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At Large and At Small

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At Large and At Small




  The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

  Ex Libris


  The Best American Essays 2003


  A T L A R G E

  A N D AT S M A L L

  C O N F E S S I O N S O F A

  L I T E R A R Y H E D O N I S T

  A N N E F A D I M A N


  an imprint of



  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA

  Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada m4p 2y3

  (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)

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  (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd)

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  Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0632, New Zealand

  (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd)

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  Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England


  First published in the United States of America by Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2007

  First published in Great Britain by Allen Lane 2007


  Copyright © Anne Fadiman, 2007

  The moral right of the author has been asserted

  With the exception of “Under Water,” an earlier version of which appeared in The New Yorker, the essays

  in this book appeared, in somewhat different form, in The American Scholar

  Endpapers: Plate 79, “Insects of the Orders Hymenoptera, Diptera, Lepidoptera, and Odonata,”

  engraving by Henry Winkles after J. G. Heck,

  from J. G. Heck,

  Iconographic Encyclopedia of Science, Literature, and Art (New York: Rudolph Garrigue, 1851).

  All rights reserved

  Without limiting the rights under copyright

  reserved above, no part of this publication may be

  reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system,

  or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical,

  photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior

  written permission of both the copyright owner and

  the above publisher of this book

  A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

  eISBN: 978–0–141–90369–9


  Collector of Tiger Swallowtails,

  Emperor of Ice Cream


















  ust over half a century ago, in “A Gentle Dirge for the Familiar Essay,” a dispirited writer mourned the imminent death of a genre that was “setting to the horizon, along with its whole constellation: formal manners, apt quotation, Greek and Latin, clear speech, conversation, the gentleman’s library, the gentleman’s income, the gentleman.”

  The writer was my father, Clifton Fadiman, who— accompanied by his mailbox, his wastebasket, and his insomnia—makes cameo appearances in several of the essays in this book. “A Gentle Dirge for the Familiar Essay” is a familiar essay, and it therefore vibrates with a Chinese- box- like meta- ness. Its own excellence fights against its message.

  The essay portending the end of the essay has become a genre in itself, one whose persistence suggests that the previous soothsayers may have been wrong and the current ones may therefore be wrong as well. Although most of the items on my father’s valedictory list have crept even farther toward the horizon, the most important among them is still in full view. I refer, of course, to conversation, a taste I acquired, along with a fondness for pungent curries and moldering Stilton, at the Fadiman dinner table. Conversation was at the center of my father’s life, it’s at the center of mine, and it’s at the center of the familiar essay.

  “Familiar essay” isn’t a term one hears often these days. The genre’s heyday was the early nineteenth century, when Charles Lamb was dreaming up The Essays of Elia under the influence of brandy and tobacco and William Hazlitt was dashing off Table- Talk under the influence of strong tea. The familiar essayist didn’t speak to the millions; he spoke to one reader, as if the two of them were sitting side by side in front of a crackling fire with their cravats loosened, their favorite stimulants at hand, and a long evening of conversation stretching before them. His viewpoint was subjective, his frame of reference concrete, his style digressive, his eccentricities conspicuous, and his laughter usually at his own expense. And though he wrote about himself, he also wrote about a subject, something with which he was so familiar, and about which he was often so enthusiastic, that his words were suffused with a lover’s intimacy. Hence the profusion of titles beginning with the word “On”: “On the Melancholy of Tailors,” “On the Feeling of Immortality in Youth,” “On the Danger of Confounding Moral with Personal Deformity,” “On the Conversation of Authors,” “On the Genius and Character of Hogarth,” “On the Inconveniences Resulting from Being Hanged,” “On the Custom of Hissing at the Theatres,” “On the Love of Life,” “On Gusto.” On gusto! The familiar essay in a nutshell!

  Today’s readers encounter plenty of critical essays (more brain than heart) and plenty of personal—very personal—essays (more heart than brain), but not many familiar essays (equal measures of both). If I were to turn Lamb’s 1821 “Chapter on Ears” into a twenty- first-century critical essay, I might write about postmodern audiological imagery in the early works of Barbara Cart-land. If I were to write a twenty- first- century personal essay, I might tell you about the pimple on my left earlobe that I failed to cover with makeup at my senior prom, about that ear thing my college boyfriend did with his tongue (how did he get it so pointy?), and about the countless times I courted deafness by turning up “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” to max volume. But I don’t want to write—or read—either of those essays. I prefer Lamb’s original, which is mostly about his musical ineptitude but also about the sounds of harpsichords, pianos, operatic voices, crowded streets, and carpenter’s hammers: in other words, about the author but also about the world.

