Reviews | March 17, 2015
The Collected Voice: Three Recent Essay Collections of Note
Robinson, Marilynne. When I Was a Child I Read Books. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012, 206 pp., $24
Patchett, Ann. This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. Harper, 2013, 320 pp., $27.99
Cohen, Michael. A Place to Read: Life and Books. Interactive Press, 2014, 256 pp., $24
In twenty-four years of editing for TMR, I’ve edited nonfiction about birth, cremation, love, work, money, fear, insanity and religious mania, violence, history, Shakespeare, art, race relations, family and global and American landscapes. A wealth of subjects—but what has made some pieces rise above the others, in quality and in the way they’ve held on in my memory, has only rarely been the subject; it’s the writer’s voice that made them stand out. More than fiction, where plot and character are the first things to engage the reader, an essayist must cultivate voice, then all those other considerations that make an essay memorable: subject, argument, narrative, language, etc. As Joyce Carol Oates wrote in 2000 in her introduction to The Best American Essays of the Century, “All essays are an expression of the human voice addressing an imagined audience, seeking to shift opinion, to influence judgment, to appeal to another in his or her common humanity.” As a reader, it’s that one-sided conversation I’m after: an assured voice telling me something in a way that convinces me it is worth hearing.
The three collections reviewed here are diverse in their agendas and prospective readers, but each succeeds; each speaks eloquently, and each will repay readers for the time spent listening. Each is distinguished by a capable voice that reveals the author’s preoccupations: Marilynne Robinson’s with a vision of America that is slipping away, Ann Patchett’s with the vocation of writing, Michael Cohen’s with the pastime and passion of reading.
“In this climate of generalized fear civil liberties have come under pressure, and those who try to defend them are seen as indifferent to threats to freedom,” Marilynne Robinson writes in “Austerity as Ideology,” an essay that first appeared in The Nation under the title “Night Thoughts of a Baffled Humanist.” The third piece in her collection, When I Was a Child I Read Books, is an alternately “baffled” response and deliberate argument. In it, she takes issue with the way America’s new brand of conservatism has demonized liberal thought, elevated capitalism to the status of an incontrovertible creed and, in the process, turned unduly credulous Americans against long-established public institutions designed for their benefit—all of this through a concerted fear-mongering that has painted central government as the people’s worst enemy. Robinson agrees on the point that we may be in danger, but not about the reason:
The world is indeed dangerous, and for this very reason, the turning of our society, and of Western society, against themselves is flatly contrary to any rational strategy of self-defense. But it is highly consistent with a new dominance of ideological thinking, and it is very highly consistent with the current passion for Austerity, which gains from it status as both practical necessity and moral ideal. Anxiety has taken on a life of its own. It has become a sort of succubus on our national life.
She points out that there is nothing particularly capitalist about many institutions of American society: public higher education, the postal system, the GI bill, Social Security, the graduated income tax—all are “massive distributions or redistributions of wealth meant to benefit the public at large.” Such practical provisions for the public good have been a crucial component of our freedom, she believes, and they’re characteristic of modern Western nations’ attempts to build societies “that, by historical standards, may be called humane.” Here, most of her readership will be nodding its head.
But then, there’s her intimacy with the Bible, reminding us that Robinson is not just an American liberal intellectual but a Christian American liberal intellectual. The biblical imperatives of generosity and altruism are lifted up in one way or another in many of the essays—a direct challenge to Tea Party conservatives and those strident religiousright advocates of budget-slashing allied with them. This is a politicized collection, though Robinson does not seem interested in identifying specific antagonists. Her concerns are with a culture in which the term “democracy” has been so redefined as to be unrecognizable, and with the fact that an unnamed contingent has “turned on our heritage.” She doesn’t care so much about naming that contingent. These are concerns that run throughout the collection, as she indicts the economics of the past several decades, and especially of this present one, as a “corrosive influence” that is destroying almost everything of worth about America.
At the end of “Austerity as Ideology,” Robinson’s tone becomes nearly prophetic as she muses on what the outcome might be of the current clamor for austerity. We have entered an era of “rationalist purgation,” she says ominously, and the prospect is not bright, especially where it comes to the education of future generations. Having myself butted heads with people on issues where one of us was talking about principles and the other about ill-advised action that ran counter to those principles, I can imagine that the people who most need to grasp Robinson’s argument are the ones who will never hear it and would not understand it if they did. At the end of the essay she speculates about the end of humanity and what we might see if we could look back at ourselves after we’re gone:
What about us was of interest, if we imagine looking at ourselves in retrospect? That we made civilizations, or that we drove them to the ground, reduced them to rubble? I won’t pretend that this is a real question. We make wealth, and we destroy it. Our wealth is finally neither more nor less than human well-being. There is no necessary hypothesis; there is no value but what we value. The great temptation of money is that it seems to give us tokens, markers, by which things and people can be truly said to succeed or fail.
