Monday, December 28, 2015

Ander Monson: On Finding The Best American Essays 1999 at the Bear Canyon Goodwill

Five years ago in the Bear Canyon Goodwill, the northernmost one in Tucson, the one in the ritzy neighborhood that opposed Goodwill moving into it because of the people they feared the store would bring, I discovered The Best American Essays 1999.

I already owned the years after 2005, the year when I started buying them new, but had never thought about tracking down the older years of the series. After all, as Eric LeMay points out, are old essays news that stay news, or are these old editions essays with an expiration date?

Finding a BAE in a Goodwill was a different sort of reading encounter, not the kind I went after, but a chance one, much like the “random bear attacks” that my handheld Big Buck Hunter game bragged about in 1999. So, well, huh, I didn’t have this one. Edward Hoagland. I know that name. The turtles guy, right? I held it to the light. I put it in my cart. Right next to it I saw three more: 1994 and 1993 and 2003.

In Goodwills my habit is to quickly scan the trade books, the ones with the little taller spines and the classier typography because I deem myself a classy bastard. BAEs fit right into this algorithm, though I don't remember noticing any before this visit. Seeing several aggregated here, I thought: these had to be from the same reader. So I picked those three up too. I love finding readers’ used copies, particularly when they imply a constellation of a reading life. You don't need to see their names written in cursive on or pathologically marked up.

You can almost always tell, when shopping secondhand, which books came from the same person; they get shelved together by inertia more often than not, and they're often the same vintage, or with similar aging patterns. One time at another Tucson thrift store, Savers, I bought nearly sixty poetry collections, many by former colleagues of mine at Arizona, books sadly out of print and often-enough forgotten, all from the same reader, obviously, maybe someone who gave up on poetry, or gave up on the poetry that people at Arizona wrote in the 1980s and 1990s. Inside one copy was a draft of a poem. I bought them all and read them. It's depressing mentioning this, that

And yes, I do get a charge of electric jealousy thinking about those who’ve come across David Markson’s annotated books in The Strand bookstore in Manhattan after his death and blogged some of the notes he made on the pages.

Searching the shelves more thoroughly, I found nine years of BAE in total, and bought them all. I wondered who would have donated all nine, clearly well-read and well-loved, and only those nine, to the Goodwill. There was no bookplate or signature or note, no real evidence except from a faint mix of coffee and cigarette smell and their spines—relaxed from use but not yet broken—of their former reader.

Did the reader keep the others in the series and choose only these to weed? And why? Did they only have these nine and tire of them? Did they find themselves suddenly in their lives at a point with no use for essays, or the essays of yesterday? Did they get past thinking about considerations of Best? Did they just tire of keeping up with the series or the essay or contemporary writing? Or did they simply die and just have all their books donated without order or thought? This happens quite a lot in Southern Arizona, occupied as it is by many retirees with family absent, elsewhere, east.

If I could I would have loved to have asked the reader (or reader’s surviving spouse or child or friend or passing stranger or bookseller recruited for the task) to reflect on the decision of this donation, to essay the occasion of donating these nine different years of Best American Essays this day to this Goodwill.

I took them home and put them on a shelf. It took a while to get back to them. Nine books is a lot to consider, one reason why I find it hard to get it up to tackle the opaque bulk of the Joyce Carol Oates oeuvre, for instance. Yet I crack open the 1999 edition and she’s here, Oates is here, in a small and easily consumable package, with a surprisingly great essay, “After Amnesia.” And oh shit, I thought, there’s Charles Bowden’s colossal “Torch Song,” which I know quite well indeed.

Elsewhere in the ToC you’ll see a lot of names you’ll recognize: Brian Doyle (one of our favorites here, and one of the most frequent inclusions—after Cynthia Ozick, also included, and the all-time reigning BAE inclusion champion: and really, Bob Atwan, shouldn’t she by now have been drafted to be the guest editor?); Patricia Hampl; Scott Russell Sanders, Mary Gordon, Ian Frazier, and Joan Didion. Then, too, there’s Annie Dillard, and while I’d love for this to be my opportunity to essay against Annie Dillard, a sea turtle crossed with National Public Radio, today is not that day; I kind of can’t get my anger (or my pleasure) up for this particular piece.

It was fascinating, looking back at all of these old anthologies. I wondered what I would learn if I were to read them all.