  I believe the survival of the familiar essay is worth fighting for. This little volume is my contribution to the war effort, both a declaration of my esteem—no, my love—for the genre and an expression of my own character, a blend of narcissism and curiosity that is inconvenient in many contexts but perhaps oddly suited to this one. Its dozen essays took shape over the course of seven years, beginning in 1998, and, aside from the last one, they are presented in the order in which they were written. Some were prompted by events in my life (learning to use e- mail, moving from the city to the country), some by events in the larger world
(the Culture Wars, which I wrote about while their casualties were still mounting; America’s rediscovery of its flag, which I wrote about three months after 9/11). I’ve left the time- anchored vantage points unchanged. Several of the essays were written under the influence, though not of brandy, tobacco, or tea. I ingested a shocking amount of Häagen- Dazs while I wrote about ice cream. I sustained a terrific caffeine buzz while I wrote about coffee. I wrote every word of the night- owl essay between midnight and dawn. Three essays were composed under the influence of great men: Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and— closest to my heart—Charles Lamb, whose shade watched over me, I liked to think, as I sat at my desk and addressed the kind of reader with whom he used to converse himself.

  The title is meant to suggest that my interests are presbyopic (“at large”) but my focus is myopic (“at small”). While I was working on this book, I came across “On Great and Little Things,” an essay by Hazlitt. “The organs of the mind, like the pupil of the eye, may be contracted or dilated to view a broader or narrower surface,” he wrote, “and yet find sufficient variety to occupy its attention in each.” I feel that way too.

  Unlike my father, I do not believe that the ability to write a familiar essay depends on whether one’s manners are formal (mine aren’t), one knows Greek and Latin (I’ve forgotten the little I once knew), or one is a gentleman (I most assuredly am not). If a psychologist were to analyze my attachment to the genre, he might zero in on another Clifton Fadiman passage, one that observes that few women write familiar essays because “the form does not attract them.” Well, it attracts me. And I hope that it will continue to attract enough other writers—and readers—that no dirge, gentle or otherwise, need ever be sung to lament its passing.





  he net was green. The handle was wood, and the grip was uncomfortably thick, like that of a tennis racket borrowed from an older player. The mesh bag was long enough that if we caught a tiger swallowtail—or a spicebush swallowtail, or a mourning cloak, or a European cabbage, or a common sulphur, or a red admiral, or a painted lady, or a monarch, or a viceroy—we could, with a twist of the wrist, flip its tapered tip over the wire rim and trap the butterfly inside.

  Then, being careful not to scrape off the colored scales, we pinched the wings shut and transferred the butterfly to the killing jar. (Our bible, A Field Guide to the Butterflies of North America, East of the Great Plains, by Alexander B. Klots, recommended a more complicated method of transfer that involved holding the handle between one’s thighs, grasping the bag just below the butterfly, slipping the jar into the net, and coaxing the butterfly into the jar. But this technique demanded a prodigious level of coordination—on the order, say, of that displayed by the Cat in the Hat when he balanced a goldfish bowl on an umbrella while standing on a rubber ball—and we were never able to master it.) My brother and I had started with a shallow plastic container, like a petri dish, which came in the children’s butterfly kit that we had rapidly outgrown, but because the hindwing projections of the swallowtails tended to get crushed against the perimeter, we graduated to a large glass jar from which our mother had scrubbed the last traces of strawberry jam. At the bottom of the killing jar was a piece of cotton saturated with carbon tetrachloride.

  “Carbon tet,” we called it, not because it was easier to pronounce—we shared a weakness for long words—but because the nickname suggested that we and it were on familiar terms, as was indeed the case. Thirty years later, a friend of mine dabbed some spot remover on a sofa, and I instantly recognized the smell of the killing jar. During the fifties, when my brother and I started chasing butterflies, potassium cyanide was still in use as well, but because it is a deadly poison, Professor Klots recommended liquid carbon tetrachloride, which is “not very poisonous unless inhaled deeply,” and which we persuaded our parents was as innocuous as smelling salts. The butterfly would flutter for a few moments, sink to the bottom of the jar, and slowly expire.

  The murder was less grisly than it would have been in, say, 1810, when insect collectors stabbed their specimens with pins, asphyxiated them over the flames of sulphur matches, and skewered them with red-hot wires. Around 1820, the vogue in Europe was the “stifling box,” a sealed container submerged in boiling water. The killing jar was introduced in the 1850s, after the royal physician used chloroform to ease the delivery of Queen Victoria’s eighth child, and net-wielding country vicars across Great Britain realized they could amass their collections of marbled whites and Camberwell beauties without overt violence. They could simply anesthetize their specimens to death.

  The problem with chloroform, as with potassium cyanide and carbon tetrachloride, is that these poisons freeze the butterfly’s muscles into an extreme version of rigor mortis, and the wings cannot be spread. My brother and I therefore popped the corpse into a “relaxing jar”— now there’s a euphemism right up there with Orwell’s Ministry of Peace—that dampened it into pliancy, whereupon it could be pinned to the spreading board, a balsa rectangle with a groove down the center that allowed the wings to be flattened without squashing the thorax and abdomen. Caught, killed, relaxed, and spread, the butterfly was laid to rest in a Riker mount, a shallow glass-topped box filled with absorbent cotton—a sort of mass grave for soldiers who had given their lives on the battlefields of suburban Connecticut.

