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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1728

This is a remarkable book in many ways, not the least of which is its clever construction. Wendy Lesser has married the autobiographical narrative to the personal essay with intriguing results: a collection of twenty-four short essays that provide a clear, unobtrusive chronology of her life while focusing on a range of topics that go far beyond the merely autobiographical. As in the best writing of this kind, there is a finely judged balance between individual revelation and general reflection, as if we have been invited to witness the writer’s experience yet encouraged to think even more about the broader implications for our own. So many contemporary memoirists never quite command this ability to reveal their personalities engagingly while talking intelligently about an external topic, such as a flamenco-dancing Spanish teacher, the dangers of philanthropy, a noseless cat, or the seductions of e- mail. Lesser does this with such ease, such genuine flair, that we have no trouble seeing her precisely the way she sees herself, as “an eighteenth-century man of letters, though one who happens to be female and lives in twentieth century Berkeley.”

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Such a “man” of letters would have been highly attuned to his cultural context and eager to write about whatever caught his attention accordingly. Lesser comes armed with just these qualities as well as the sense of instantaneously registering the connection between the things she perceives in the world and her evaluations of them. Indeed, this fearless offering of judgments of herself, as much as anything and anyone else, is what gives these essays their characteristically snappy, candid appeal. This is bracingly direct, concrete writing that carefully eschews evasion and euphemism. Not surprisingly, the reader discovers that the model for her prose style is author George Orwell, and particularly the Orwell of The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). In this book about a non-miner’s experiences in a mine, Lesser sees a connection to what she is most interested in doing, describing what it feels like when a lively amateur ventures into a number of professional worlds. She attends a West End theater rehearsal, watches a new Mark Morris dance, and interviews an eccentric would-be filmmaker for a government grant. Her reports on these encounters are fresh, provocative and full of a personality that is at once playful, practical, stubborn, enthusiastic, and funny.

Lesser claims that her character—solidly in place since her youth and stamped all over these essays from her adulthood—has made her unable to perform any of the jobs available to most people of her age and education. Her career, therefore, has been almost entirely freelance. Educated at Harvard and Cambridge Universities and with a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of California at Berkeley, she would have seemed a likely candidate for academia. However, she understood early on that she had no taste for institutional politics, was too authoritarian to be much good as a teacher, and simply hated grading papers. So, after several years as a self-employed public policy consultant—which provided astoundingly rich material for an amusing essay on the vaporous language of the consulting game—she found herself inventing the work she needed to do. Having done some occasional reviewing for the San Francisco Review of Books, she asked to edit an issue. She loved the work, from corralling the reviewers and choosing headline fonts to proofreading columns of type and laying out pages. Though exhausting, she found the work so exciting that she knew she wanted to edit her own literary review. Within months, early in 1980, that is precisely what she did.

The Threepenny Review is now a well-known, much-admired literary journal, but for years it struggled to survive. Even after the review’s literary merits had been clearly established, it was a decade into publication before Lesser could pay herself a nominal salary and twelve years before she could hire a part-time assistant. Still, the rewards are obvious, namely the sense of producing something tangible from one’s labor. Beyond that, there is the chance of discovering a new poetic voice, the tactile pleasure of pasting up a page, and the exquisite thrill of taking a piece of writing that is not quite finished and making it come together. Editing a review, she says, presents her with a mixture of satisfying elements:

businesslike planning and artistic responsiveness, long-term consideration and snap decision-making, efficiency and laziness, gossip and privacy, reading and looking . . . a combination of many of the things I like and all the things I am.

Whatever other qualities an editor must have in her quiver, she has to have an uncanny feel for language, for the sound and heft of words, for the ways in which they can be more or less effectively used.