These are profound thoughts about the moral implications of prosperity; however, the bleak tone of this essay, and especially of the closing paragraphs, made me wonder what response Robinson hoped to elicit from her readers. Does she sees herself as a Cassandra here, able to conjure a picture of the dreaded future “austerity” but with only a small approving audience who will give credence to her warnings?
In reviewing the collection, August Brown of the Los Angeles Times wrote that Robinson is “confounding” among writers of the moment, having produced a “leftist political manifesto” that shares a common thesis with the Christian right: that America’s fundamental values come from the Bible. This is precisely what I appreciated most about Robinson’s book, which consistently invokes the Bible, especially the Old Testament, and her careful reading of American history to argue for liberal values, displaying an understanding of history and scripture superior to most people’s who might challenge her. In “Open Thy Hand Wide: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism,” Robinson claims that Calvinism, often thought to be obsessed with sin and punishment, is actually the source of Christian liberalism—and that American liberalism originated in the Calvinist interpretation of the Old Testament. This kind of pronouncement is likely to surprise Christian conservatives and secular liberals alike—a marvelous double-edged dismantling of conservative and liberal shibboleths that she performs repeatedly. Among other evidence, she points to the way Old Testament law commanded compassion for debtors and the poor. She is liberal in another way in these essays, too—liberal with context. In this one, she opens with a passage from a lecture by George Santayana, then leads the reader through characteristic charges against Calvin’s theology to familiarize us with the “other side,” and on through the law of Moses and some Puritan writings to arrive at the question of how some American Christians could have come so far from the godly behest to love and care for each other and share their material blessings.
Some reviewers have complained that there’s not much humor in these essays. This made me wonder if they’d read all of them. I had the thought several times that I would not want to be the person impaled on the bayonet of Robinson’s wit—which is exceedingly sharp and dry. In “The Fate of Ideas: Moses,” she goes after the trend of critically debunking established texts and writers—notably, again, the Old Testament. She first fixes her attention on an Episcopal bishop named John Shelby Spong and his 1998 book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die. After paraphrasing in a tone of great reasonableness why Spong has dismissed the backbone of the OT, the Ten Commandments and the Torah, she finally lets go with her wit, remarking that “Christianity . . . suffers terribly at the hands of Bishop Spong, though he may not be wholly conscious of this fact.” She tramples jubilantly over his argument that because the Bible’s authors posited a flat earth, a lot of what they wrote must be wrong: “The earth, the bishop tells us, has been proved by science to be spherical! And space to be empty! He is heroic in his pursuit of the implications of this myth-shattering roundness so lately recognized as a feature of our planet.” After quoting his analysis of “up” as a spatial image dependent on Earth’s flatness, an idea he says can’t really be fathomed by the modern mind, she observes drily, “It’s amazing we post-Copernicans can even get out of bed.”
Of the other essays, my personal favorite was “Who Was Oberlin?” in which she explains how nineteenth-century Protestant revival inspired settlement of the American Midwest and led to the planting of a number of private liberal arts colleges throughout the region—including, of course, Oberlin. They are colleges I think of fondly because I was educated at a similar Midwest liberal arts college, part of a consortium with these schools. In the nineteenth century, Oberlin was a center of social reform and progressive causes, most famously abolitionism; the school also admitted women as early as 1837. Robinson reminds us that education, social reform and evangelical Christianity once went hand in hand in the Midwest. “Why does it matter whether or not this past is remembered?” she asks toward the end of the essay—and answers herself with another weighty question: “What was lost when this past was forgotten?”
I have always thought of Ann Patchett as a novelist—a serious one— whose novels have gained increasing respect, been well reviewed and have grown in ambition, assembling international casts and dramatic plots in Bel Canto and State of Wonder, especially. If I’ve thought of her as a nonfiction writer at all, it’s been for her 2004 memoir Truth and Beauty, about her years-long friendship with the difficult and troubled writer Lucy Grealy. I hadn’t considered her as an essayist and came to her recent collection curious but without any definite expectations. Only a few pages into This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, I was marveling at how expertly Patchett engages her audience.
First, there’s the utter clarity of every sentence. Take the opening of a very short piece, “The Paris Match,” which first appeared in the New York Times Magazine: “There are things people do when they are first in love: they surprise one another with trips to Paris; they make reservations in impossibly expensive Paris restaurants; they have conversations about former lovers while they eat in those impossibly expensive Paris restaurants.” In a single sentence composed of four totally lucid main clauses (with a few subordinate elements thrown in, but they never muddy things), Patchett easily draws in the reader and sets up the situation. The subject is a lot less transparent than Patchett’s prose: a fight over a maddening word game early in her romance with her husband, Karl—a conflict that has remained a “tattoo” on their relationship. This penetrating little essay about the sort of incident that can cast a shadow over a couple reminded me of something Colette might have written—not because it takes place in Paris but because it perfectly illustrates how love is undermined by the tiniest things that people can’t forgive.
