A Decade From Now Essay

The memories remain fresh and overwhelming. The trembling ground, the wall of smoke that shut off the sun, the choking dust, the ghastliness of the jumping people — the grievous loss of life and the epic acts of heroism. Exhausted phone lines that wouldn’t connect to those who might have answers. People listening to car radios, reports of more planes in the sky, fears of more killers to come.

Also, the aching days and weeks and months after.

In Lower Manhattan, cordoned off with sawhorses for blocks around the smoldering World Trade Center, the odious scent that persisted for months and wafted through the city. Was it burning tires? Unsettled souls?

Residents moving about in dust masks. The rats dislodged from their homes. The flatbed trucks and garbage trucks panting back and forth, loading the seemingly limitless detritus.

People buying parachutes and canoes, a way to get out the next time. Buying bulletproof vests and ammunition. The prolonged hunt for remains. Funeral after funeral.

And Gary Condit and Chandra Levy and the past tumble of news excised from the nation’s front pages, because the news — all the news — was 9/11, everything twisting and turning out of that day.

The attacks unhinged the lives of families — the fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, children of the nearly 3,000 people who did not return home. There was also more nuanced, distanced loss: A man lost two former Navy shipmates from back in the day. A man in England lost two online Scrabble partners.

Paul Simon said he didn’t know if he could ever complete another album. A woman wrote on a remembrance site that she regretted that she had had children, that she had brought their innocence into a world no longer fathomable to her.

But there has been a chasm between expectations and reality. The prophecy of more attacks on the United States has not been the case, not yet at least. Bumbling attempts got close — involving underwear and a shoe and a 1993 Nissan Pathfinder — but the actuality has been that terrorist acts on American soil in the succeeding years have been, as always, largely homegrown.

So many things were expected to be different that have not been. Time passes, and passes some more. Exigencies of living hammer away impatiently. People — most of them, at least — began to become themselves. New York, which by its nature accommodates so much, was willing to absorb 9/11 and keep moving.

Already we have fifth graders not yet born on that day. The people known as “Wall Street,” celebrated as martyrs and heroes in the days after the attacks, have been vilified for boundless greed. We are back as a nation of ideological divides and uncivilized political intransigence. Bridges fall, roads crack.

What has stuck? Shedding shoes and getting patted down at the airport. Navigating barriers to enter big buildings — smile for the camera. Every so often, the police rummaging through selected bags at the subway station. All this information being collected on who we are and what we do, snooping that is more accepted than objected to. A nagging suspicion of Muslims. A pair of distant wars that refuse easy endings, with a price tag of $1.3 trillion and climbing. The certainty that any full reckoning must include the cost of shortchanging the country’s future.

An underlying sense of the sinister out there somewhere. See something, say something.

The killing of Osama bin Laden has not closed the book. Nor has 10 years.

Yet a lot crowds into 3,600 days in a speeded-up, interwoven world. For most people, the influence of 9/11 on day-to-day life is felt much less intensely than the arrival of Facebook and Twitter. Or the eruption of nagging, pontificating voices on cable TV. Or the suffocating recession.

Ultimately, each person attaches an individual meaning to 9/11, if possible. Outside of the families of the victims, most people’s lives may not present themselves as remarkably different. But there is residue, lingering wisps of Sept. 11.

A Birthday to Hate

Angela Landon, sitting in her house in Bangor, Me., that day, feeding a bottle to her 10-month-old. Pregnant with the third of what would be four children, all girls, and her mother calling. The terrible news. On her birthday.

“My mother used to call me every year and say, ‘What a beautiful day to be born,’ ” she said. “After 9/11, what was I supposed to say? ‘It’s a beautiful day to die’?”

She hated her birthday for a while. A tiny price in the scheme of a wicked day, but a price paid.

The year after, Ms. Landon had no appetite for celebration, but her family insisted, even dressed up as the Wiggles, the Australian children’s entertainers. “They tried to make me feel good,” she said. “But I didn’t feel good.”