Whoa: I thought. Maybe this was a revelation I was having. In retrospect this was the moment when I decided I’d have to have them all, the complete and expanding set of Best American Essays. Luckily, unlike the Best American Short Stories, there were only (then) 25 of them. So I kept my eye open for the next couple years, not seeking them out, but finding them when I could. I’d only end up needing to seek out and buy 1986, 87, 88, 95, and 98).


I put more stock in serendipity and chance operations than I maybe should, but there’s a lot of stuff in the world. More books were published this year than ever before. It seems like in the age of ultimate muchness it’s pretty hard to find your way to the things that matter. And as an essayist, figuring out how to open yourself up to the found and the happened-on, which is I mean to say the possibility of discovery and distraction, has become increasingly important to my practice.

So while I didn’t ascribe much meaning to BAE 1999 exactly at the time, when it came time to assign myself a year for this here advent calendar, I called 1999. Between the choosing of the year and the writing of the essay, though, I’d forgotten why I chose 1999, until I opened my copy up again and thought, oh, hey, here’s that Edward Hoagland introduction that’s stuck with me hard for a very long time now:
Essays are how we speak to one another in print—caroming thoughts not merely in order to convey a certain packet of information, but with a special edge or bounce of personal character in a kind of public letter. You multiply yourself as a writer, gaining height as though jumping on a trampoline, if you can catch the gist of what other people have also been feeling and clarify it for them.… Mulched perhaps in its own contradictions, [an essay] promises no sure objectivity, just the condiment of opinion on a base of observation, and sometimes such leaps of illogic or superlogic that they may work a bit like magic realism in a novel: namely, to simulate the mind's own processes in a murky and incongruous world.
This was a thought I'd never had before reading it, but one that felt obvious to me now: essays are conversations. They're messages. We are speaking to one another, aren't we, even if the one to whom we speak is no longer alive. We're not just publishing these essays into the void.

This, and not the turn to the new millennium, though there’s plenty of that thinking too on display in both Atwan’s and Hoagland’s introductions, was why I had picked this year: for that single and crucial thought. 1999 was an opportunity for thought, better, maybe, than most years, given how momentous the move to the new millennium felt then. The mind is focused by these numerical milestones: turning 18, turning 21, turning 30, turning 40, 50, 60, 75, hitting the year 1984, 2000, 2001, 2012 for the Mayan calendar truthers, and so forth. Then the year comes and the date goes and you turn and nothing really feels different except it’s passed, that opportunity for reflection has passed, and did you take advantage of it or did you not?

It’s how I feel about Advent and about essay. I’m not religious. I’m not a tireless advocate for the essay. I’m actually all for speed, wanting the future faster, with more technology and retina scans and voice identification algorithms so we’ll never have to confuse a Cynthia Ozick essay with a Justin Bieber one. Oh, don’t get me wrong: I’d definitely read a Justin Bieber essay (if skeptically), but what I really want is to read Ozick reading Bieber (you up for that, Cynthia?).

What I like is the opportunity for reflection that Advent offers us, and the rigor of the calendar. It’s a little chamber that we make here in this space on Essay Daily and ask you to skim off just a little of your consciousness as you graze by en route to the rest of your lives, and leave it here with us for a moment. We’ll take just ten percent of the processing time of the moments it takes you to engage with us. That’s the pleasure of essay (or of literature and art in general), isn’t it? That it takes us over for a little while? The more forceful the art, the more of us it occupies in the moment when we’re encountering it. The craftier the art, perhaps the less overt, but the more of itself it leaves behind.

So I’m thinking here about two essays from BAE 1999: Ben Metcalf’s “American Heartworm” and John Lahr’s “The Lion and Me.” I’m thinking about these two because they were—to me anyhow—entirely unknown quantities. And both are worth your pilgrimage.

