Ved Mehta has published twenty-one books over forty years, and during that time he has established himself as one of the finest prose writers in English. Many of his essays originally appeared in The New Yorker magazine and were later collected as chapters of books. (Of the essays included here, only “Naturalized Citizen No. 984-5165” has not seen previous book publication.) Mehta’s forte is the personal essay, but the personal essay of ideas, and nearly all the pieces in The Ved Mehta Reader record his experiences wrestling with some of the more complex philosophical and political issues of modern life. At the same time, these essays are valuable models of writing that can show students of the form how such fine literary journalism is put together.
In the course of these eight essays, readers will also be able to piece together the fascinating and multinational history of Ved Mehta himself. Born and reared in India, he was sent to a boarding school in Arkansas at the age of fifteen (the only school in the United States that would take a student with such limited knowledge of English, he claims), was graduated from Pomona College a few years later, and then went on to Oxford University in England for postgraduate study. He returned to India at several points in subsequent years but eventually settled in the United States and became an American citizen in 1977. Meanwhile, Mehta had been writing for The New Yorker since 1960, under the legendary editorship of William Shawn, and all the essays here appeared in that magazine between 1961 and 1993. (Mehta has recently published a memoir about Shawn and the magazine, Remembering Mr. Shawn’s New Yorker: The Invisible Art of Editing, 1998).
Mehta then brings several clear gifts to his craft, in addition to his enormous writing talent. He has lived and worked in very different cultures and has been a truly multiethnic resident of the world, and this rich background has helped him to grasp ideas from the broadest possible perspective. At the heart of this life, and of these essays, is an obsession with writing itself. In the “Author’s Note” that precedes the collection, Mehta describes his struggles to select the essays here—the difficulties stemming in part from the number of different subjects and styles he has tackled over his long career—and he settles on giving the reader “just a sample of my books as an introduction to my writing and as a teaching aid to young wordsmiths.”
In the introduction to the collection, “Lightning and the Lightning Bug”—a phrase from Mark Twain signifying the huge gap between the exact word and a close cousin—Mehta describes how he became a writer. When he was at Oxford and first trying to learn to write, he says, the “precision and finish of prose became a passion with me.” After forty years in the profession, he confesses, he is “still struggling with words and sentences, drafts and alterations.” He gives a brief history of the essay in this introduction, from Sir Francis Bacon and Michel de Montaigne up to modern writers such as James Baldwin, and he lists his own models as the twentieth century essayists E. B. White, V. S. Pritchett, and Edmund Wilson. In all these writers, Mehta argues, the most important qualities are “economy of thought and language.” Likewise, the “principles of good writing” at The New Yorker have always been “clarity, harmony, truth, and unfailing courtesy to the reader.” As A Ved Mehta Reader makes clear, these are the very virtues which distinguish Mehta’s prose as well.
These qualities are important, in part, because in many of his essays, Mehta is grappling with complex modern ideas. The first essay here, for example—“A Battle Against the Bewitchment of Our Intelligence,” from 1961—sets out to explain the Oxford School of philosophy that became dominant after World War II. In the course of analyzing philosophers such as Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, Mehta boils abstract ideas down to digestible size. Like Edmund Wilson writing in The New Yorker before him, Mehta writes clearly and succinctly about difficult concepts and issues. Part of his method is to ground the ideas in biography and history, here by detailing a series of interviews Mehta undertook with the combatants in the British philosophical controversies of the 1950’s.
One of the best early essays in the collection is “Pastor Bonhoeffer” (1965), which sets out the life and ideas of an important modern Christian theologian. Bonhoeffer’s story makes fascinating reading (he was imprisoned and killed in Germany during World War II for his anti-Nazi activities), but Mehta uses the life to explain...