The Magazine

Our Essays, Our Selves

Can American prose move beyond self-absorption?

Oct 22, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 06 • By SUSAN BALEE
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The Best American Essays 2001
edited by Kathleen Norrisand Robert Atwan
Houghton Mifflin, 400 pp., $13

TO READ "THE BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS 2001," the new collection of two dozen essays edited by Kathleen Norris and Robert Atwan, is to realize two things. The first is that writers in America today possess a literary instrument of enormous power. The second is that those writers have almost nothing to use it on except themselves. What is perhaps the most extraordinary, turbo-charged general prose that the English language has ever known is harnessed to the largest narcissistic examination of selves--and what, in the absence of any larger topic for the beautiful prose, prove to be often little and uninteresting selves.

The writers assembled in "The Best American Essays" reflect upon all manner of things, from food to death to prayer to language to their relationships with parents and children. The writing glitters, but the vein of self-absorption runs deep.

Diane Ackerman's "In the Memory Mines," the first essay in the collection, opens: "I don't remember being born, but opening my eyes for the first time, yes." Ackerman's ability to map her own infant universe is fascinating, in a peculiar way, but it's hard to imagine anything more self-absorbed--except perhaps what she goes on to describe: the bad father who locked away forever her inner child in a row house closet around 1955.

"He only ever seemed to read the paper or watch television or sleep or yell at my mother or slam the door to their bedroom, after which I would sometimes hear my mother crying. For some reason he never had time for me. In my heart, I knew it must somehow be my fault, that I must be somehow unworthy of his love, his attention even, the way the newspaper or television at least had his attention."

To give Ackerman credit, she knows she needs to be part of a community larger than herself. She just can't find one. The closest she can get is by reaching out to her unhappy inner children. "I felt I had adopted a child on the installment plan, a child that was myself, and it felt good suddenly to be part of a community, even if it was only a community of previous selves."

TO SOME DEGREE, OF COURSE, it has always been thus. Reflecting on what the personal essay is all about, Kathleen Norris claims in her introduction that personal essayists have no other goal than to muse aloud, "to explore an idea or situation through the act of writing." Personal essayists talk primarily to themselves, thereby also chatting with someone they will never know, the reader--for whom the act of reading is thus reduced to a mild form of eavesdropping.

As Atwan puts it, "The mysterious I converses with an equally mysterious I." Ackerman, perhaps without knowing it, summons to consciousness the "community of one" that Thoreau embraced at Walden. The personal essay, a subset of autobiography, has flourished in America in part because Americans have always been encouraged to stand out as sovereign individuals within the nation's collective identity.

That "I" voice can sink to trivial self-absorption, as it too often has in recent years. But, at its best, this American song of the self can prove a highly moral project: the willingness to take responsibility for thoughts and feelings expressed in its name, to sign a specific signature to a specific opinion.

So, for instance, Ben Birnbaum in his essay in "The Best American Essays 2001" at least attempts to look outside himself for answers. Following Cynthia Ozick's lead, Birnbaum is fascinated by the life and death of the pre-Christian Rabbi Akiva. Roman soldiers flayed the flesh from Akiva's body with metal combs, but he refused to cry out. His final words to his students were that he had finally found a way to dedicate his life and soul to God. This defines, literally, self-sacrifice. In Akiva's case, he sacrificed himself for God, but as Birnbaum points out, whenever we give up our devotion to self, we join the larger community. Birnbaum describes his own family's history of death and victimization during the Holocaust, but he refuses to cave in to either self-pity or cultural hatred. Similarly, Barbara Hurd, who's logged a lot of miles in her galoshes slogging through American swamps, aims at an ecological description that makes as much use of ancient Buddhists as Birnbaum did of ancient rabbis.

Then Daphne Merkin weighs in, with her essay "Trouble in the Tribe," which begins, "I've been trying to lose my religion for years now, but it refuses to go away." Reynolds Price's entire essay is a letter to his godchild about the necessity of faith. He tells her: