THE BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS 1994 Edited by Tracy Kidder Series
Edited by Robert Atwan; Houghton Mifflin; 321 pp., $24.95 cloth
REASONABLE CREATURES: ESSAYS ON WOMEN AND FEMINISM By Katha
Pollitt; Alfred A. Knopf,; 186 pp., $22.
THE PRIMARY COLORS: THREE ESSAYS By Alexander Theroux; Henry
Holt,; 268 pp., $17.95.
MICHEL DE MONTAIGNE, the essayist par excellence, virtually
originated the form of short nonfiction prose pieces that afforded
him the flexibility to express his thoughts on an infinite variety
The essay, by definition and etymology, is open-ended: a foray,
an exploration, a try. It is distinguished from other kinds of
nonfiction by being more personal: Not that all essayists
necessarily deal with deeply private experiences (though they may),
but rather that, whatever the topic, the essayist almost always
presents his or her particular point of view.
The 21 previously published essays featured in this year's
volume of "The Best American Essays" series were chosen by guest
editor Tracy Kidder, himself a prize-winning nonfiction author,
from a pool of some 200 possibilities he received from the series'
general editor Robert Atwan.
The selections range from intensely autobiographical works like
Lucy Grealy's account of her facial disfigurement to thoughtful
meditations on public issues like James McPherson's examination of
the civil rights movement, "Ivy Day in the Empty Room"; from
"on-the-road" reportage, like Ted Conover's account of "Trucking
Through the AIDS Belt" in East Africa to lightweight parodies like
Ian Frazier's "The Frankest Interview Yet," a spoof of
I confess to harboring an innate suspicion of anything calling
itself "the best," and would certainly concede that an editor's
choices are largely a matter of personal taste. I found myself not
too surprised at just how mixed this mixed bag proved to be.
IT is hard to imagine how someone who must have appreciated the
intelligence of McPherson's discussion of Dr. Martin Luther King
Jr. could possibly have been impressed by Andre Dubus III's obtuse
reminiscence of what an endearing adolescent buddy, a now-notorious
wife-beater, once was to him.
Counterbalancing this, somewhat, are psychologist Lauren
Slater's moving account of her work with a hostile patient afraid
to drop his guard and Vicki Hearne's vindication of an orangutan
trainer unfairly accused of mistreating his animals.
But how could the editor who picked out Adam Gopnick's diverting
yet ultimately serious essay on modern art, which discusses
sophisticated issues in a way that effortlessly clarifies without
condescending, have also selected Louise Erdrich's pedestrian
"Skunk Dreams"? Darcy Frey's long article on inner-city
basketball players and S. Oso's account of working as a parking-lot
attendant probably represent obligatory bows to the so-called
underclass: it's a pity both essays are so boring. …