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The Best American Essays 2003by Robert Atwan and Anne Fadiman
You can tell a lot about people from the books they sleep with. Alexander the Great is said to have slept with a copy of the Iliad under his pillow. Charlemagne slept with Saint Augustine's The City of God. When Edwin Herbert Land, the founder of Polaroid, was a boy, he snuggled up to Robert Wood's Physical Optics.
I used to sleep with a copy of the essays of Montaigne. It was a thick volume ? 1,035 pages long, a 1933 Modern Library edition with a threadbare gray cover and a missing spine ? that would have made a sizable lump under my pillow. (Those other guys must have had cast-iron cheeks. Or maybe they owned abridged versions.) Montaigne reposed on my bedside table. What our relationship lacked in propinquity it made up in constancy, since I was confined to bed twenty-four hours a day for the first eight months of a fragile pregnancy. I'd spent the previous two decades as a wandering journalist, but now I required a literary trade that could be plied from a horizontal position: hence, my hasty metamorphosis from reporter to essayist. Who better to guide me than the ur-essayist, the inventor of the genre, the man who had retreated from public life at age thirty-eight to a round, bay-windowed, book-lined library on the third floor of a tower at his ancestral château: a solitary room, intentionally difficult of access, its silence broken only by the tolling of the Ave Maria on a great bronze bell? Montaigne's famously meandering essays ? 'Of Idlenesse,' 'Of Lyers,' 'Of Vanitie,' 'Of Smels and Odors,' 'Of Vaine Subtilties, or Subtill Devices' (my edition wasthe creatively spelled 1603 translation by John Florio) ? were just the ticket for a supine pregnant woman who was drifting in and out of sleep and incapable of remembering what she'd been thinking five minutes earlier. They were, after all, essaies ? a word their author chose in order to emphasize that he was attempting something, not perfecting it ? and therefore didn't aspire to military regimentation. Montaigne would start talking about the fallibility of human experience, quoting Aristotle and Manilius and Epicurus and sounding splendidly high-minded, and then he'd drift off into an aside on how he hated to be interrupted when he sat on his chamberpot. Or he'd be in the middle of a sober discussion of inherited traits, and all of a sudden he'd scoot into a three-page detour on his kidney stones ('Oh why have not I the gift of that dreamer, mentioned by Cicero, who dreaming that hee was closely embracing a yong wench; found himself ridde of the stone in his sheetes!'). This was exactly the way my own mind was working at the time ? it could travel from motherhood to hemorrhoids at the speed of light ? and, far from being intimidated by Montaigne, I began to think: Hey, maybe this is something I could do. And so, at the age of forty, lying on my left side, wrapped in a sweaty tangle of sheets, propping a laptop computer on the pillow under which Montaigne might have rested had I been less princess-and-the-pea-like, I wrote the first essay I ever submitted to a magazine.
Phillip Lopate has called the personal essay the voice of middle age. After compiling this volume, during the course of which I read essays of every conceivable stripe, I'd extend that statement by saying that any essay ? personal, critical, expository ? is more likely to be written by someone with a few gray hairs than by a twenty-five-year-old. (He's too busy finishing his first novel.) Activity and reflection tend to be sequential rather than simultaneous. And it takes at least a dozen years before the taint of the schoolroom ? the 'essay question,' the college application 'essay,' the 'essay on the principal exports of Bulgaria, due Thursday at 10:00,' all of which have as much in common with an essay by Montaigne as a vitamin pill does with a chocolate truffle ? wears off completely.
By the time Robert Atwan asked if I'd collaborate with him on this anthology, I had left the world of the dreaded blue-book essay far behind. The associations of the word were entirely hedonic. For several years I had worked as the editor of a small literary quarterly, a job I took because I could not imagine a more pleasurable way to make a living than reading essays all day long. The downside, of course, is that most of those essays are unsolicited manuscripts about the application of postcolonialist theory to the works of Beatrix Potter. You can therefore imagine how pleased I was to be invited to spend a few months reading essays that had not only been published but vetted. Bob Atwan would swim through the oceans of the year's periodicals like a great baleen whale, letting most of their contents flow through unencumbered, and filtering out only the most delicious bits of plankton for my delectation.
