The Best American Essays 1999


This year's wonderfully diverse collection features such respected writers as Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, Ian Frazier, Mary Gordon, and Arthur Miller. The essays range widely across the American landscape and, along the way, introduce readers to a fine array of talented new voices.
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This year's wonderfully diverse collection features such respected writers as Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, Ian Frazier, Mary Gordon, and Arthur Miller. The essays range widely across the American landscape and, along the way, introduce readers to a fine array of talented new voices.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Thinking Out Loud

The bestial gluttony of human sexual urges. The future of our weed-infested planet. The essence of beauty. No matter what you have been thinking about lately, you will surely find some complementary thinking in The Best American Essays 1999. While the writings herein probably won't make you cry, jump gleefully about, or jab your finger in the air in protest, they are guaranteed to shake the dust off your brain. Edward Hoagland, author extraordinaire in his own right, has culled from more than 100 of the year's best short nonfiction writings to create this scintillating and thoughtful collection. To a piece, these essays are written with precision and power, and each has the ring of truth and time.

Hoagland opens by introducing us to "the essayist," writing: "[He] should be faceted rather like a friend. We might give him our keys and put him up in the guest room. He won't be stealing our silverware and debauching the children, and after sleeping on our problems, he will sit at the breakfast table in the morning sunshine and tell us what we ought to do." Each of the writings included in the anthology reflect this belief that the essayist seem reflective, reliable, and balanced.

Yet, in contrast to the written temperament of the authors, the topics they have selected are often tempestuous and fraught with conflict. Charles Bowden writes about sex crimes and of losing the distinction between criminal and reasonable desire. Joyce Carol Oates describes her humiliation on a tour through a New Jersey correctional facility. Mary Gordon looks at her mother's 90-year-old life and at the paintings of Pierre Bonnard, wondering how the two can fit together. John Lahr tells of his mentally ill father, the beloved Cowardly Lion. Cynthia Ozick offers her reflections on the story of Job, while Annie Dillard and Patricia Hampl ponder other religious questions. Ian Frazier laments the kind of development that paves over the free-form aimlessness of playing in the woods. David Quammen maps out global patterns of extinction and addresses the question of our own. Mark Slouka recounts seeing a spot of the dying Adolf Hitler's blood, and Joan Didion questions the wisdom of publishing the works and letters of Ernest Hemingway posthumously against his wishes.

Some of the essays stand out for the precision of their language and the vividness of their imagery. John McNeel describes with devastating detail a wartime experience outside Casablanca. Michael Cox's childhood memories lay out his unfolding realization of his father's brutal perversions. Hilary Masters explains the impact Robinson Crusoe had on her as a child of immigrants, and Dagoberto Gilb remembers one sweltering afternoon in a hard hat when he happened to share a bench with Victoria Principal.

While most of the essays are serious and hard-hitting -- such as Toure's exploration of himself as an African-American boxer, Scott Russell Sanders's ponderings on beauty, and Barbara Hurd's exploration of our need to go ever deeper into the world -- Ben Metcalf offers a humorous yet biting critique of our relationship with the Mississippi River, and George S. W. Trow offers a lighter essay, a sort of genealogy of America's newspapers.

Some readers will enjoy the nostalgic tone of Andre Aciman's essay on visiting Proust's childhood home, or Arthur Miller's essay that takes us back in time to a New York City summer day before air conditioning. Others will be more in tune with Brian Doyle's reminiscence of a summer camp with a tone full of acne and the ache of love, or Daisy Eunyoung Rhau's painful account of the dislocation and freedom in the silence of giving up her life as a child pianist.

Whether you agree with the authors' perspectives, the writing in The Best American Essays 1999 will set you talking. Taken together, this collection offers thinking from varying viewpoints on several linked themes: the cleaving of words and silences, and of divinity and base humanity. Even the most tired mind will enjoy bending around the ideas in it and finding the words to talk back. "Essays are how we speak to one another in print," writes Hoagland in the introduction, and this collection bristles with the beginnings of conversation.

