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At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays

Anne Fadiman

(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Years ago, impelled by the sort of meddlesome righteousness that manifests as gall, Anne Fadiman sent Vladimir Nabokov a list of 15 misprints—“thundercould” for “thundercloud,” etc.—she had spotted in her paperback copy of his autobiographical masterpiece, Speak, Memory. Surely, the zealous 23-year-old had reasoned, Nabokov would want the errors corrected for the next edition. She must help! Weeks later, a letter arrived from the author’s wife, Vera, thanking the young proofreader for her unsolicited “thoughtfulness.”


This terrific anecdote, which Fadiman relates in a previous collection of essays, pretty much nails her as a lifelong compulsive enthusiast, someone who still remembers the color (green) and composition (wood) of her childhood butterfly net, who once gasped, “Just what I always wanted!” when presented with a pickled human tapeworm for her birthday and who, after a mathematical dabble in calorie counts and body-fat ratios, has determined that if she had stopped eating ice cream at the age of 18, she would now weigh minus-416 pounds.


It is tempting to wish that Fadiman, best known for her best-selling The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, had chosen the title of this sparkling, new collection to reflect the dietary effects of long, happy years with, and perhaps without, her favorite Haagen-Dazs Chocolate Chocolate Chip. But, in fact, it is a homey reference to one woman’s imaginative engagement with the Big and Little Stuff of literature, history, science and nature, family life and the perplexities of the contemporary world.


These essays not only display the range of Fadiman’s intellect (“The problem with chloroform, cyanide and carbon tetrachloride, is that these poisons freeze the butterfly’s muscles into an extreme version of rigor mortis. ...”) and curiosity (“Should the life of a writer affect our valuation of the work?”) but also testify to her strong affection for an antiquarian literary form now—except for crossword clues involving Charles Lamb’s early “Elia” essays—largely ignored.


“Today’s readers,” Fadiman writes, and her readers certainly will sense the implied heavy sigh, “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 measure of both).” Example: “If I were to turn Lamb’s 1821 `Chapter on Ears’ into a 21st-century critical essay, I might write about postmodern audiological imagery in the early works of Barbara Cartland. If I were to write a 21st-century personal essay, I might tell you about the pimple on my left earlobe that I failed to cover with makeup at my senior prom. ... But ... I prefer Lamb’s original, which is mostly about his musical ineptitude but also about the sounds of harpsichords, piano, operatic voices, crowded streets, and carpenter’s hammers: ... about the author but also about the world.”


A former editor of The American Scholar and now writer-in-residence at Yale, Fadiman inhabits a much different world from Lamb’s early 19th-century England (he spent more than three decades as an East India Company clerk, and his sister Mary stabbed their mother to death during a fit of insanity). So instead of his young chimney-sweeps, roast pig and Quaker meetings, we get a tiger swallowtail butterfly, a slice of cheese, the black metal mailbox that once belonged to Fadiman’s famous father, Clifton, and the carved birds perched on the head posts of her marital bed.


The butterfly flutters up images of an indulged, happy childhood but also raises harsh issues about the sins of colonialism. The cheese feeds into a meditation on the runaway life of that charming scapegrace, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The bedstead birds prompt a playful detour into the counterclockwise world of night owls, and Clifton’s mailbox morphs into Fadiman’s infactuation with e-mail:


“I used to think I didn’t like writing letters. I now realize that what I didn’t like was folding the paper, sealing the envelope, looking up the address, licking the stamp, getting in the elevator, crossing the street, and dropping the letter in the postbox.” :-)


In “A Piece of Cotton,” Fadiman meditates on the way the U.S. flag, that tattered emblem, resonated after 9/11, not just in stricken Manhattan (“The Old Glory bandana around the neck of the well-groomed golden retriever ... 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’”) but also on the front lawn of the New England farmhouse to which she, her writer husband and their children had moved. The previous owners had left a flag behind. After the attacks, the family sent it, creaking, to half staff. “The flag meant `We are sad,’” Fadiman writes. “`And we’re sorry we’ve never done this before.’”


Somewhere in these pages, Fadiman mentions I Shook Hands with Shakespeare, a game her insomniac father used to play to lull himself to sleep. Clifton Fadiman had once shaken hands with the actress Cornelia Otis Skinner, and he reasoned that she had shaken hands with her father, Otis Sinner, who had probably shaken hands with Edwin Booth, and so on back to the Bard. Fadiman’s essays may start out as handshakes, but they quickly distill into murmurs floating across the table during a long afternoon squandered over Earl Grey and blueberry scones with a sympathetic, playfully erudite and hilariously self-deprecating friend.

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