonfiction prose pieces that afforded him the flexibility to express his thoughts on an infinite variety of subjects.

The essay, by definition and etymology, is open-ended: a foray, an exploration, a try. It is distinguished from other kinds of nonfiction by being more personal: Not that all essayists necessarily deal with deeply private experiences (though they may), but rather that, whatever the topic, the essayist almost always presents his or her particular point of view.

The 21 previously published essays featured in this year's volume of ``The Best American Essays'' series were chosen by guest editor Tracy Kidder, himself a prize-winning nonfiction author, from a pool of some 200 possibilities he received from the series' general editor Robert Atwan.

The selections range from intensely autobiographical works like Lucy Grealy's account of her facial disfigurement to thoughtful meditations on public issues like James McPherson's examination of the civil rights movement, ``Ivy Day in the Empty Room''; from ``on-the-road'' reportage, like Ted Conover's account of ``Trucking Through the AIDS Belt'' in East Africa to lightweight parodies like Ian Frazier's ``The Frankest Interview Yet,'' a spoof of kiss-and-tell journalism.

I confess to harboring an innate suspicion of anything calling itself ``the best,'' and would certainly concede that an editor's choices are largely a matter of personal taste. I found myself not too surprised at just how mixed this mixed bag proved to be.

IT is hard to imagine how someone who must have appreciated the intelligence of McPherson's discussion of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. could possibly have been impressed by Andre Dubus III's obtuse reminiscence of what an endearing adolescent buddy, a now-notorious wife-beater, once was to him.

Counterbalancing this, somewhat, are psychologist Lauren Slater's moving account of her work with a hostile patient afraid to drop his guard and Vicki Hearne's vindication of an orangutan trainer unfairly accused of mistreating his animals.

But how could the editor who picked out Adam Gopnick's diverting yet ultimately serious essay on modern art, which discusses sophisticated issues in a way that effortlessly clarifies without condescending, have also selected Louise Erdrich's pedestrian ``Skunk Dreams''? Darcy Frey's long article on inner-city basketball players and S. Oso's account of working as a parking-lot attendant probably represent obligatory bows to the so-called underclass: it's a pity both essays are so boring.

Paul Theroux's reminiscence of a fellow novelist and travel writer in ``Chatwin Revisited'' may not approximate many people's idea of ``best'' either, but it probably was one of the year's most negative eulogies, making it superlative in one way at least.

Of a more consistent quality are the 19 timely pieces by poet and journalist Katha Pollitt in ``Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism.''

They are, indeed, about women's issues, but Pollitt, a true descendent of large-visioned feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft, effectively demonstrates why these issues are relevant to everyone.

These essays from The Nation, The New Yorker, and the New York Times were written in response to a variety of current events and news stories, from the ``Baby M'' surrogacy case to the William Kennedy Smith rape trial. They share a recurrent theme: Pollitt's belief that women should be treated like ``reasonable creatures'' (Wollstonecraft's phrase) with the freedom and responsibility to make choices for themselves, rather than being viewed as mere ``instruments'' put on this planet first and foremost for the convenience of others.

A pungent stylist with a powerful ability to cut through cant, Pollitt is also a sharp-eyed media critic, not only of conscious or unconscious gender bias (as one might expect), but also of self-serving behavior among her fellow journalists.

Claiming that the public, under the First Amendment, has a ``right to know,'' whether it's the names of rape victims or secrets withheld for reasons of national security, members of this same profession have willingly gone to jail rather than reveal the names of their sources. The public's right to know, in this instance, took a back seat to professional self-protection.

At the other end of the spectrum from Pollitt's cogent political essays are Alexander Theroux's triad of essays on ``The Primary Colors'': ``Blue,'' ``Yellow,'' and ``Red,'' which instantly called to my mind William Gass's wonderful book-length meditation on the color blue. Although Theroux goes Gass two better by including yellow and red, his essays lack the originality and insightfulness of Gass's ruminations on the same theme.

This is not to deny the charms of Theroux's book, of his informal, free-association style affording scope for an encyclopedic display of lore (arcane and commonplace) about these hues and their history: blue, paradoxically associated with purity and lewdness (as in ``blue movie''); yellow, with sickly cowardice, but also the wholesome cheer of butter, sunlight, and daffodils; red, bold and masculine, also the provocative hue of women's lipstick and nail polish.

It would be difficult, given the richness of the subject matter, not to come up with three suitably colorful essays, as Theroux has managed to do.

But his tendency to rush through his material rather than slowly savoring it undermines the expansive aims of an enterprise like this one.

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