—Kate Montgomery

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In his foreword to this 14th volume in the Best American Essays series, editor Atwan quotes Ezra Pound's axiom that "literature is news that stays news." At their best, these 25 essays exhibit style and content that may endure for a time. There are few salient themes, although family relationships and religious longing run through a handful of the works. Mary Gordon's "Still Life," a meditation on how the work of Pierre Bonnard provided her with "solace and refreshment" in dealing with her mother's painful senility, is a delicate but hard-headed examination of loss and fear. In "The Lion and Me," John Lahr recounts with bittersweet ambivalence the uneasy relationship his father, Bert Lahr, had with his most famous role, as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. Brian Doyle's "The Meteorites" is a moving and unsettling rumination on the nature of love through the eyes of a camp counselor to young boys. Cynthia Ozick's "The Impious Impatience of Job" and Annie Dillard's "For the Time Being" both deal with the quest for spiritual experience and attendant paradox. Some of the works--such as Dagoberto Gilb's "Victoria" and Joan Didion's "Last Words"--seem lightweight for a collection like this. In his introduction, Edward Hoagland notes that "essays are reappearing in unexpected places," although most of these pieces come from mainstream publications such as Harpers and the New Yorker. Perhaps if Hoagland had gone further afield, the collection would have offered more surprises. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Atwan's annual series unfailingly delivers the highest quality writing, essays that display "literary [and] ruminative characteristics," work that shows the "mind in process." This year's editor, Edward Hoagland—a fine essayist in his own right—has collected essays by some of the best writers in the country: Joyce Carol Oates, Ian Frazier, Scott Russell Sanders, Mary Gordon, Dagoberto Gilb, David Quammen, and others. Hoagland echoes Atwan in noting that essays "simulate the mind's own process." He connects the current revival of the essay to that of the rage for personal memoir. (And he never once uses the phrase "creative nonfiction.") Sanders's marvelous piece tackles a traditional essay theme, as Hubble photographs and his daughter's wedding spur musings on the origin of the cosmos and an examination of the concept of beauty. He is "certain that genuine beauty is not in my eye alone but out in the world." In a startlingly revealing essay, "After Amnesia," Joyce Carol Oates recalls a "humiliating experience" that occurred while she was touring a New Jersey detention center. Gordon's personal essay relates the opening of a Bonnard exhibit at MOMA at the same time that her mother, in a nursing home, turns 90: "1 wonder if Bonnard could do anything with this lightless room." John Lahr revisits his youth with his famous father, Bert, on the re-release of The Wizard of Oz and finds the ubiquitous commercialization of the Cowardly Lion "the enduring monument to Dad's comic genius." There's also Joan Didion's brilliant argument against the release of Hemingway's unpublished work, Annie Dillard's examination of religious belief, Gilb's chance encounter with actress VictoriaPrincipal, Toure's boxing days at the Body and Soul Gym and Frazier's delightful recollection of the "hundred pointless things we did in the woods" as 10-year-olds. A feast of fine, important writing.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780395860557
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 10/29/1999
  • Series: Best American Essays Series
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 297
  • Product dimensions: 5.53 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 0.92 (d)

Meet the Author

ROBERT ATWAN has been the series editor of The Best American Essays since its inception in 1986. He has edited numerous literary anthologies and written essays and reviews for periodicals nationwide.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


In Search of Proust

It was by train that I had always imagined arriving in Illiers-Combray -- not just any train but one of those drafty, pre-World War, rattling wagons which I like to think still leave Paris early every morning and, after hours of swaying through the countryside, squeak their way into a station that is as old and weather-beaten as all of yesteryear's provincial stops in France. The picture in my mind was always the same: the train would come to a wheezing halt and release a sudden loud chuff of steam; a door would slam open; someone would call out "Illiers-Combray"; and, finally, like the young Marcel Proust arriving for his Easter vacation just over a century ago, I would step down nervously into the small, turn-of-the-century town in Eure-et-Loir which he described so lovingly in À la Recherche du Temps Perdu.

    Instead, when I finally made my way to Illiers-Combray, late last year, I arrived by car with Anne Borrel, the curator of the Proust Museum there, who had offered to pick me up at my Paris hotel that morning. In my pocket was a cheap and tattered Livre de Poche edition of Swann's Way, which I had brought in the hope that I'd find a moment to read some of my favorite passages on holy ground. That was to be my way of closing the loop, of coming home to a book I had first opened more than thirty years before.

    I had bought it with my father, when I was fifteen, one summer evening in Paris. We were takinga long walk, and as we passed a small restaurant I told him that the overpowering smell of refried food reminded me of the tanneries along the coast road outside Alexandria, in Egypt, where we had once lived. He said he hadn't thought of it that way, but, yes, I was right, the restaurant did smell like a tannery. And as we began working our way back through strands of shared memories—the tanneries, the beaches, the ruined Roman temple west of Alexandria, our summer beach house — all this suddenly made him think of Proust. Had I read Proust? he asked. No, I hadn't. Well, perhaps I should. My father said this with a sense of urgency, so unlike him that he immediately tempered it, for fear I'd resist the suggestion simply because it was a parent's.

    The next day, sitting in the sun on a metal chair in Lamartine Square, I read Proust for the first time. That evening, when my father asked how I had liked what I'd read, I feigned indifference, not really knowing whether I intended to spite a father who wanted me to love the author he loved most or to spite an author who had come uncomfortably close. For in the eighty-odd pages I had read that day I had rediscovered my entire childhood in Alexandria: the impassive cook, my bad-tempered aunts and skittish friends, the buzz of flies on sunny afternoons spent reading indoors when it was too hot outside, dinners in the garden with scant lights to keep mosquitoes away, the "ferruginous, interminable" peal of the garden bell announcing the occasional night guest who, like Charles Swann, came uninvited but whom everyone had nevertheless been expecting.

Every year, thousands of Proustotourists come to the former Illiers, which extended its name in honor of Proust's fictional town Combray, in 1971, on the centennial of his birth. The town knows it, proclaims it, milks it. Today, Illiers-Combray sells around two thousand madeleine pastries a month. The shell-shaped cakes are displayed in the windows of pastry shops like propitiatory offerings to an unseen god and are sold by the dozen — in case one wants to take some home to friends or relatives, the way pilgrims take back holy water from the Jordan or an olive twig from Gethsemane.