I owned a whole shelf of Best American Essays ? my favorite color was indigo blue with red and green lettering (1994), my favorite introductions were by Elizabeth Hardwick (1986) and Geoffrey Wolff (1989) ? and I'd always wondered how the volumes had been compiled. What criteria were used? What exactly was that list of 'Notable Essays' in the back (in which I myself had been sequestered for years before finally making it into the sacred precincts of the collection itself)? How many essays did the 'series editor' read, and how many did the 'guest editor' read? Perhaps other readers have been similarly curious about the process, so I'll tell you how it went this year.
Though I've met Bob Atwan only once, a year before we embarked on this project together, we've spent the last six months in a frenzy of communication by phone, letter, and e-mail. (He recently confided that I was the first guest editor of this series who used e-mail. By that point, we'd exchanged at least a hundred e-mails, both about this volume and about essays in general. Our correspondence resembled that of two rabid collectors of Hummel figurines, brief and businesslike at the outset but incrementally loosened up by their shared passion.) Bob had started the series in 1986, successfully resisting the advice of one publisher who, leery of the word essay, told him, 'It's a lovely idea, but shouldn't we call it something else?' Every year he screens about two hundred small and large periodicals and reads about five hundred essays, of which he forwards a hundred or so to the guest editor. (He sent me a hundred and forty-two. Either i was a particularly fertile year or my e-mails gave him the impression that I was insatiable.) Bob's Notable Essays list consists of those hundred or so essays, minus the ones selected as the best American essays, plus a few dozen that he considers unsuitable for the collection (too long, too short, too far to one end or the other of the journalistic-academic spectrum) but that nonetheless deserve recognition. The guest editor is also free to select essays from outside the Atwan pool; I picked three.
Twelve batches arrived by FedEx on my doorstop between the end of October and the middle of March. (The process oozed into the spring because so many understaffed quarterlies publish their winter issues long after the snow melts.) The first few were from what Bob called 'especially rich sources' ? mostly The New Yorker and Harper's Magazine ? and, indeed, I ended up choosing six from the original batch of fifteen. But I didn't start reading right away. I waited until about forty essays had accumulated on my bedside table. The first essay I picked up started like this:
Life begins somewhere with the scent of lavender. My father is standing in front of a mirror. He has just showered and shaved and is about to put on a suit. I watch him tighten the knot of his necktie, flip down his shirt collar, and button it up. Suddenly, there it is, as always: lavender.
Whoa! I thought. There was a little neck-prickle. The prose was simple, almost hushed, but I got the feeling that the author was just revving up, that complexity and voluptuousness and clangor would follow in due time, and that I was going to be taken somewhere unexpected. I was already certain that I wanted this essay ? 'Lavender,' by André Aciman ? and although of course it could have taken a turn for the worse, I knew it wasn't going to, and it didn't. When I got to the end ? an intricate, heartbreaking sentence three times as long as that taciturn first paragraph ? I said to my husband, 'I've got the first one.'
They weren't all that good. At first I wondered if I could find two dozen that I didn't just like, I loved. What captivated me? A memorable voice, like Brian Doyle's wild Irish tenor in 'Yes.' (In an article, content trumps style; in an essay, style trumps content.) Shapeliness, like the graceful arc of Atul Gawande's 'The Learning Curve,' which starts and ends with the insertion of a central line into a surgical patient's vena cava. (The best writers had wonderful beginnings and endings; the less skilled ones were comfortable in the midzone, but they got self-conscious in the places they thought were Important and started sounding orotund or abstract or corny.) Restraint, as in Myra Jehlen's 'F. P.,' an essay about death that had innumerable opportunities for melodrama and turned its back on every one. (Why is it assumed that personal essays must be self-indulgent?) Attention to detail, as in Frederic Morton's 'A Delivery for Fred Astaire,' which describes the narrator's hunger to sound American as precisely as it describes the apricot tarts he attempts to deliver to Mr. Astaire. (Vagueness is the essayist's mortal enemy.) The determination to explore one thing deeply, as in 'Wooden Dollar,' Ben Metcalf's revisionist portrait of Sacajawea, rather than cover the waterfront. (Given the essay's space constraints, monumentality can be catastrophic.) Vitality, as in Edward Hoagland's 'Circus Music,' which contains enough life to fill ten tents. (Some essays were craftsmanlike but desiccated; I wanted to hear the pulsing of blood through their veins.) Density, as in Marshall Jon Fisher's 'Memoria ex Machina,' whose paragraphs are assembled as tightly as the machines they describe. (By density, I don't mean obscurity; I liked essays that were as clear as newly Windexed windowpanes, and if I couldn't understand something, out it went. I mean the sort of density my daughter had in mind when, in the course of her seventh-grade science fair project, she discovered that a pint of cheap ice cream is pumped full of air and is therefore as light as a feather, whereas a pint of Häagen-Dazs weighs a ton. It's crammed. The essays in this book, even the long ones, have no extra air. They're all Häagen-Dazs.)
