Essayist Fadiman Revives Familiar Literary Art

Anne Fadiman

hide captionAnne Fadiman's latest book is a collection of familiar essays, At Large and At Small.

Connie Miller

Whether she is exploring a medical culture clash in The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, or negotiating the fraught terrain of merging her books with her husband's in Ex Libris, author Anne Fadiman clearly has a big crush on the English language.

She also has a big crush on Romantic-era essayist Charles Lamb, which is evident in her new book, a collection of familiar essays called At Large and At Small.

The familiar essay, Fadiman tells Rebecca Roberts, is a subset of the personal essay – but not as personal as the personal essay familiar to 21st-century readers.

In the early 19th century, writers such as Lamb and William Hazlett wrote about themselves, but at the same time about a subject that they knew their readers knew, too. Among Lamb's topics, for instance, were tailors, drunkards and annoying relatives.

"The hallmark of the familiar essay is that it is autobiographical, but also about the world," Fadiman says.

Fadiman, who writes about everything from Samuel Taylor Coleridge to ice cream, shares her thoughts on why it was so enjoyable to pen a familiar essay about coffee, blogging as a literary genre and why many of her readers think of her as being a good friend.

Excerpt: 'At Large and At Small'

Book cover

From Chapter 8: Moving, which chronicles Fadiman's family move from New York City to western Massachusetts:

We engaged a real estate agent who dressed in black and had an Italian first name and a last name that was half French and half Spanish. (It was hyphenated. Paolo was far too upscale to have only one name.) He walked around the loft. I'm not sure he appreciated "Nudes for Nudes." I saw him eyeing the aquamarine felt-tip-pen stain on the chair near the front door, the grungy sofa, the ancient gas stove. "It will be just right," he said in his expensive Italian-French-Spanish accent, "for a very special person."

Paolo wrote a display ad for The New York Times real estate section headlined "express your interior world." At first I wasn't sure what this meant, but I hadn't spent all those undergraduate hours on explication de texte for nothing. Eventually I deconstructed it. It meant: "You — the very special person whose next address will be 150 Thompson Street — may look like an investment banker, but inside your three-piece suit there lives a starving poet who is crying to get out." The ad continued: "This bohemian loft [read: there are no Sub-Zero appliances] oozes charm & character [read: there are children's fingerprints on the walls] only found in original old SoHo [read: there's only one bathroom]." In its favor, the loft did have "wd flrs, orig beamed ceils, and grt clsts."

Although there are pages and pages in Persuasion about whether Sir Walter will find the right tenants, there is not a word about cleaning up Kellynch-hall before its prospective occupants come to inspect it.

Nineteenth-century novels never mention such matters. The servants take care of them. Even if the tenants were to drop in unannounced, the silver would already be polished, the floors waxed, the carpets beaten, and the ancestral portraits straightened. Paolo did not find our loft in a similar state of readiness.

"The animals will have to go," he observed. The animals! How thrilling! He made it sound as if we kept a pack of ocelots. In fact, our menagerie consisted of Silkie, Susannah's hamster, and Bunky, Henry's frog, both of whom lived in plastic boxes on the dining-room table, underneath the lamp from the Erie Lackawanna railway station.

"The kitchen is cluttered," he added. Before Paolo's arrival, I had spent three hours de-cluttering it. There wasn't a single object on the counters. No one could toast, blend, or make coffee in this kitchen; it was apparently owned by people who had been born without digestive tracts. This met with Paolo's approval. The problem was the family photographs posted with magnets on the refrigerator. "No personal effects," he explained, using a phrase I had heard only on television detective shows, describing corpses that had been robbed before they were murdered.

We banished the animals to Henry's bedroom, expunged our personal effects, spread a patchwork quilt on the sofa, replaced the Revere Ware teakettle with an imported red enamel coffeepot you couldn't pick up without a potholder, replaced the potholder, repainted the kitchen cabinets, scrubbed the windows, mopped the floors, rolled out a Persian rug the children weren't allowed to walk on, moved nine bags of toys to our neighbor's loft, and propped the pillows vertically on our bed, which meant that all the comfortable ones — the soft, saggy blobs you could bury your cheek in — were extradited to the closet. It could have been worse. If we'd been selling the loft instead of just renting it, we might have been tempted to hire a fluffer. (Fluffer is a term borrowed from pornographic filmmaking; he or she gets the male star ready for the camera.) In the housing market, the fluffer — also known as a stager — induces a temporary state of real-estate tumescence by removing much of what the client owns and replacing it, from a private warehouse of props, with new furniture, carpets, plants, paintings, towels, sheets, shower curtains, throw pillows, lamp shades, ice buckets (to hold champagne next to the Jacuzzi), breakfast trays (to hold tea and the Sunday Times), and Scrabble sets (to spell out beautiful home). One fluffer ordered his client to remove a Georgia O'Keeffe painting from the wall and hide it under the bed. The colors were wrong.

Even though our loft was prepared by amateurs — self-fluffed, as it were — it had never looked better. We rented it to a kindly macroeconomist.

Excerpted from AT LARGE AND AT SMALL: Familiar Essays by Anne Fadiman, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright (c) 2007 by Anne Fadiman. All rights reserved.

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