    For the reader on a Proustian pilgrimage, tasting a madeleine is the supreme tribute to Proust. (As no pâtisserie fails to remind the tourists, it was on tasting a madeleine, now the most famous sponge cake in the history of world literature, that the adult narrator of Proust's novel was transported to his boyhood days in Combray.) It is also a gesture of communion through which readers hope, like Proust, to come home to something bigger, more solid, and ultimately, perhaps, truer than fiction itself. Anne Borrel often tells these Proust groupies that the cult of the madeleine is blasphemous, as are the claims made by one of the pâtissiers that members of the famille Proust used to purchase their madeleines on his premises. (In earlier drafts of the novel, Proust's madeleines may have been slices of melba toast, which evolved into toasted bread, only later to metamorphose into the sponge cakes.) But no one listens. Besides, going to Illiers-Combray and not tasting a madeleine would be like going to Jerusalem and not seeing the Wailing Wall or to Greenwich and not checking your watch. Luckily, I was able to resist temptation: during my visit, on a Sunday just a few days before Christmas, all the pastry shops were closed.

    Before going to the Proust Museum, Anne Borrel and I had lunch at a tiny restaurant called Le Samovar. Plump and middle-aged, Borrel is the author of a cookbook and culinary history titled Dining with Proust. She told me that some of the tourists come from so far away and have waited so long to make the trip that as soon as they step into Proust's house they burst into tears. I pictured refugees getting off a ship and kneeling to kiss the beachhead.

    I asked about Proust's suddenly increasing popularity.

    "Proust," Borrel replied, "is a must." (She repeated these four words, like a verdict, several times during the day.) She reminded me that there were currently six French editions of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu in print. I told her that a fourth English-language edition was due to appear in 2001. And that wasn't all: trade books on Proust and coffee-table iconographies were everywhere; in Paris, I had seen at least half a dozen new books that bore Proust's name or drew on Proustian characters occupying precious space on the display tables of bookstores and department stores. Even Proust's notes, manuscripts, and publishing history had been deemed complicated enough to warrant a book of their own, called Remembrance of Publishers Past. Add to that T-shirts, watches, CDs, concerts, videos, scarves, posters, books on tape, newsletters, and a comic-strip version, entitled Combray, whose first printing, of 12,000 copies, sold out in three weeks. Not to mention the 1997-98 convention in Liège celebrating the seventy-fifth anniversary of Proust's death, with sessions on music and Proust, eating and Proust, a writing competition (on the subject of "Time Lost and Time Regained"), and a colloquium on asthma and allergies.

    This kaleidoscope of Proustophernalia is matched by as many testimonials and tributes to Proust, in which he takes many forms. There is Proust the élitist and high-society snob; Proust the son of a Jewish mother; Proust the loner; Proust the dandy; Proust the analytical aesthete; Proust the soulful lovelorn boy; Proust the tart, the dissembling coquette; the Belle Époque Proust; the professional whiner; the prankster; the subversive classicist; the eternal procrastinator; and the asthmatic, hypochondriac Proust.

    But the figure who lies at the heart of today's Proust revival is the intimate Proust, the Proust who perfected the studied unveiling of spontaneous feelings. Proust invented a language, a style, a rhythm, and a vision that gave memory and introspection an aesthetic scope and magnitude no author had conferred on either before. He allowed intimacy itself to become an art form. This is not to say that the vertiginous spate of memoirs that have appeared recently, with their de-rigueur regimens of child, spouse, and substance abuse, owe their existence, their voice, or their sensibility to Proust — clearly, they owe far more to Freud. But it does help to explain why Proust is more popular today, in the age of the memoir, than he has been at any other time in the century.

    Like every great memoirist who has had a dizzying social life and a profoundly lonely one, Proust wrote because writing was his way of both reaching for an ever elusive world and securing his distance from it. He was among the first writers in this century to disapprove of the critics' tendency to seek correspondences between an artist's work and his private life. The slow, solitary metamorphosis of what truly happened into what, after many years, finally emerges in prose is the hallmark of Proust's labor of love.

    Proust is at once the most canonical and the most uncanonical author, the most solemnly classical and the most subversive, the author in whom farce and lyricism, arrogance and humility, beauty and revulsion are indissolubly fused, and whose ultimate contradiction reflects an irreducible fact about all of us: we are driven by something as simple and as obvious as the desire to be happy, and, if that fails, by the belief that we once have been.

My conversation with Anne Borrel was interrupted by the arrival of customers outside Le Samovar. "Take a look at those four," Borrel said, pointing to the two couples dawdling at the entrance. "I'll bet you anything they're proustiens." She referred to all tourists as proustiens — meaning not Proust scholars but individuals whom the French like to call les amis de Proust, Proustologues, Proustolaters, Proustocentrics, Proustomaniacs, Proustophiles, Proustophiliacs, Proustoholics ... or fidèles (to use a term dear to Proust's malevolent arch-snob, Mme. Verdurin).