It’s not unusual for a collection of any genre to more or less compile itself unintentionally, but the evolution of Patchett’s collection was more accidental than most. In fact, she resisted collecting any of the large number of short magazine pieces she had written over the years before her novel sales amounted to anything—years when she made her living freelancing for publications such as Seventeen and Vogue. “I thought of the work I did as being temporary, with a lifespan that would, in most cases, not exceed a magazine’s last tattered days in a dentist’s waiting room,” she writes in her introduction, “but the essays kept resurfacing.” Working in favor of an incipient book was a persistent friend who was determined to see some of her best nonfiction collected. And the fact that she had, literally, a bin of short pieces of commercial magazine writing to pick from; and that she is Ann Patchett, a novelist whose talents were already known and admired, and whose status among literature lovers had been further enhanced since she joined the battle against Amazon by colaunching an independent bookstore, Parnassus Books of Nashville, a few years ago. A number of the shorter magazine pieces suffer a bit from being collected with the longer, more serious essays: I was not so struck by the seasonal “How to Read a Christmas Story,” which opens the collection, and wondered why Patchett chose it to lead off, but like every other essay in the book, it is pleasantly readable. In Patchett’s hands, you simply relax and go along with the voice. She makes it very, very easy for the reader to simply read.
If the book has one big theme, it’s Ann Patchett’s identity as a writer. She is one of those writers who knew from the start that she wanted to write and who has been able to make a living at it through a confluence of talent, a lot of work, smart career decisions and the X factor of luck. She writes about her vocation as a perfect job and a great joy. I expected at first to become annoyed by this stance, but in the end that just didn’t seem fair: Patchett writes with so much evident pleasure and commitment to her craft, and always with a striking clarity that comes from years of magazine writing. If there are readers who can muster irritation at her for taking so much satisfaction in doing something well that she’s worked for years to be good at, I’m not among them. In “The Wall,” a fascinating longer essay, she describes a book on police work she planned to write in her thirties. In the name of research, she even passed the Police Academy entrance exams and planned to go through the training (she decided she wasn’t cut out for it, however, and never wrote the book). “The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life” is another of the more substantial pieces and also one of the most recent. In it, she honestly assesses the pros of MFA programs (“You can learn more, and more quickly, from other people’s missteps than you can their successes.”) and their cons, discusses the problem with summer workshops (“I stopped teaching in summer programs a long time ago because I felt uncomfortable with the promises that were being sold.”) and offers her opinion of other fledgling writer moves. She describes her undergraduate education at Sarah Lawrence, where she was fortunate to have as teachers Alan Gurganus, Grace Paley and Russell Banks. Banks once told her she was a polished writer but “shallow.” “There are in life a few miraculous moments when the right person is there to tell you what you need to hear and you are still open enough, impressionable enough, to take it in,” Patchett writes of that conversation. “When I thought about the writer I had wanted to be . . . that person was not shallow. I would go back to my better, deeper self.”
That last comment is about as confessional as Patchett gets. There’s a decorum in what she chooses not to say that matches the decorum of her language, which is always transparent, never excessive. I was most conscious of this in “The Love between the Two Women Is Not Normal,” about Truth and Beauty, the previously mentioned memoir of her friendship with Lucy Grealy. The piece describes the outcry when the book was chosen for the 2006 freshman summer reading program at Clemson University. A parent who served on South Carolina’s Commission on Higher Education read the book, found it to be offensive for the usual reasons and stirred up other parents, who joined him in publicly demanding that the reading assignment be rescinded. The university stuck to its decision, and Patchett fulfilled her guest-speaking commitment and arrived to make an awkward and defensive speech to the freshman class. She had already been called out by Grealy’s family for writing revealingly about Lucy, and this misguided incident must have only added to the bruising. But whatever her feelings at the time, we see very little of them, only the author’s mildly ironic observations about the silliness of the whole debacle. She concludes the piece almost philosophically: “Some people find sex and suffering and deep friendship between women unpalatable subjects, and seeing this book bearing down on their children, they no doubt felt they had to try and stop it. They didn’t succeed, but I seriously doubt that anyone was harmed by completing the assignment.” It occurred to me while reading this essay that Patchett never lets her reader squirm or feel uncomfortable, which made me trust her voice a little less.
If Patchett’s big subject is her career as a writer, Michael Cohen’s is the assorted thoughts of an intelligent, observant reader. Of the three books of essays reviewed here, Cohen’s aligns most closely with the essayistic tradition. In a comp/rhetoric course I took a very long time ago in grad school, the teacher offered a definition that I’ll paraphrase loosely (the exact words are gone from memory). An essay, he said, is a “personal reflection on a matter of general interest.” And that description certainly fits the twenty-two, mostly short pieces collected in Cohen’s book, as does Samuel Johnson’s characterization of the essay as a “loose sally of the mind.”