Some of my favorite essays demanded a loose-constructionist interpretation of the anthology's rules. Conventional reviews are barred from this volume's precincts. Caitlin Flanagan's 'Home Alone' was a review of two books about Martha Stewart, but it was also about Martha Stewart; Judith Thurman's 'Swann Song' was a review of Yves Saint Laurent's final haute couture show, but it was also about Saint Laurent, and fashion, and Judith Thurman. I had admired both essays from the get-go, partly because they were so beautifully written and partly because they were about subjects that rarely make it into this collect Like doormen at an after-hours club who size up potential patrons to see if they're wearing the right clothes, Bob and I decreed that these were both bona fide essays and let them in. Book excerpts are supposed to be admitted only if they're freestanding sections or chapters; Francis Spufford's 'The Habit' was drawn from several parts of a memoir. But the assembly, done jointly by the author and his editor at Granta, was so elegant that the result was no mere patchwork: the only word that could possibly describe it was essay. We were delighted to open the door.
As Bob explains in his Foreword, I did not participate in selecting essays from The American Scholar, the journal I edit. He did it solo, with no sub rosa whispers from my direction, though when he told me he had chosen Francine du Plessix Gray's 'The Debacle,' I was overjoyed. Gray's account of fleeing Paris in 1940, set against the larger backdrop of France's role in the Second World War, had knocked me out the first time it tumbled out of my fax machine and continued to knock me out every time I read it.
As the batches poured in, I started seeing common themes. Dozens of essayists wrote ? some very well ? about illness, their own or others': depression, dementia, breast cancer, intestinal blockage, autoimmune dysautonomia, posterior cortical atrophy, cystinosis, cerebral palsy, diabetic peripheral circulatory disease. (Bob Atwan wrote me that he had also read essays about acid indigestion and ingrown toenails, but had spared me.) Happy essayists were rare; those who weren't sick had lost a friend or a partner or a dog or their hai or they'd fallen in love with the wrong person, or they'd gotten into car accidents. (I read four essays on driving ? Katha Pollitt's 'Learning to Drive' had the keenest edge and the best sense of humor ? not one of which was about the joys of tooling down a country road in a convertible. Their authors were all bad drivers.) Amid this misery, good cheer stood out like a beacon. When I read 'The Reporter's Kitchen,' the story of Jane Kramer's intertwined lives as writer and cook, I felt like sending her a thank-you note for so thoroughly enjoying her Bumble Bee tuna curry and her Botswanese mealie-mealie. As for Adam Gopnik's 'Bumping Into Mr. Ravioli' (along with the Aciman essay, one of a handful for which I felt instant anthology-lust), you know that the author isn't really worried about his daughter's imaginary friend. He loves his daughter, he loves New York, he even loves Mr. Ravioli.
Although three quarters of the candidates Bob sent me were personal essays, some of my favorites, though hardly impersonal, had little or nothing to do with their authors' lives. Rachel Cohen's 'Lost Cities' did just what a critical essay ought to do: made me itch to read the writers she wrote about (one of whom, Fernando Pessoa, was completely unfamiliar to me). Susan Sontag's 'Looking at War' and Michael Pollan's 'An Animal's Place' both used the essay form to frame magnificent arguments, strengthening their positions by presenting the other side of every question as carefully as they presented their own. Ian Frazier's 'Researchers Say' took aim at the pallid language of the sociological survey and nailed it. Of course, there are times when only the first person will do. Joseph Epstein recused himself from the first two thirds of 'In a Snob-Free Zone,' but he could not have completed his tour of that utopian kingdom without admitting ? candidly, ruefully, wittily ? that he didn't live there himself.
There were many essays about September 11, 2001. I chose Elaine Scarry's 'Citizenship in Emergency' and John Edgar Wideman's 'Whose War,' two polemics that couldn't be more different from each other, because each made me look in a new way at something about which I had thought originality was no longer possible. I concluded that the best work on 9/11 was probably written not in 2001 but in 2002. Time allowed these writers to shake off the conventional responses that would have come more easily and find something hard and brilliant and uncomfortable underneath.