    One of the four opened the door of the restaurant and asked in a thick Spanish accent whether lunch was still being served. "Pintades"—Guinea hens—"are all that's left," snapped the owner of Le Samovar. Borrel and I exchanged a complicitous glance, because talk of fowl immediately brought to mind a discussion we'd had in the car about Proust's servant, Françoise, who in Swann's Way butchers a chicken and then curses it for not dying fast enough.

    The four tourists were shown to a table. One asked the proprietor what time the Proust Museum would open that afternoon, and he regretfully informed them that the museum was closed for the holidays. They were crestfallen. "What a pity! And we've come all the way from Argentina."

    Anne Borrel had heard every word of the exchange. She reminded me of a teacher who, with her back turned to the class while she's writing on the blackboard, knows exactly who's whispering what to whom. She leaned over and told one of the Argentines, "You may have come to the right place."

    Overjoyed, the Argentine blurted out, "You mean Marcel Proust used to eat here, in this restaurant?"

    "No," Borrel answered, smiling indulgently. She told them that an improvised tour of the house could be arranged after coffee, and the Argentines went back to talking softly about Proust, staring every once in a while at our table with the thrilled and wary gaze of people who have been promised a miracle.

    By the time our coffee was served, we had also acquired two English and three French proustiens, and a warm, festive mood permeated Le Samovar. It was like the gathering of pilgrims in Chaucer's Tabard Inn. Introductions were unnecessary. We knew why we were there, and we all had a tale to tell. By then, some of us would have liked nothing more than a fireplace, a large cognac, and a little prodding to induce us to recount how we had first come to read Proust, to love Proust, how Proust had changed our lives. I was, it dawned on me, among my own.

After dessert, Borrel put on her coat. "On y va?" she asked, rattling a giant key chain that bore a bunch of old keys with long shafts and large, hollowed oval heads. She led us down the Rue du Docteur Proust, named after Proust's father, who by the turn of the century had helped to halt the spread of cholera in Europe. The sidewalks and streets were empty. Everyone seemed to be away for the holidays. Franco-jazz Muzak emanated from loudspeakers, mounted on various lampposts, that were apparently intended to convey a festive Yule spirit, but otherwise Illiers-Combray was deserted and gray — a dull, cloying, humdrum, wintry, ashen town, where the soul could easily choke. Small wonder that Marcel developed asthma, or that he had the heebie-jeebies on returning home after long evening walks with his parents, knowing that by the time dinner was served life would hold no surprises — only the inevitable walk up the creepy staircase and that frightful drama called bedtime.

    Borrel stopped at one of many nondescript doors along the empty street. She stared at it for a moment, almost as though she were trying to remember whether this was indeed the right address, then took out her keys, inserted one into the lock, and suddenly gave it a vigorous turn, yanking the door open.

    "C'est ici que tout commence," she said.

    One by one, we filed into Proust's garden. Fortunately, no one cried. Borrel pointed to a little bell at the top of the gate. I couldn't contain myself. "Could this be the ferruginous bell?" I asked. It was a question she'd heard before. She took a breath. "You mean not the large and noisy rattle which deafened with its ferruginous, interminable, frozen sound any member of the household who set it off by coming in `without ringing,' but the double peal, `timid, oval, gilded,' of the visitor's bell, whereupon everyone would exclaim, `A visitor! Who on earth could it be?'" (She was quoting from memory, and every time one of us asked a question after that she would recite the answer.)

    Next she led us into the restored, relatively humble middle-class house — by no means the large villa I'd always imagined. The kitchen, where I'd envisaged Françoise cooking the chicken she had viciously butchered, was a sunless alcove. The dining room, with a small round table and dark wood paneling, was a depressing melee of browns. Then we came to Marcel's bedroom, with its tiny Empire-style bed, the magic lantern that kept him company at night when he dreaded sleep, and nearby the George Sand novel bound in red. In another room was the sofa that Proust had given to his maid, Céleste Albaret, and which her daughter had donated to the museum — and which was perhaps the inspiration for the fictional sofa that Marcel inherited from his Tante Léonie, made love on, and eventually passed along to the owner of a brothel.

    When Borrel indicated another room, on the second floor, I interrupted her to suggest that it must surely be the room where, under lock and key, Marcel discovered the secret pleasures of onanism. Borrel neither confirmed nor denied my allegation. She said only, "The little room that smelt of orris-root ... [where] I explored, across the bounds of my own experience, an untrodden path which I thought was deadly." In this way, I was summarily put in my place — for presuming to show off and for implying that I could make obvious what Proust's oblique words had made explicit enough.

    Back in the garden, I told her that the way she had opened the main door had reminded me of the moment in the novel when, after a long, moonlit family walk, Marcel's father pretends to be lost. Everyone in our group suddenly remembered the episode, and, excited, one of the Englishmen described it to his friend, explaining that it was only after making everyone else panic in the dark that Marcel's father had finally taken a key out of his pocket and quietly inserted it in what the others until then had failed to see was the back gate to their very own house. According to the Englishman, Marcel's admiring mother, stunned by her husband's ability to save the day, had exclaimed, "Tu es fantastique!"

    "Tu es extraordinaire!" Borrel corrected him.