The “sallies” here are about a lot of things, some quite unexpected: notebooks, the author’s learning to fly in his sixties, roadside shrines to the dead, men’s clothes. In this last, “Men in Uniform,” Cohen contemplates the lack of creativity and variety men bring to dressing themselves, a sameness that in his opinion has great advantages and only a few drawbacks. The ultimate uniform is the tuxedo, a “brilliant” costume because, among its other attributes—which include setting off the “spectacular” attire of one’s female companion—there’s no question about whether it is appropriate for the sort of occasion to which a man wear might wear one. “I need never worry whether my costume is going to look expensive or exclusive enough,” he says. “And the tuxedo works for every degree of formality, from the Tinyville Charity Ball to the White House Gala.” The essay charms in its close view of the modest subject of men’s dress, and along the way, Cohen is generous with both associations and information—so we get a little history of the tuxedo, a short reflection on its female analogue, the “little black dress,” some etymology and further discussion of other men’s “uniforms”: chinos and button-down shirts and so on. As in almost all the essays, Cohen turns frequently to texts—he’s a curious and exploring reader, so we revisit The Preppy Handbook (a shiver of déjà vu there), among other books about popular style.
I hope I haven’t been unfair in picking one of the shorter, less substantial pieces in the book to mention first—Patchett’s collection also includes some slim pieces (there is only length and seriousness with Robinson). Cohen’s tone is often gently humorous, but there is a precision and thoughtfulness to every essay that saves even the least serious ones from slightness. The thoughtfulness is often directed toward reading and related activities—Cohen is a former literature professor who traded scholarship for personal essays after retiring (every scholar should be such a graceful writer). In “Selling My Library,” an essay that first appeared on the TMR website, he writes about deciding to downsize his book collection by selling off the ones he wants less, the “freeloaders,” on the Internet. It’s possible to be a “transcendent” lover of books without needing to possess the physical objects, he says. Like most of the other essays, this one is allusive and readerly, giving nods to T. S. Eliot, Anne Fadiman, Ray Bradbury, John Milton, Washington Irving, Don Quixote, John Barth, a bunch of mystery writers and too many others to name. Another of these readerly pieces is “A Retiree Reads Proust and Montaigne,” which manages to be both chatty and astute. It’s the consciousness of these two French writers, about writing and about self, that attracts him. “For both Proust and Montaigne, the important life, the one that is most real, is the internal,” he writes. I had the sense that this is somewhat true for Cohen, too.
Though virtually every piece deals with books, some are more broadly about subjects other than reading, and several of those were my favorites. In “The Victims and the Furies,” he makes a wise and perceptive argument against the death penalty, a subject in which he has a personal stake. In “My Hypochondria,” he writes about the sudden obsession with his body that began after a benign episode of atrial fibrillation. In the hospital, as he watches an ultrasound image of his heart—“First a spasm in the top third of the screen, a blossom of light spreading and dissipating, then a spasm at the bottom”—he marvels at its consistent beating and then starts to doubt that it will continue:
The conviction began to grow in me that this constancy and this perseverance was more than amazing; it was magic. I saw the little pump as just another piece of connective tissue, like the ones that had been failing me over the last year. “It cannot continue to do that,” I thought. . . . “It will stop. Maybe in five more beats . . . Maybe in a thousand, but it will stop. And when it stops, I will die.”
The essay, more narrative than many of the pieces, takes us through a period of physical ailments and Cohen’s anxiety about what is happening to his body, until he finally lets go of his fear following a conversation with a terminally ill acquaintance. “There are reasons why our skin is not transparent like some jellyfish’s,” he concludes. “The skin is the rightful limit of our concern . . . we gain no advantage from being able to see our secret hearts.” A lot of health gurus would be out of business if we were all so wise.
In his introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, Philip Lopate says, “Montaigne may not have been, as he claimed, the first writer to take himself as his subject, but he was perhaps the first to talk to himself convincingly on the page.” Cohen has taken his cue from Montaigne in essays in which he talks to himself intimately but also broadly about the texts that engage his interest and inform his varied subjects. He doesn’t have Patchett’s honed sense of her reading audience, but the essays please, and I found them just as readable and sometimes deeper. While Robinson makes no concessions to the reader who lacks her intellectual rigor, Patchett cultivates a much more accessible persona but one that at times seemed too buoyant to make me a complete covert to her nonfiction. Cohen lacks the cachet of the other two writers and some of their expertise, but he strikes a happy balance, writing with apparent candidness to well-read, thoughtful readers like himself.
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