naperville, il: sourcebooks, 2017. 336pages, cloth, $24.95.
It’s thrilling to discover the voice of a new writer. I remember coming across Scott Russell Sanders’s “The Inheritance of Tools” in the 1987 edition of Robert Atwan’s Best American Essays series. Often, usually perhaps, a new essayist is new only to us. Sanders had already published several books and a slew of essays, mainly in North American Review, but I was only dimly aware of his work. Then I read this essay about his father’s death and the way one generation hands down tools and the skills to use them to the next. It knocked me on my heels and I’ve read and taught his essays ever since.
Sadly we sometimes read right past genius. As Gertrude Stein put it, masterpieces test us, and sometimes we fail the test. It’s not the right moment, we’re not ready, we’re tired or snobbish or tone deaf. William H. Gass wrote about reading through the slush pile for Accent, the University of Illinois literary magazine in the late 1950s, and nearly dozing off over the opening of a John Hawkes story. Gass’s young baby had kept him up the previous night, and the other stories in the pile had been “artless and awful,” but in retrospect, he would admit, there was no excuse. Fortunately, after his eyes had “run over perhaps five pages like rain down a window,” he was startled awake by a passage about a horse being lifted from a barge by means of a sling: “I woke as if something scalding had fallen in my eyes.” He stopped in mid-paragraph, returned to the opening, read the whole thing through, and [End Page 213] went next door, the “author’s pages beating in my hand like a fresh heart.” He told his colleagues what he had found, only to find that they had been there before him, had already devoured Hawkes’s first three novels.
So, maybe I’m telling you what you already know—that Kelly Grey Carlisle has arrived and is terrific. Maybe you have already read her essays in Salon or Permafrost, in New England Review or The Rumpus, in Subtropics, Tampa Review, or River Teeth. The list is long and it embarrasses me, for I did not discover Carlisle’s work until fairly late, when her essay “Physical Evidence” appeared in Lex Williford and Michael Martone’s Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: Work from 1970 to the Present (2007).
We owe anthologists a lot. Think of all the work they have introduced us to. But there are anthologies and there are anthologies. As Lynn Bloom has pointed out, our canon used to be a pedagogical (as opposed to a literary or national) canon. It was dominated by short, accessible pieces, the kind that appeared in anthologies designed for Freshman Comp. These pieces were meant to model this or that rhetorical mode—narration or description, exposition or persuasion—and then prompt a piece about Grandpa’s funeral or what you did on your summer vacation. Too often they were excerpted, torn from their historical and cultural context, presented with a skimpy headnote, and dumbed down by insipid study questions. Dual-enrollment and AP classes have pretty much done away with Freshman Comp, and the Digital Revolution with its PDFs and links and Blackboard and Canvas are giving teachers the freedom to construct their own sets of readings, but fortunately fine anthologies edited by knowledgeable editors continue to introduce us to new writers. There’s Robert Atwan and his guest editors, of course, who give us a wonderful gift each year, but the recent essay renaissance has given us other important anthologies as well. Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay introduced me to Sara Suleri and Gayle Pemberton. Who knows how long it might have been before I got around to reading Langston Hughes’s Simple stories if Atwan and Joyce Carol Oates had not included one in Best American Essays of the Century. I’ll never forget the afternoon Jenny...