    I had always liked that scene: the family wandering in the moonlight, the boy and his mother convinced that they're lost, the father teasing them. It reminded me of the way Proust's sentences roam and stray through a labyrinth of words and clauses, only to turn around — just when you are about to give up — and show you something you had always suspected but had never put into words. The sentences tell you that you haven't really drifted far at all, and that real answers may not always be obvious but aren't really hidden, either. Things, he reminds us, are never as scary as we thought they were, nor are we ever as stranded or as helpless as we feared.

    Borrel left us for a moment to check on something inside the museum, and we spent some time discussing our favorite Proust passages. We all wondered which gate Swann's prototype would come through in the evenings, and where the aunts had been sitting when they refused to thank him for his gift but finally consented to say something so indirect that Swann failed to realize that they actually were thanking him.

    "It all seems so small," said the Englishman, who was visibly disappointed by the house.

    My thoughts drifted to a corner of the garden. The weather was growing colder, and yet I was thinking of Marcel's summer days, and of my own summer days as well, and of the garden where, deaf to the world, I had found myself doing what Proust described in his essay "On Reading":

giving more attention and tenderness to characters in books than to people in real life, not always daring to admit how much I loved them ... those people, for whom I had panted and sobbed, and whom, at the close of the book, I would never see again, and no longer know anything about.... I would have wanted so much for these books to continue, and if that were impossible, to have other information on all those characters, to learn now something about their lives, to devote mine to things that might not be entirely foreign to the love they had inspired in me and whose object I was suddenly missing ... beings who tomorrow would be but names on a forgotten page, in a book having no connection with life.

The guided tour took more than two hours. It ended, as all guided tours do, in the gift shop. The guests were kindly reminded that, despite the impromptu nature of today's visit, they shouldn't forget to pay for their tickets. Everyone dutifully scrambled to buy Proust memorabilia. I toyed with the idea of buying a Proust watch on whose dial were inscribed the opening words of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu: "Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure." But I knew I'd never wear it.

    The visitors began talking of heading back to Paris. I was almost tempted to hitch a ride with one of them, but Borrel had promised to take me for a night walk through the streets of Illiers-Combray and then accompany me to the train station. The others stood idly about in the evening air, obviously reluctant to put Illiers-Combray behind them. They exchanged addresses and telephone numbers. "Proust is a must," I heard the Argentine say, an infatuated giggle in his voice. When Borrel left the shop to lock the back door, I was suddenly alone.

    As I looked out the window at the garden where the Proust family had dined on warm summer evenings, I was seized with a strange premonition of asthma. How could Marcel have ever loved such a place? Or had he never loved it? Had he loved only the act of returning to it on paper, because that was how he lived his life -- first by wanting to live it, and later by remembering having wanted to, and ultimately by writing about the two? The part in between — the actual living — was what had been lost.

    Proust's garden was little more than a place where he had once yearned to be elsewhere — never the primal scene or the ground zero. Illiers itself was simply a place where the young Proust dreamed of a better life to come. But, because the dream never came true, he had learned to love instead the place where the dream was born. That life did happen, and happened so intensely, to someone who seemed so reluctant to live it is part of the Proustian miracle.

    This is the irony that greets all Proust pilgrims: they go in search of things that Proust remembered far better than he had ever really known them, and which he yearned to recover more than he had ever loved them. In the end, like the boy mentioned by Freud who liked to lose things because he enjoyed finding them, Proust realized that he couldn't write about anything unless he thought he had lost it first. Perhaps I, too, had come here in order to lose Combray, if only to rediscover it in the pages I knew I would read on the way home.

    My train wasn't due for an hour and a half, and Anne Borrel invited me to have a cup of tea at her house before our walk. We closed the door to the museum and set off down dark and deserted alleys.

    "Illiers gets so empty," she said, sighing.

    "It must be lonely," I said.

    "It has its pluses."

    Her house was bigger than Proust's and had a far larger garden and orchard. This seemed odd to me — like finding that the gatekeeper owns a faster car and has better central heating than the owner of the palace.

    As we headed back to the train station after our tea, I walked quickly. Borrel tried to stop long enough to show me the spot where the Prousts had returned from their Sunday promenades, but I didn't want to miss my connection to Paris. It seemed a shame that, after so many years, this longed-for moonlit walk, so near at hand, should be the very thing I'd forfeit. But the last thing I needed was to be sentenced to a sleepless night in Proust's boyhood town. I alluded to a possible next time. Borrel mentioned spring, when Proust's favorite flower, the hawthorn, would be in bloom. But I knew, and perhaps she knew too, that I had no plan to return.

On my way to Paris, I skimmed through the pages of "Combray," the first chapter of In Search of Lost Time. As I read about the steeples of Martinville or Tante Léonie, eternally perched in her bedroom, on the first floor, overlooking Rue Saint-Jacques, it occurred to me that I had rushed back to the book not to verify the existence of what I had just seen but to make certain that those places I remembered and loved as though my own childhood had been spent among them had not been altered by the reality of the dull, tile-roofed town shown to me by Anne Borrel.

