Tuesday, June 12, 2007
At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays by Anne Fadiman. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 220 pages. $22.00
Anne Fadiman is a lover of very particular pleasures: hunting butterflies (best poisoned by liquid carbon tetrachloride), homemade ice cream (best frozen by liquid nitrogen), the 52 essays Charles Lamb wrote between 1820 and 1825, the life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the journals of a brawny, self-important, turn-of-the-century explorer who lost most of his crew in the process of writing a book called The Friendly Arctic. Reading her on these subjects (and many others) is as bracing as the first sip of morning coffee (preferably made with a cafetière à piston) and it kept me stoked all weekend.
A “familiar essay” is a 19th Century term for ruminations that are both loose and focused. The familiar essayist wrote personally, says Fadiman, but “he also wrote about a subject, something with which he was so familiar, and about which he was often so enthusiastic, that his words were suffused with a lover’s intimacy.”
Fadiman fits the bill: she's a confessed non-expert with a passion to know more, a smart, witty enthusiast who reads widely and well on anything that seizes her attention.
Recalling her early childhood years as a butterfly hunter and lifelong amateur naturalist, she draws on Darwin, Huxley, Dickens, and Nabokov, with whom she shares a love for the rare and beautiful, whether insects or words. (The essays are sprinkled with gems like “sacralize,” “polysemous,” and “suprachiasmic.”) Moving from Manhattan to the country reminds her of how books, from Persuasion to Little House on the Prairie, rarely advocate leaving home. In a fine essay on the culture wars, books become victims, stretched or shrunk to fit narrow agendas.
Fadiman's heroes tend to be famously debt-ridden 19th Century writers who lived by the seat of their pants, and found more order in their private passions than they ever did in their lives. There's Balzac, pounding out novels in caffeine-fueled all-nighters. There's her role model, Charles Lamb, who wrote brilliant essays in between caring for his mentally ill sister, Mary -- who killed their mother in a fit of madness -- and trudging off daily to a clerking job he couldn’t stand and could barely perform. Both brought out the best in him.
“When I first read Lamb, I imagined his life as an essayist to have been a pleasant stroll along a level, well-trod path,” she writes. “Now I see it as a technical climb along a knife-edged ridge, with a thousand-foot drop on either side.”
Coleridge is a genius, a deadbeat, a hapless husband, a drug addict, and the best friend imaginable. He’s “the fellow who makes scads of promises he can’t keep, ducks his responsibilities, never pays his bills, moves through life in a cyclone of disorganization, and yet -- because he is generous, because he has so much charm, because he is his own worst critic, because we can’t help ourselves -- commands and deserves our love.”
Forgiving love also abounds in her lively account of Vilhjalmur Stefansson, the explorer who discovered Eden in the Arctic, and -- either by luck or design, no one’s ever figured out which -- was off on a hunting expedition when a blizzard carried his ship-bound men to their deaths.
Besides being a former wilderness instructor, Fadiman is the daughter of the late Clifton Fadiman -- a longtime critic, popular intellectual, and (no surprise) essayist -- and both influences have served her well. This book is a midlife memoir of collected interests and a marvelously sane journey to parts known and unknown, led by a tour guide who lives and learns with inexhaustible zest, and inspires the same in her readers.