Here’s the opening of Metcalf's “American Heartworm”:
I proceed from rage: rage at those whose ignorance, either God-given or self-consciously homespun, has excited in them a wrongheaded desire to peddle as the font of all that is virtuous and productive and eternal about our nation that shallow and putrid trough we call the Mississippi River. For generations we have suffered such fools to create unworthy riverside wetland areas and disappointing overlook sites and unventilated paddleboat museums and disturbing amusement parks on the theme of the American frontier; to form historical societies so that we might come to think a great dfeal more than we should of a rill no deeper in places than a backyard swimming pool and far less apt to hold its water; to lay bicycle paths along the levees so that we might crack open our heads within sight of chemical wastes bound for the Gulf of Mexico; to clutter the calendar with steamboat festivals and “Big Muddy” days so that we might pay a premium for corndogs and warm cola, and grow red and sullen under the Midwestern sun, and slap our children before a congregation of strangers acquainted with the impulse and approving of the act. 
Whoo! So here’s a pissed-off voice of polemic, amusing and bristly, happy to explore the grotesqueries of the way we mythologize our big river (“a thin creek issuing from a nondescript pond in Minnesota”, but as the essay points out, by no means the biggest American river, being the Missouri). Metcalf goes on to lay into the culture of the river and the culture of the people and of course the river itself with a kind of fire that’s reserved for the place and people and culture where you are from. The last bit, that being from, is key—this is what gives him the permission to write the piece. It also moves the point-of-no-return pretty far up, since once you're dismantling your home and family, you've already quite obviously gone too far: you've chosen art over safety and society, and there's no point in slowing down or holding back or stopping. So fuck it: let's burn some bridges. And so he does.

It’s a great essay not just for this burn-it-all approach, for the unrelenting quality of its critique, but more importantly it's also often spectacularly funny:
The Mississippi’s lesson[:] weakness and chaos are the natural law…. The power of this lesson is made clear to me when I learn that a cousin of mine has burned down his high school because a bully told him to do so, or has molested a child for his own reasons, or has run off with his brother’s wife (and offered his own in recompense), or has deserted his pregnant girlfriend for a woman old enough to buy him beer, or has somehow managed to electrocute himself, or has tattooed an infant, or has been beaten so badly that her kidney was removed, or has not spoken to her aunt since her aunt married the man who ruined the kidney, or has rolled a car because his father never taught him to slow down on corners (and because the thought never occurred to him privately), or has been shotgunned at close range but is “too ornery to die,” or has been arrested for growing marijuana in the front yard, or has made no effort to pay the telephone bill and must now communicate solely by CB radio, or has become some sort of humorless Christian, or has been delivered of yet another child so that this jug band of woe might play on.
Preach, motherfucker! Well, maybe “funny” isn’t exactly the word, since it’s a tragedy he’s singing. It's funny because it's sad and because it won't stop.

As the kids on the playground wielding yo mama jokes and quoting Catullus would tell you, effective invective has to be at least as entertaining as it is cutting; it’s better to be funny than true. Or: if it's funny enough then it must have the force of truth.

And this forcefulness (and elegance: damn, look at those sentences, how they wind in an almost riverine way, and here's a little convergence between subject and form) is what remained with me later, and forms my memory of the edition. (This sort of dark rhetorical force also echoes solidly if far less amusingly though the Bowden essay, which if you haven’t read, um, get on that: start here with Sean Prentiss’s orientation).

My other revelation in the 1999 BAE is an essay much less concerned with spectacle, a subtler one that eschews showy rhetorical force: John Lahr’s “The Lion and Me,” a brief, exploratory memoir of his father, Bert Lahr, “the friendly absence who answered to the name of Dad,” who was best known for playing the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz.

John Lahr has had by this point a long and illustrious career as a theatre critic (and biographer of his father), and is likely known to you, but in 2010 I’d never heard of him (though I’d seen the film, of course, and the great set of weird and occasionally racist Frito Lay spots Bert recorded with the famous motto “No One Can Eat Just One”). John's written briefly here about these 1950 Lay’s ads and the odd fame and “new economic lease on life” that 1950s television brought “the low comedians who had dominated popular entertainment in the first half of the century” and the strange life of media that “The Lion and Me” approaches more directly, since this essay ends up being in part about the caprice of fame and media, in this case The Wizard of Oz, possibly the best-known and most-watched film ever made, and his father’s ambivalent relationship with it:
When the song began onscreen, Dad swiveled around in his chair to watch himself; once the song was over, he stepped forward and switched over to football.
     “Dad!” we cried.
     “Watch it in Jane’s room,” he said.
     “Is it gonna kill you, Bert?”
     Dad’s beaky profile turned toward Mom; his face was a fist of irritation. “Look, Mildred, I see things,” he said. “Things I coulda…I’m older now. There’s stuff I coulda done better”… His performance was enough for the world; it wasn’t enough for him.
I haven’t read John’s 1969 biography, Notes on a Cowardly Lion, that he mentions in this essay, but with my taste whetted by "The Lion and Me," I figure I'm now bound to. I imagine it would be particularly instructive to consider the space between that book (409 pages in a 1984 edition) and this 10-page essay, published nearly 30 years later (or the even shorter 2-page essay linked above, published even later, in 2011: we also note that these visits to the memory of his father keep getting shorter). I wonder if John shies away from looking at that biography for the same reason that his father didn’t want to watch The Wizard of Oz, and if this moment spent with the father’s reluctance is meant to suggest his own?