    I wanted to return to my first reading of Proust — the way, after seeing a film based on a novel, we struggle to resurrect our private portrait of its characters and their world, only to find that the images we've treasured for so long have vanished, like ancient frescoes exposed to daylight by a thoughtless archeologist. Would my original image of a stone villa with a spacious dining room and a wide staircase leading to the child's solitary bedroom be able to withstand the newly discovered little house with its squeaky wooden stairwell and drab, sunless rooms? And could this tawdry garden really be the glorious place where Marcel read away entire afternoons on a wicker chair under a chestnut tree, lost to the voices of those calling him inside and to the hourly chime of the church of Saint-Hilaire — whose real name, as I had found out that day, was not Saint-Hilaire but Saint-Jacques, which, moreover, was not really the name of the street watched over by Tante Léonie, who, it turned out, was herself more likely to have been an uncle.

    Inside the sepia cover of Swann's Way I searched also for the sense of wonder I had brought to it that summer evening more than thirty years before, when I'd had the good fortune to be with a man who was the first person to mention Proust to me and who, because he was unable to give me so many things then, had only this to give me, and gave it tentatively, self-consciously, as though he were giving part of himself, as he told me about Proust — how Proust remembered things that everyone else seemed to forget, how he saw through people though they still managed to fool him, and how he did all those things in sentences that were ever so long -- and steered me, as we rushed to buy the first volume before the stores closed, to a writer I have since loved above all others, not just because of who he was and what he wrote, or because of who I became the more I read him, but because on that late-summer evening I already knew I had just received, perhaps without my father's knowing it, his dearest, most enduring gift of love.

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Table of Contents

Foreword, by Robert Atwan
Introduction: Writers Afoot, by Edward Hoagland
In Search of Proust by Andre Aciman
Torch Song by Charles Bowden
Compression Wood by Franklin Burroughs
Visitor by Michael Cox
Last Words by Joan Didion
For the Time Being by Annie Dillard
The Meteorites by Brian Doyle
A Lovely Sort of Lower Purpose by Ian Frazier
Victoria by Dagoberto Gilb
Still Life by Mary Gordon
A Week in the Word by Patricia Hampl
The Country Below by Barbara Hurd
The Lion and Me by John Lahr
Making it Up by Hilary Masters
On the Fedala Road by Johnn Mcneel
American Heartworm by Ben Metcalf
Before Air Conditioning by Arthur Miller
After Amnesia by Joyce Carol Oates
The Impious Impatience of Job by Cynthia Ozick
Planet of Weeds by David Quammen
On Silence by Daisy Eunyoung Rhau
Beauty by Scott Russell Sanders
Hitler's Couch by Mark Slouka
What's Inside You, Brother? by Toure
Folding the Times by George W. S. Trow
Bibliographical Notes
Notable Essays of 1998
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Introduction: Writers Afoot