In all of these essays, whether their putative subject is reforming high school curricula in the 1960’s, reading novels by Charles Dickens in the 1970’s, or serving on National Endowment for the Arts panels in the 1990’s, the real question is the question of language. Lesser tells of having her own prose scrubbed clean by her Cambridge tutor, eliminating Latinate abstractions and stylistic fripperies so that she could write simply about what she saw and felt. She learned her lesson well, proving that she has not only an ability to write clean, true sentences but also an impatience for those who do not. Nevertheless, her concern for precise language does not get in the way of her sheer love for it. One of the most inventive and revealing essays takes as its point of departure all the words that came into the language in her birth year—the “linguistic architecture,” as she puts it, of her childhood. It is a virtuosic piece, beginning with a paragraph in which every two-syllable word was newly coined in 1952 (among them, hallucinogenic, automated, apolitical, tapenade, gabbiness, desegregation). One has an image of Lesser sitting for hours at her computer and playing with her new CD-ROM version of the Oxford English Dictionary, culling words of this particular vintage, savoring the period sentences in which they appear, and bemusedly imagining a pre-1952 world that contained neither tetracycline nor Scientologists nor herself.

One word that has obviously given her cause for speculation over the years, and which merits an essay of its own, is “philanthropy.” Whether it takes the local form of her dilemma over the appropriate response to Berkeley panhandlers or the more universal form of the debate over private funding of the arts in America, this question of giving—its motives and rewards—weighs heavily on her mind.

Consulting sources as diverse as author Henry James, television’s The Equalizer, and Roget’s Thesaurus, Lesser shows how a word so philologically grounded in personally expressed love for humanity has now become largely practiced impersonally in the form of monuments to celebrate donors’ wealth. In her most provocative move, especially given the number of grants the Threepenny Review has received over the years, she argues that the arts do not need philanthropy. Individual struggling artists may admittedly need some help, but in that case they warrant it as poor persons, not as artists. On the other hand, the production of art survives or not regardless of grants, fellowships, and philanthropic donations. Great Expectations (1860-1861), she suggests, would not have been a greater novel had Charles Dickens received a MacArthur Genius Award. This is a tough-minded essay, but then Lesser has confessed up-front to being an aggressively independent person, and her no-nonsense treatment of the sentimentally pandering arts crowd, brutal as it may seem to some, is refreshing in its linguistic clarity and its candid exposure of stale assumptions.

This critical sharpness serves her well, but Lesser also has the rare ability as a critic to be utterly, joyously caught up in the experience of a book, a play, or a dance and to convey vividly the sense of her transcendence or enlightenment in those moments. Nowhere does this come across more powerfully than in her writing about Mark Morris, a dancer and choreographer to whom she has “attached” herself. Here, she demonstrates a willingness not only to give herself to the performance but also to cede “a certain portion of [her] own intellectual development” to a particular chosen and cherished artist, so that she both comments on the work and is molded by it. As a strongly opinionated critic, she sees it as invaluable, even necessary, to have a few touchstone artists whose work she finds so nourishing that she trusts them even more than she trusts herself and lets them instruct her in ways she may initially resist or not understand. The result of this capitulation to certain artists and to their ongoing creative visions is a kind of growth she could not otherwise achieve.

One of these central and shaping artistic presences in her life is also a friend, the Anglo-American poet Thom Gunn. In the longest, perhaps most heartfelt essay of the collection, she celebrates this distinguished man and artist in a piece that is equal parts literary criticism and personal history. It is a tribute to a particular poet but also to a kind of person and to a way of living that encapsulates many of the virtues Lesser embodies herself. His unerring decency and childlike joy in the world, his passion for specificity and understanding of life’s vagaries, his expert manipulation of formal structures coupled with an extraordinary openness to feeling all come across with incandescent clarity and are, to some extent, visible in Lesser as well. Both writers have a similar moral vision, a way of “applying words like good’ and bad’ as if they have a larger evaluative meaning.” However, one suspects Lesser most admires his unwavering determination to live an independent life of writing and the integrity with which he has made the big choices in his life, such as his refusal of tenure and a pension at Berkeley. Like Gunn, Lesser has refused to be intimidated or seduced or shamed into following a predictable, safe career path but has instead fashioned a life in letters by choosing to do pretty much what she has wanted to do. These vibrant, wide-ranging, richly observed, and satisfyingly humane essays are ample testimony to the success of that choice.

Sources for Further Study

Library Journal 124 (January, 1999): 96.

The New York Times Book Review 104 (February 28, 1999): 12.

Publishers Weekly 246 (January 11, 1999): 61.

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