These are the stories we know and remember and keep telling ourselves about our lives and our fathers, though the angle of the narrative changes and sometimes even inverts. Do they always get shorter, more condensed, the further we are away from them?

Wisely, though, the essay’s angled more at the father—the lion—than the self, and in describing the space between the selves that Bert presented:
the bittersweet comedy of his self-absorption…. Any lessons Dad taught about excellence, courage, perseverance, discipline, and integrity we got from his stage persona. His best self—the one that was fearless, resourceful, and generous, and that told the truth—was what he saved for the public, which included us; otherwise, as every relative of a star knows, the family had to make do with what was left over.
John's is a bittersweet essay, filtered now through three more decades of living. Since he became a father himself in 1976, he began to learn some new things about performance and truth and parenting, subjects only suggested herein in passing. And as in the brief essay linked above, Lahr points us back to technology, a seemingly everpresent consideration at the turn of the millennium, what with all our computers about to flip from 99 to 00.

As it turns out, technology is a major subject of most of the BAE introductions, particularly the latter years, and in many of our essayists’ responses to these anthologies, whether we’re lamenting the speed and shallowness of the culture and what that means for the sort of thinking that we seem to want to venerate, or whether it’s marveling at the quickness with which essays are now published and proliferate online, to write about time and the essay is to write about technology. If technology is a familiar subject for essays, more promising to me is the underwritten idea of the essay as technology, what exactly it does—what it used to do, what it still does, how it compresses and elides and sometimes seems to entirely stop time. And what it means for these yearly anthologies to encapsulate some little sample of the culture, no matter how flawed or weird or wack or idiosyncratic or limiting. Either way, some essays rise up and are preserved, remembered slightly better here. They fail to disappear as we might otherwise expect. What we’re reading when we’re reading old years of BAE is how one thinker (or a pair—guest editor and Atwan, pilot and copilot) read the essayists who read the culture that year.

And, nope, it’s not fair what gets through the sieve and what remains. Both Lahrs know this well enough:
I think Dad knew that he was a hostage to technology: a Broadway star whose legend would go largely unrecorded while, by the luck of a new medium, performers who couldn’t get work on Broadway would be preserved and perpetuated in the culture. … What lives on is the Cowardly Lion. When I watch him now, I don’t see just the Lion; I see the echoes—the little touches and moves—of those long-forgotten sensational stage performances that Dad condensed into his evergreen role.
It's not fair, but it is interesting.

Where John's essays ends is not with the solo show in front of an audience or staring into a screen and thinking about the past, but with a desire for connection, for the continuance of our conversations, always a winning move for me (and a founding notion of this website):
I’m pushing sixty now, but I find that the conversation with one’s parents doesn’t end with the grave. I want Dad back to finish the discussion—to answer some questions, to talk theater, to see me now. Almost anywhere in the city these days, I can turn the corner and run into him.…I go to buy some wrapping paper at the stationery store, and his face stares at me from the greeting-card rack. “Hiya, Pop,” I find myself saying, and continue on my way.
I like to think of that, the years between this anthology’s publication and my encounter with it five years ago, and now rereading it again this December, and being surprised again by what’s here, the force and subtlety of discovery. I don't know when I'll next come across one of the old years of the Best American Essays, or when my years will become old enough to see this essay recede and shrink, but I look forward to my next random bear—or lion—attack and promise to say hello and to spend an afternoon or longer with it before continuing on my way.


Ander Monson's most recent book is Letter to a Future Lover (Graywolf, 2015). He is one of the curators of this site.