Essays are how we speak to one another in print - caroming thoughts not merely in order to convey a certain packet of information, but with a special edge or bounce of personal character in a kind of public letter. You multiply yourself as a writer, gaining height as though jumping on a trampoline, if you can catch the gist of what other people have also been feeling and clarify it for them. Classic essay subjects, like the flux of friendship, "On Greed," "On Religion," "On Vanity," or solitude, lying, self-sacrifice, can be major-league yet not require Bertrand Russell to handle them. A layman who has diligently looked into something, walking in the mosses of regret after the death of a parent, for instance, may acquire an intangible authority, even without being memorably angry or funny or possessing a beguiling equanimity. He cares; therefore, if he has tinkered enough with his words, we do too.
An essay is not a scientific document. It can be serendipitous or domestic, satire or testimony, tongue-in-cheek or a wail of grief. Mulched perhaps in its own contradictions, it promises no sure objectivity, just the condiment of opinion on a base of observation, and sometimes such leaps of illogic or superlogic that they may work a bit like magic realism in a novel: namely, to simulate the mind's own processes in a murky and incongruous world. More than being instructive, as a magazine article is, an essay has a slant, a seasoned personality behind it that ought to weather well. Even if we think the author is telling us the earth is flat, we might want to listen to him elaborate upon the fringes of his premise because the bristle of his narrative and what he's seen intrigues us. He has a cutting edge, yet balance too. A given body of information is going to be eclipsed, but what lives in art is spirit, not factuality, and we respond to Montaigne's human touch despite four centuries of technological and social change.
Montaigne's Essais predated by a quarter-century Cervantes's Don Quixote, which was probably the first novel. And the form of composition Montaigne gave a name to would not have lasted so long if it were not succinct, diverse, and supple, able to welcome ideas that are ahead of or behind the blurring spokes of their own time. But whereas a novelist is often a trapezist, vaulting from book to book, an essayist is afoot. Not a puppetmaster or ventriloquist, he will sound recognizable in his next appearance in print. There is a value to this, though Don Quixote as a figure outshines any essay. Imperishably appealing, he is an embodiment, not speculation, and we can simply call him to mind, much as we remember Conrad's Kurtz, in Heart of Darkness, and Dickens's Oliver Twist, although the regimes up the Congo River and in London aren't now the same.
An essayist's materials are drawn primarily from his or her own life, and he knits a skein of thoughts and impressions, not a made-up tale. An epic drama such as King Lear is thus not his province even to dream about. His work is humbler, and our expectations of him are less elastic than of novelists or poets and their creations. They can flame out in a flash fire, surreal or villainous, if the story is compelling or the language smacks a bit of genius. We accept different behavior from Céline or Genet, Christopher Smart or Ezra Pound, than from Dr. Johnson. Norman Mailer can stab his wife and William Burroughs can shoot his, and somehow we don't blanch. They "needed to," one hears it said. Their imaginations must have got the better of them. But if an essayist had done the same it would have queered his legacy. He is supposed to be the voice of reason. Though modestly chameleon as a monologuist (and however much he wants to recalibrate it), he is an advocate for civilization. He doesn't murder a foe in the street, like the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, or get himself slain in a tavern brawl, like the playwright Christopher Marlowe, or gut-shot, like John Ruskin, in a duel. A murderer or madwoman quarantined in a book on the bedside table can provide excitation and cautionary reading, but an essayist, being his own protagonist, should be faceted rather like a friend. We might give him our keys and put him up in the guest room. He won't be stealing the silverware and debauching the children, and, after sleeping on our problems, he will sit at the breakfast table in the morning sunshine and tell us what we ought to do. Or, at the outside, if - like the master essayist Charles Lamb - his sister has slaughtered his mother, he will devote the next thirty-odd years to piecing together a productive existence for himself and her, not despairing like an aficionado of the Absurd.
Essayists are not Dadaists, and in the endgame that may be in progress - with our splintering attention span, our hiccuping religions, staccato science, and spinning solipsism - they may prove useful. Do we human beings have a special spark of divinity? And if so, as we mince our habitat and compress ourselves into ever tighter spaces, having always claimed that there couldn't be too much of a good thing, how many of us are finally going to constitute a glut of divinity? Judeo-Christianity hasn't said. Nor did "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God," which Thomas Jefferson invoked at the beginning of our Declaration of Independence. Or Emerson's rapturous prescription in Nature in 1836 (Emerson being the other founding father of essay writing in America) that an intelligent observer should become "a transparent eye-ball . . . part or particle of God," amid nature's ramifying glory. Now, man threatens to become a divinity doubled, redoubled, and berserk ad nauseam. However, the essay's brevity, transparency, and versatility should suit this age of reconsideration.
Essays are a limited genre because the writer will suggest that life is more than money, for example, without inventing Scrooge; that brownnosing demeans everybody, without the specter of Uriah Heep. Candide, Starbuck, Injun Joe, Moll Flanders and Becky Sharp led lives more far-fetched than an essayist's, whose medium is mostly what he can testify to having seen or read. Working in the present tense, with common sense his currency, "This is what I think," he tells the rest of us. And even if he speaks about alarming omens, we feel he'll be around tomorrow, not leap headlong into life and burn to a crisp at thirty-two or twenty-eight, like Hart Crane or Stephen Crane, or wind up forlorn in a railroad station fleeing his wife, as Tolstoy did when dying. The limitations are reassuring as well as tethering.
James Baldwin didn't metamorphose into an arsonist or a rifleman when he warned against race war in The Fire Next Time. And George Orwell deconstructed colonialism in essays considerably more nuanced than Heart of Darkness - supplementing though not supplanting Kurtz's immortal line "The horror! The horror!" In a way, it's easier to visit a headwaters area of the Nile or Congo and find conditions not substantially improved since independence when you've read Orwell as well as Conrad on human nature, because these nuances prepare you better for disillusion. Conrad's picture was so stark, surely never again would the world see comparable scenes!
