At one point in the history of writing this blog, I thought I’d do a series on my favorite essayists. I think the series got off the ground with my favorite essayist and then fizzled: Joseph Epstein. I suppose it is a mistake to begin with the best. For years I devoured The American Scholar journal because Epstein was its editor and a regular contributor. Then he moved aside and Anne Fadiman assumed his fountain pen elegance. Then they sacked Anne and I dropped my subscription. There was something unique about The American Scholar — the familiar essay.
In her new book, At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays by Anne Fadiman, Anne Fadmian collects a dozen of her familiar essays. I relish good familiar essays so much I’ll only read one of these per week — even though I’ve already read most of them. What, you ask, is a familiar essay? Glad you asked because that was what I thought I should jot down next!
“His viewpoint was subjective,” Anne says of the prototypes in Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt, “his frame of reference concrete, his style digressive, his eccentricities conspicuous, and his laughter usually at his own expense.” She uses the male pronoun for a reason: Her father, Clifton Fadiman, once said women didn’t write familiar essays because “the form does not attract them.” Anne has a response: “Well, it attracts me.” And her book attracts me: a lovely font, a book small enough to fit perfectly in my hand, clothbound so it lasts, and content that makes me want to sit on my porch and enjoy the pleasure of someone who knows how to make words play their proper game.
There are today many critical essays (more brain than heart) and personal essays (more heart than brain) but not enough familiar essays (a balance of the two). They are a blend of “narcissism and curiosity” and many are saying the familiar essay’s days are numbered. But, not for Anne.
And not for me. With her I hope “no dirge, gentle or otherwise,” quoting her father again, “need ever be sung to lament its passing.”
If you find the pace of the familiar essay to slow for you, you are too busy. Friendship, which creates the space for the familiar essay, isn’t in a hurry and neither is Anne. So, sit down with At Large and At Small and Enjoy! She’ll be a friend in no time.
Yep, familiar essays tend to be written by the sophisticates and border at times on snobbery and the essayists quote folks without footnotes from sources that are definitely highbrow, but if you want a piece to read to a friend over coffee, nothing works like a familiar essay. Nothing. It’s simply designed for that setting. Two friends, together, who take a line of thought out for a walk with no purpose other than the enjoyment of conversing together.
The best Christian familiar essayist is Alan Jacobs. John Wilson, the marvelous editor at Books and Culture, has wisely opened his door to the essays of Jacobs.