The Familiar Essay: A Delight in the Hands of Anne Fadiman

By McAlpin, Heller | The Christian Science Monitor, July 3, 2007 | Go to article overview

The Familiar Essay: A Delight in the Hands of Anne Fadiman


McAlpin, Heller, The Christian Science Monitor


Would someone please hire Anne Fadiman to edit another magazine so she'll keep writing essays?

As editor at large of Civilization magazine, Fadiman produced the wonderful pieces, mainly about books, collected in 1998 in "Ex Libris," a volume I've probably bought for more people than any other in my life.

She wrote 11 of the 12 essays in At Large and At Small for The American Scholar, which she edited from 1997 to 2004. Their publication in book form is cause for rejoicing.

But it's also a cause for concern, since the flow of essays stopped when (in a move that demonstrates that good grades do not always equal great smarts), the Phi Beta Kappa Society, publisher of The American Scholar, let her go.

Fadiman, a self-proclaimed "enthusiastic amateur, not a scholar," writes so knowledgeably and charmingly about her passions - which include Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, circadian biorhythms and disruption of same by coffee, and "the compulsion to order experience" - manifested in her youthful butterfly collecting - that her readers become passionate about her.

Originally published under the apt pseudonym Philonoee - "lover of intellect" - these essays will be familiar to readers of The American Scholar, though that is not what Fadiman means by "familiar essays." The familiar essay is a genre that reached its heyday in the early 19th century with one of her great crushes, Charles Lamb. His legacy, she laments in "The Unfuzzy Lamb," is kept alive mainly by university English departments, "the ICUs of literature."

Fadiman explains her devotion to the familiar form in the book's lovely Preface: "Today's readers 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 measures of both)."

A typical Fadiman essay begins with an engaging personal anecdote before branching out into the history of the subject in question. As her extensive bibliography indicates, research aplenty goes into each piece. But it's all so delightful, it's like eating a meal that is both good for you and delicious.

"Mail," for example, opens with a portrait of her father, writer Clifton Fadiman, waiting for his day to really start with the arrival of the daily post. …

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