Ripples sway us - traffic tie-ups on a cloverleaf, on-line stock swings, revenge-of-the-rain-forest viral escapees - at the same time that our proud provincialism is called upon to bend the mind around Islam's surging claims, Latino vigor and disorder, chaos in Africa, and a Chinese-puzzle future. In a famine belt along the upper Nile, I've seen child-sized raw-dirt graves scattered everywhere beside a poignant web of paths of the sort that starving people pace. A scrap of shirt or broken toy was laid on top of each small mound to personalize the spot; and hundreds of bony, wobbling children who had survived so far ran toward me (a white-haired white man) to touch my hands in hopes that I might somehow be powerful enough to bring in shipments of food to save their lives. Their urgent smiles were giddy or delirious in skulls already outlined under tightened skin - though they were fatalistic, almost docile, too, because so many adults had told them for so many weeks that there was nothing to eat and so many people whom they knew had died. I interviewed the Sudanese guerrilla general who was in charge of protecting them about what could be done, but he was delayed a little that afternoon because (I found out later from an Amnesty International report) he had been torturing a colleague by pounding a nail through his foot.
Now, essayists in dealing with the present tense are stuck with the nuts and bolts of what's going on. And what do you say about that endgame on the Nile, which I believe was a forerunner, not an anomaly? I expect an epidemic of endgames and disintegration in other forms. Essayists will become "journeymen," in a new definition for that hackneyed term: out on the rim, seeing what's in store. The cataract of memoirs being published currently may be a prelude to this - memoirs of a cascading endgame. Yet essayists are not nihilists as a rule. They look for context. They feel out traction. They have a stake in society's survival, breaking into the plot line of an anecdote to register a reservation about somebody's behavior, for instance, in a manner that most fiction writers would eschew, because an essayist's opinions are central, part of the very protein that he gives us. Not omniscient like a novelist, who can create a world he wants to work with, he has the job of finding coherence in the world that we already have. This isn't harder, just a different task. And he usually comes to it in middle age, having acquired some ballast of experience and tested views - may indeed have written several novels, because of the higher glamour and freedom of that calling. (For what it's worth, I sold my first novel at twenty-one and wrote my first essay at thirty-five.)
"Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth," as Picasso said; and to capture within an imagined story some petal of human longing and defeat is an achievement irresistibly appealing. Essayists, by denying themselves that license to extravagantly fudge the facts of firsthand observation, relegate themselves to the Belles Lettres section of the bookstore, neither fiction nor journalism, because they do partly fudge their reportage, adding the spice of temperament and a lifetime's favorite reading. And if an enigma seems a jigsaw, they will tend to see a picture in it: that life therefore is not an oubliette. The fracases they get into are on behalf of democracy, as they see it (Montaigne, Orwell, and Baldwin again are examples), and their iconoclasm commonly leans toward the ideal of "comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable," which journalists used to aspire to. Like a short-story writer, an essayist is after the gist of life, not Balzacian documentation. And, like a soothsayer with a chicken's entrails, he will spread his innards out before us to discern a pattern. Not just confessional, however, a good essay is driven by the momentum of an inquiry, searching out a point, such as are we divine? - an awfully big one for a lowly essayist, but it may be the question of the coming century.
Essayists also go to the fights, or rub shoulders on the waterfront, get divorced ("Ouch," says the reader, "that was like mine"), nibble canapés, playing off their preconceptions of a celebrity or a politician against reality. They will examine a prejudice (is this piquant or ignoble, educated or soggy?) or dare a pie in the face for advancing an out-of-fashion idea. Or they may simply saunter, in Thoreau's famous reading of the word: à la Sainte Terre, to the Holy Land, or sans terre, at home everywhere - maybe only to the public library to browse among dead friends. Although a novelist can blaze along on impetuous obsessions and we will follow if Scheherazade has set her cap to catch us (and then what happened?), an essay is a current of thoughts corduroyed with sensory impressions, an author afoot, solo, with no movie sale in the offing or hefty hope of fame. Speaking his mind is likely to be a labor of love, and risky because if a work of fiction flops, at least it's nominally somebody else's persona that has been boring the reader.
A solo voice welling up from self-generating sources, or what Thoreau once called an "artesian" life, has not been the dominant mode of expression for the past half-century, so most of the best essays have had to find a home in magazines of lesser circulation, like Harper's, the Village Voice, the American Scholar, Outside, Yale Review, or the Hungry Mind Review. The first-tier publications had corporate styles and personalities, each one insisting upon its editorial "we." But recently publishing has met with such a swirl of confusion that even flagship magazines have been losing money or grandiosity and wondering what tack to take. Essays are reappearing in unexpected places, in National Geographic as well as The New Yorker, and on the airwaves and in newspapers, as corrective colloquy or amusing "occasionals." Paralleling the flood of memoirs that are coming out, the essay form is in revival. And the two genres do overlap, though for essays a narrative is not an end in itself, as it can be in a memoir.
A sense of emergency, I suspect, is powering the popularity of memoirs, the urge for quicker answers than we get from reading novels: What's happening? How shall we live? Nature, which Jefferson and Emerson regarded as central to the health of society, is lately treated as a kind of dewclaw on our collective consciousness. This will, I think, begin to change in the face of ecological catastrophes, and essayists will be in on the action again - as they have attacked so many problems before, from slavery to political tyranny, in the struggle to preserve civilization from itself. (War is a "human disease," Montaigne said.)
The most civil of the literary arts, yet also a "book of the self," "spying on the self from close up," essays are versatile enough that in the same piece, "Of Experience," in which Montaigne says that "death mingles and fuses with our life throughout," he tells us that he can't make love standing up and speaks considerably about his kidneys, urination, and bodily "wind." Wholehearted, supple, an essayist over time may tell you everything you might want to know about him and stretch that measurement a bit, the way a friend or spouse or partner gradually does, until nothing about the living package of that person turns you off. If you know the anguish, joy, and bravery somebody has experienced, you can also share their episodes of shame and indigestion.
Like you, an essayist struggles with the here and now, the world we have, with sore and smelly feet and humiliation, a freethinker but not especially rich or pretty, and quite earthbound, though at his post. Like Thoreau later on (according to Emerson's report), Montaigne says that at a dinner party, "I make little choice at table, and attack the first and nearest thing." He is not much for show and affectation, but nonetheless he eats so zestfully he sometimes bites his own fingers. In a nutshell, maybe that is how to live. Eat of life with such brio that you're not afraid to bite your fingers.

Edward Hoagland

Copyright (c) 1999 by Houghton Mifflin Company
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