In his 1955 piece, “A Gentle Dirge for the Familiar Essay,” Clifton Fadiman pronounced the genre dead, done in by a “digressive and noncommitting” method nearly impossible to practice in “an age of anxiety.” More than half a century later, in her charmed and charming collection, At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays, Anne Fadiman might just have proven her father’s lament for the form premature. “I believe the survival of the familiar essay is worth fighting for,” she proclaims, and then she writes her heart out to ensure it will endure.
The familiar essay has gone out of style, and indeed, something about it has the whiff of the 19th century. It was then that the form reached its zenith, having first become popular a hundred years before in Addison and Steele’s Spectator and Samuel Johnson’s Rambler. Although pioneered by Montaigne, who pretty much invented the modern essay (essai is French for “attempt” or “trial”), it was in 1800s England that the form reached its peak of popularity with such practitioners as the cranky William Hazlitt and the playful Charles Lamb (the latter Anne Fadiman’s idol and the subject of one of the best essays in At Large and At Small). Readers enjoyed the essays’ informal tone, the everyday topics, the writers’ light touch and rambling reflections.
But by the middle of the 20th century, Clifton Fadiman–the quintessential TV Literary Man of my childhood, a reader of 25,000 books who gave up his column in Holiday when he discovered to his horror that he’d written more essays than the legendary Lamb–sadly concluded that the familiar essay had been eclipsed by its cousins the critical essay and the personal essay despite the frequent incomprehensibility of the one and the solipsism of the other.
There’s no one better qualified to perform a revival of the form than Anne Fadiman, best known for her prizewinning The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, an account of the cultural conflicts between a traditional Hmong family whose daughter is epileptic and the girl’s California doctors, and Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, whose essays on reading and books cemented her reputation as the baby boomer bookworm par excellence. (Given that one of the essays in Ex Libris is on plagiarism, it’s ironic that this volume’s essay on book mutilation may have been plagiarized for a recent article in The New York Times Book Review.)
In At Large and At Small, Fadiman writes about, um, familiar, often mundane, subjects–drinking, eating ice cream, getting mail, being a night owl, moving from city to country–with wit, erudition, and a strong sensual enjoyment of everyday pleasures. Possessing qualities indispensable to the familiar essayist–a wide-ranging curiosity and sense of wonder on the one hand, a lightness of touch and wry sense of humor on the other–Fadiman reveals just enough about her own experiences that we find her a pleasant companion with whom to explore butterfly collecting, the life of a vain Arctic explorer, or the storied history of the American flag.
More than anything, it’s the personality of the familiar essayist that engages us, keeps us reading whether or not we’re interested in the subject of her essay. I have not tasted coffee or ice cream since the 1980s, but Fadiman’s exploration of each of these pleasures almost convinces me I’m a fool to have given them up.
Her essay on ice cream, for example, begins with a memory triggered by a news article about a town banning ice cream truck music. Fadiman is taken back to the Good Humor trucks of her childhood that served up the serviceable almond crunch bars. From there she moves on to the calculation, based on American Medical Association statistics, that had she eaten no ice cream since the age of eighteen, she would currently weigh -416 pounds. That leads her to describe her favorite flavors, to denounce such modern innovations as cardamom and corn ice creams, to explore butterfat content, and then to a sudden glitch in her research:
When I called the Häagen-Dazs Consumer Relations Department a few days ago to verify the butterfat content of Mint Chip, I was alarmed to hear the following after-hours message: “If you have a medical emergency with one of our products that requires immediate attention, please call Poison Control at 612-347-2101.” What medical emergency could a few scoops of ice cream possibly precipitate? Hippocrates, or one of the anonymous writers who were later known as Hippocrates, warned that snow-chilled beverages might “suddenly throw . . . the body into a different state than it was before, producing thereby many ill effects.”
And then Fadiman is off again on her meanderings: a medical journal article on “ice cream headaches”; an 18th-century Italian treatise on the health benefits of sorbetti; Ben & Jerry’s Ben Cohen’s Internal-External Temperature Differential and Equalization Theory; a description of the highlight of every Nobel Prize banquet, a flaming frozen dessert served with solemn ceremony; and so on. We learn about ice cream’s origins in ancient Greece, recipes from 17th-century Florence, frozen Sicilian breakfasts, Dolley Madison’s White House desserts, the scoop of ice cream once given to every new immigrant at Ellis Island.
And from there, ice cream again becomes personal: the sumptuous Louis Sherry lavender boxes encased in dry ice that lit up Fadiman’s childhood; a 1974 cross-country tour of ice cream parlors with her brother Kim (no one beats McConnell’s in Santa Barbara, rated three cones); and ultimately to her brother’s recipe–with some help from the local sperm bank and precautions to avoid frostbite of the throat–for the exquisite Kim’s Coffee Kahlua Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream. Most of the book’s bravura performances are similar tours de force, whether Fadiman is discussing sleeping habits, caffeine fixes, or living in lower Manhattan versus the sticks.
She is equally adept in what seem like spellbinding conversations about historical figures: Nabokov on butterflies, Coleridge as a runaway, or her “unfuzzy” Lamb, champion of her chosen genre and the genteel literary life, the writer whose blithe style belied a tragic existence. Fadiman describes the bachelor Lamb’s devotion to his mad sister Mary (with whom he wrote Tales of Shakespeare; like most readers, I’d always assumed Mary was his wife) who had, in a fit of annoyance, stabbed their mother to death and nearly killed their father.
Fadiman, a longtime editor of The American Scholar, where some of these selections first appeared, has presented the essays, except for the last and most personal, in the order in which they were written and with almost no changes from their periodical publication. That leads to such musty and fusty stuff as an essay dealing with mail and email that contains a list of emoticons and their meanings and the translations of “e-acronyms” with whiskers like RTFM and ROTFL; this induces more eye-rolling than rolling on the floor. But these are small lapses in an otherwise fresh and intellectually bracing book.
In addition to “A Gentle Dirge for the Familiar Essay,” Clifton Fadiman also wrote another, more famous familiar essay that may explain the genre’s decline. In “The Decline of Attention” the degeneration of the ability to read patiently and attentively is distressing only from a certain traditional, highly conservative way of thinking:
In a larger perspective it may seem merely an inevitable change in man’s mental outlook as he moves into a new phase of culture. It seems fairly clear that in our time the attrition of one kind of attention–the ability to read prose and poetry of meaning and substance–is becoming more and more widespread; and that the faculty of attention in general is undergoing a wholesale displacement away from ideas and abstractions toward things and techniques.
In his conclusions, Fadiman was not so much rueful as accepting of the inevitable. Yet he admonished those dismayed by the decline of attention and its devastating effect on the popularity of familiar essays to get over it and keep writing them. Readers of At Large and At Small will be glad that his daughter Anne has taken his sage advice.
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