Though I read most of the essays for the first time in bed (a good place to forge intuitive bonds) and reread them the next morning in my office, the only occasion on which I read more than five or six at a stretch was on board a plane. I was returning home from California, where I had attended the funeral of a Hmong friend, the father of a large family. The mourners had beaten a death drum, sacrificed a cow, and wept so copiously over the open casket that my friend's blue silk jacket was damp from fallen tears. But the funeral had gone on for three days and three nights, and no one can keep up that sort of thing continuously, so the mourners had taken periodic breathers in the lobby, sitting on folding chairs and playing cards. I didn't think th disrespectful. I had recently lost my mother, and I knew that's what grief is like: one minute you cry so hard you think you'll burst, and the next minute you play cards. Among the twenty or thirty essays I read on the way home were Cheryl Strayed's 'The Love of My Life' and Donald Antrim's 'I Bought a Bed.' Both writers had lost their mothers. Afterward, Strayed slept with men she hardly knew and Antrim went bed-shopping. I thought both of them got it exactly, and excruciatingly, right: tears and cards.
'Let us here by the way insert a tale,' wrote Montaigne, announcing that he was about to steer an essay on habit into a digression on nose-blowing. (A gentleman of his acquaintance, criticized for sneezing into his hand, pointed out that it was far less civilized to reserve a piece of delicate linen for this purpose, fold it tidily, and carry it around all day long.) My tale is about editing, and its purpose is to explain why this collection contains eight essays from The New Yorker and four from Harper's Magazine even though, as the editor of a 'little magazine,' I vowed at the outset that this would be the volume in which the The Suburban Cincinnati Aviation and Dentistry Review would finally be granted its place in the sun.
A few years ago, the author of an autobiographical essay I was planning to publish in The American Scholar ? a very fine writer ? died suddenly. The writer had no immediate relatives, so I asked his longtime editor at The New Yorker if he would read the edited piece, hoping he might be able to guess which of my minor changes the writer would have been likely to acce and which he would have disliked. Certainly, said the editor. Two days later, he sent the piece back to me with comments on my edits and some additional editing of his own. 'My suggestions are all small sentence tweaks,' he wrote. 'I could hear ??? 's voice in my head as I did them and I'm pretty sure they would have met with his approval ? most of them, anyway.' Some examples: 'A man who looked unmusical' became 'a man so seemingly unmusical.' 'They made a swift escape to their different homes' became 'They scattered swiftly to their various homes.' 'I felt that that solidity had been fostered by his profession' became 'That solidity, I felt, had been fostered by his profession.' These were, indeed, only small tweaks, but their precision filled me with awe. Of course you couldn't look unmusical. Of course it was awkward to use 'escape' (singular) with 'homes' (plural). Of course I should have caught 'that that.' I faxed the piece to my entire staff because editors rarely get a chance to see the work of other editors; we see only its results. This was like having a front-row seat at the Editing Olympics. Five days later, the editor sent the piece back to us, covered with a second round of marginalia. 'No doubt this is more than you bargained for,' he wrote. 'It's just that when the more noticeable imperfections have been taken care of, smaller ones come into view . . . I've even edited some of my own edits ? e.g., on page 25, where I've changed 'dour,' which I inserted in the last go-round, to 'glowering.' This is because 'dour' is too much like 'pinched,' which I'm also suggesting.'
If you're not a writer, this sort of compulsiveness may seem well nigh pathological. You may even be thinking, 'What's the difference?' But if you are a writer, you'll realize what a gift the editor gave his old friend. Had not a word been changed, the essay would still have been excellent. Each of these 'tweaks' ? there were perhaps a hundred, none more earthshaking than the ones I've quoted ? made it a little better, and their aggregate effect was to transform an excellent essay into a superb one.
Now, back to The Best American Essays. (The writer Emily Fox Gordon once told me that narratives are like expressways ? once you're on, you have to keep going ? but essays let you get on and off your main subject whenever you want.) One of the rules of the series is that although typos, factual errors, and grammatical mistakes may be corrected, nothing may be rewritten. It upset me that so many intelligent and deeply felt essays ended up not (quite) being admitted into these pages because they were occasionally clumsy or wordy or repetitive ? because, in other words, they needed the kind of editing I've just described. Most of those essays had appeared in small quarterlies that could never lavish the sort of care a large, solvent, glossy magazine can afford. 'It's not fair!' I said to my husband, who had read many of these essays alongside me. 'This series should be renamed The Best-Edited American Essays!'