  When did we realize that this was horrible? My brother, Kim, and I had started collecting butterflies when he was eight and I was six. Shame set in about two years later. I remember a period of painful overlap, when the light of decency was dawning but the lure of sin was still irresistible. Like alcohol, nicotine, or heroin, lepidoptery is hard to renounce. A tiger swallowtail is an unbelievable thing to find in your backyard: a big butterfly, five inches across, striated with yellow and black, with blue splotches on the hindwings rendered iridescent by light-diffracting scales—“like the colors,” wrote Professor Klots in a memorably lyrical passage, “produced by a glass prism, the blue of the sky, the spectrum of the rainbow, and an oil film on water.” Who would not wish to take such a creature home? To glimpse something so gaudily tropical, more like a quetzal than a sparrow, on your own home ground; to pursue it across the lawn, down the stone steps, around the two topiary peacocks that stood guard over the wading pool, and along the flower border, until it lit on a phlox or a zinnia; to swoop your net through the air and see something fluttering inside; to snatch that bit of life from the rich chaos of nature into your own comparatively lackluster world, which it instantly brightened and enlarged; to look it up in Klots and name it and know it—well, after you did that a few times, it was hard to muster much enthusiasm for Parcheesi.

  “The next two days were so wet and windy that there was no going out,” wrote Alfred Russel Wallace in 1869, about a collecting trip to the Aru Islands, north of Australia:

  [B]ut on the succeeding one the sun shone brightly, and I had the good fortune to capture one of the most magnificent insects the world contains, the great bird-winged butterfly, Ornithoptera poseidon. I trembled with excitement as I saw it coming majestically towards me, and could hardly believe I had really succeeded in my stroke till I had taken it out of the net and was gazing, lost in admiration, at the velvet black and brilliant green of its wings, seven inches across, its golden body, and crimson breast. It is true I had seen similar insects in cabinets at home, but it is quite another thing to capture such oneself—to feel it struggling between one’s fingers, and to gaze upon its fresh and living beauty, a bright gem shining out amid the silent gloom of a dark and tangled forest. The village of Dobbo held that evening at least one contented man.

  Few people read Wallace anymore, even though he founded the science of island biogeography and, independent of Darwin, evolved a theory of natural selection. A few years ago, I borrowed a 1902 edition of one of his books from a large university library and noticed that it had last been checked out in 1949.
But he has long been a favorite of mine, in part because no one has ever done a better job of capturing the euphoria of netting a really beautiful specimen. And unlike the editor of a 1975 book on butterflies—who, when he quoted this passage, squeamishly omitted the phrase “to feel it struggling between one’s fingers”—Wallace made no bones about how crucial the violence was to the thrill.

  While Wallace was chasing butterflies in the Malay Archipelago, thousands of his compatriots were doing the same thing back home in England. A special butterfly net was even invented that, when folded, looked exactly like an umbrella, so that one could take it on a stroll without attracting undue attention. (As the British historian David Elliston Allen has pointed out, one did look rather a fool if it started to rain and one’s umbrella remained obstinately furled.) Sunday afternoons, after church, were a favorite time for entomology, which was considered a high-mindedly Christian pursuit. An 1843 pamphlet titled Instructions for Collecting, Rearing, and Preserving British & Foreign Insects—it now reposes in an envelope in the Library of Congress, as fragile as a sheaf of butterfly wings—begins with the following words:

  The contemplation of the works of the Creator is the highest delight of the rational mind. In them we read, as in a volume fraught with endless wonders, the unlimited power and goodness of that Being, who, in the formation of Atoms, and of Worlds, has alike displayed unfathomable Wisdom. There are few objects in Nature which raise the mind to a higher degree of admiration, than the Insect creation. Their immense numbers—endless variety of form— astonishing metamorphoses—exceeding beauty—the amazing minuteness of some, and the complex and wonderful organization of others, far exceeding that of the higher animals—all tend to prove an Almighty artificer, and inspire astonishment and awe!

  I sympathize with these views. When I was in high school, a churchgoing friend attempted to rouse me from my agnosticism by asking, “Isn’t there anything that seems so miraculous it simply has to be by design?” I answered, “Butterfly metamorphosis.” I knew it could be explained by rational principles, but it still seemed to hold an irreducible spark of divinity. When Brahma watched the caterpillars in his vegetable garden change into pupae, and thence into butterflies, he was filled with the certainty that he, too, would attain perfection in a future incarnation. Brahma, however, was content to observe the works of the Creator, whereas the author of the 1843 pamphlet (using methods he detailed in a thirteen-page chapter called “On killing and preserving Insects in general”) believed he could appreciate them most fully only if he did them in.

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