Saturday, October 6, 2007

At Large and at Small

I recently finished reading Anne Fadiman's delightful and good-humored collection of "familiar essays" entitled At Large and At Small. In her introduction to the volume she references a "dispirited writer" (her father, Clifton Fadiman) who mourned the imminent death of a genre that was "setting to the horizon, along with its whole constellation: formal manners, apt quotation, Greek and Latin, clear speech, conversation, the gentleman's library, the gentleman's income, the gentleman."

I suppose that it should come as no surprise that I am a fan, as I suppose any self-respecting blogger must be, of the "familiar essay." What are blogs if not essais, attempts, explorations of thought through words? It has often occurred to me as a teacher that in our schools we actually do the genre a disservice by impressing upon generations of students that an essay is, and must be, a thesis-based argument analyzing a text or a series of historical events. It's true that there are such essays, but if that's the only kind of essay we ask students to write, we are confirming their misunderstanding of the genre and denying them access to its considerable pleasures.

For, make no mistake about it, this is a fun book to read, and one gets the clear impression that for Anne Fadiman it was a fun book to write. She has essays on, among other things, ice cream, mail, on the flag ("A Piece of Cotton"), moving from the city to the country, coffee, and Arctic exploration. Fadiman has a broad-ranging mind, a world of memories, a fluid and engaging writing style, and a sense of humor.

I came away from the book with a renewed appreciation for the pleasure to be taken in the making and reading of lists. The first essay in the book is called "Collecting Nature," and it is a recollection of the time she spent as a child with her brother collecting butterflies and other objects from nature. Early in the essay she makes reference to Dickens which includes the sort of list I have in mind:
In Our Mutual Friend, Silas Wegg visits a shop belonging to "Mr. Venus, Preserver of Animals and Birds, Articulator of human bones." Mr. Wegg is there because—could anyone but Dickens ever come up with this one?—he wishes to retrieve his leg, which Mr. Venus purchased, for potential inclusion in a skeleton, from the hospital in which it was amputated. "I shouldn't like," Says Mr. Wgg. "to be what I may call dispersed, a part of me here, a part of me there, but should wish to collect myself as a genteel person." (Mr. Wegg may thus be the only collector who has ever collected himself. He does get his leg back, though not until later in the book; it arrives under Mr. Venus's arm, carefully wrapped, looking like "a sort of brown paper truncheon.") Mr. Venus shows Mr. Wegg around the shop. "Bones, warious," he explains.
Skulls, warious. Preserved Indian baby. African ditto. Bottled preparations, warious. Everything within reach of your hand, in good preservation. The mouldy ones a-top. What's in those hampers again, I don't quite remember. Say, human warious. Cats. Articulated English baby. Dogs. Ducks. Glass eyes, warious. Mummied bird. Dried cuticle, warious. Oh, dear me! That's the general panoramic view. (17)
Later, in her essay "Ice Cream," she reports that in her researches that

In 1778, a Benedictine monk in Apulia published recipes for ices and ice creams flavored with coffee, chocolate, cinnamon, candied eggs, chestnuts, pistachios, almonds, fennel seeds, violets, jasmine, oranges, lemons, strawberries, peaches, pears, apricots, bitter cherries, melons, watermelons, pomegranates, and muscatel grapes. (50)
There's something about a list of that sort that just makes me laugh. At one level theres just the delight to be taken in the sequence of syllables, the work of the mouth in shaping the words; it's alphabetically musical. Then there's the movie behind the list: the monk laboring away in the monastery kitchen experimenting with every conceivable flavor, laboring far into the night with tasting spoon in hand, doing his particular version of God's work, trying to get the proportions just right. One wonders about the flavors that didn't make the final list.

Later, in her essay "Mail," we find this short history of epistolary innovation in a one-sentence list:

The Penny Post, wrote Harriet Martineau, "will do more for the circulation of ideas, for the fostering of domestic affections, for the humanizing of the mass generally, than any other single measure that our national wit can devise." It was incontrovertible proof, in an age that embraced progress on all fronts...that the British were the most civilized people on earth. Ancient Syrian runners, Chinese carrier pigeons, Persian post writers, Egyptian papyrus bearers, Greek hemerodromes, Hebrew dromedary riders, Roman equestrian relays, medieval monk-messengers, Catalan troters, international couriers of the House of Thurn and Taxis, American mail wagons—what could all of these have been leading up to, like an ever-ascending staircase, but the Victorian postal system? (117)
September 11 brought the flag back into American consciousness in a powerful way; suddenly flags were everywhere, and Fadiman found herself thinking about, and making a tentative inventory of, its multiple significances:

In the weeks after September 11, I saw for the first time that the flag—along with all its red, white, and blue collateral relations—is what a semiotician would call “polysemous”: it has multiple meanings. The flag held aloft by the pair of disheveled hitchhikers who squatted next to their backpacks on Route 116, a mile from home, meant We will not rape or murder you. The red, white, and blue turban worn by the Sikh umbrella vendor a friend walked past in Dupont Circle, not far from the White House, meant Looking like someone and thinking like him are not the same thing. The flag on the lapel of a Massachusetts attorney mentioned in our local paper—on seeing it, his opposing counsel had whispered to a colleague, “I’m so screwed, do you have a flag pin I can borrow?”—meant I am morally superior. The flags brandished by two cowboyhatted singers at a country fair we attended on the day the first bombs fell on Afghanistan meant Let’s kill the bastards. The Old Glory bandana around the neck of the well-groomed golden retriever I saw on a trip to Manhattan meant Even if I have a Prada bag and my dog has a pedigree, I’m still a New Yorker and I have lost something. The flag in our front yard meant We are sad. And we’re sorry we’ve never done this before. (148)
Later in the same essay, she quotes from an early twentieth-century tract in which the author has worked himself up into a loosely alphabetical frenzy of indignation:

In 1905, an anti-desecration circular lamented the use of the flag in advertisements for "bicycles, bock beer, whiskey, fine cambric, bone knoll, sour mash, tar soap, Amercian pepsin chewing gum, theatres, tobacco, Japan tea, awnings, breweries, cigars, charity balls, cuff buttons, dime museums, floor mats, fireworks, furriers, living pictures, picnic grounds, patent medicines, poolrooms, prize fights, restaurants, roof gardens, real estate agencies, sample rooms, shoe stores, soap makers, saloons, shooting galleries, tent makers, variety shows, [and] vendors of lemon acid." (154)

There is a satisfaction—even if it is only the satisfaction of having adequately enumerated the sources of one's indignation—to be taken in the creation of such lists, as in the reading of them. There is, I would argue, a larger satisfaction to be taken in having written well about what one has experienced and cares about. Sometimes, when the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars, one gets to write something that takes on a life of its own, that opens up and surprises you. I remember seeing an interview with Jamaica Kincaid who was talking about her much-anthologized short piece called "Girl." It was the first piece she ever had published, and she said that when she finished writing it, she was taken off guard, surprised, stunned. And she said to herself, as she re-read what she had written, "This is really... something." She didn't have a word for it, but she knew it was different, it was new, it was good, it was a kind of gift.

I asked my sophomore students last week how many of them had had that experience as a writer somewhere in their first ten years of schooling. One girl held her hand over the desk, palm down, and wiggled her fingers tentatively: maybe, sort of. Everyone else was looking at the floor.

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