Was it unfair? Was it like running a beauty contest in which most of the winners had had collagen injections?
No. Most of the candidates from The New Harper's were ? I hate to admit it ? just plain better. I have no idea how extensively they had been edited before I saw them. Some of their authors had doubtless polished their own sentences to a high gloss, and others, no less talented, had left that final step to editors graced with more anally retentive personalities.
Wouldn't Montaigne, the champion of the itinerant, risk-taking, tentative essaie, have voted for the scruffy underdogs?
Probably. But these were supposed to be the best American essays. I had to judge them on merit. And, as an editor, I had to think of my profession not as a guilty secret but as part of a proud collaboration: 95 percent writing, 5 percent editing. If you don't get that 5 percent, you're not as good as you could be. Or as good as you deserve to be.
At first there were three piles: YES, NO, AND MAYBE. After a while, I divided MAYBE into HIGH MAYBE, LOW MAYBE, and PROBABLY. Then I subdivided PROBABLY into PROBABLY PLUS and PROBABLY MINUS. My husband shook his head. I knew that nothing below probably plus had a chance, but there were some essays to which I had grown so attached that I needed to honor them in some way even if their authors would never know.
I had worried I might not fall in love with enough essays, but of course, the day before the deadline, there were thirty-six essays in my YES and PROBABLY PLUS piles. Why couldn't the book be five hundred pages long? The final cut was painful. I did it late at night, reducing my six piles to two: NO (teetering) and YES (short and sturdy). There were twenty-four essays in the YES pile. I arrang alphabetically, the way they would appear in the book, and saw for the first time who would sit next to whom. Some of the writers probably knew each other already ? wouldn't André Aciman and Donald Antrim be invited to the same parties? ? but I was pretty sure that others would be meeting for the first time. Edward Hoagland, this is Myra Jehlen. Susan Sontag, this is Francis Spufford. I hope you enjoy each other's company.
Then I read through all twenty-four essays, marking my favorite parts. This is the moment at which editors always say, 'I've chosen these passages at random.' Don't believe them. From the many passages I underlined that night, I've chosen the following five because I enjoy rereading them and because they show that when it comes to essays, there are many ways to skin a cat.
It seems that the appetite for pictures showing bodies in pain is almost as keen as the desire for ones that show bodies naked. For a long time, in Christian art, depictions of Hell offered both of these elemental satisfactions . . . No moral charge attaches to the representation of these cruelties. Just the provocation: Can you look at this? There is the satisfaction of being able to look at the image without flinching. There is the pleasure of flinching.
Hear what I'm saying. We ain't going nowhere, as the boys in the hood be saying. Nowhere. If you promote all the surviving Afghans to the status of honorary Americans, Mr. President, where exactly on the bus does that leave me. When do I get paid. When can I expect my invitation to the ranch. I hear Mr. Putin's wearing jingle-jangle silver spurs around his dacha. Heard you fixed him up with an eight-figure advance on his memoirs. Is it true he's iced up to be the Marlboro man after he retires from Russia. Anything left under the table for me. And mine.
Not much was left on the sale rack, but the marvelously refined skirt with its cavalry swagger and feline nap had been marked down to fifteen pounds ? one of its zippers was 'as seen.' I had a week's pay in my pocket: fifteen pounds. Many of my romances would begin, like this one, as a chance encounter sparked by an obscure hunger, a neat coincidence, and a fatal attraction for the defective.
By the time I reached The Hobbit's last page, though, writing had softened, and lost the outlines of the printed alphabet, and become a transparent liquid, first viscous and sluggish, like a jelly of meaning, then ever thinner and more mobile, flowing faster and faster, until it reached me at the speed of thinking and I could not entirely distinguish the suggestions it was making from my own thoughts.
I say yes to them, yes yes yes, and to exhaustion I say yes, and to the puzzling wonder of my wife's love I say O yes, and to horror and fear and jangled joys I say yes, to rich cheerful chaos that leads me sooner to the grave and happier along that muddy grave road I say yes, to my absolute surprise and with unbidden tears I say yes yes O yes.
To the glories of essays I say yes.
For six months, where Montaigne once rested, a pile of essays overflowed my bedside table. That table is now empty. I miss the mess.
— Anne Fadiman
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