She doesn’t hate her birthday anymore. Last year, on her 40th, it was everyone out to Chuck E. Cheese’s, and a merry time. But she gets emotional. “Ten years later, it’s really hard,” she said. “My little ones don’t understand yet. They know my birthday is 9/11, and they know something happened on 9/11 and I’ve explained it, but they don’t get it.”

For the first couple of years, whenever she had to display her ID to cash a check or give her birth date over the phone to the bank, people would suck in their breath. That doesn’t happen now. “It’s kind of out of sight, out of mind,” she said. “And that bothers me.”

Her oldest daughter, Erika, 17, got on the phone, and she said it was a hard story to tell and a hard story to hear. What did Sept. 11 mean to her?

“I grew up in a proud-to-be-American household,” she said. “So I love my country. It was scary. I remember getting off the bus and my mother running and hugging me. My friends don’t talk about it now. It’s not a big ordeal here. But it’s always my mother’s birthday, so it’s always, always there.”

Civic Life Even Nastier

People shake their heads when they think back.

Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of education and history at New York University, said: “I remember people saying, ‘We’re all going to be New Yorkers.’ People said we’re all going to be serious. That’s hilarious to talk about. Reality TV was in its infancy. There was no ‘Jersey Shore.’ Imagine if it did spawn a new seriousness.”

He said what we all see: “Civic life is even more frayed, even more polarized, even nastier.”

Dalton Conley, dean for the social sciences at N.Y.U., said, “I think the ironic thing is, the area less affected in terms of daily life and fundamental change is actually New York City, the epicenter of the event. Our own university expected we would fall off the map.”

Did he know anyone who had taken the narrative of that day and done something really bold, gone the distance? He said he did. The father of a friend of his daughter, a Wall Street man who went to war.

Crossing the Line

Out of the shock and the ruin, Gerard Decatrel tried to imagine New York’s tomorrow, the twists it might take, because there had to be something transformative. Imagination, in those days, could take you a lot of places.

He worked at Morgan Stanley in Times Square, a trader of foreign exchange options. He was 30. He lived in Manhattan, a family man.

As he constructed outcomes, he decided there were some he could accept and those he couldn’t.

“I drew a line,” he said. “I could bear it if New York became like Jerusalem and there were conventional attacks going on all the time. But if there were any biological or chemical attacks, I said I would join the military.”

He couldn’t entirely explain the impulse. He didn’t know anyone who had perished in the towers. Taking up arms would mean entering an alternate space, leaving behind a wife, a 4-year-old daughter, a 1-year-old son.

“I don’t know, but I took it personally,” he said. “I’d been a New Yorker all my life.”

That fall, the mysterious anthrax attacks visited the wrung-out and quaking city. There it was. His line had been crossed. He joined the Marines. Morgan Stanley said it understood; go, and his job would be waiting for his safe return. His wife said all right. He didn’t know then that she was humoring him. She thought they would reject him because he was too old.

He had to commit to training and six years in the service, eight years of his life altogether. He moved to Virginia, Florida, California.

And then, indeed, Iraq for three seven-month deployments as a pilot of a Cobra attack helicopter. He flew more than 500 missions. He shot at the enemy and the enemy shot back, but “they weren’t very good shots,” he said. “And they didn’t have the best weapons.”

The weather, he felt, was the biggest danger, the blinding sandstorms that could reduce visibility to zero and yet you flew, flew on hope. He felt old — almost everyone else was so young. Two pilots in his squad were killed.

But he made the sort of permanent friends you made in no other context.

He was discharged from the Marines last September. He is back in his city. He works again for Morgan Stanley, trading options once more, battling the cranky markets.

He had done something. He had served. Everything adds up to something. He would say he was different.

“I feel I have more confidence and a different perspective,” he said. “Something goes wrong in the market and everyone’s freaking out. Well, I’m not. No one’s dying. The market can’t freak me out.”

Reshaping History

George W. Bush understood 9/11 as a declaration of war. To others, it was an immense hate crime. Either way, it catapulted the country into what seems a permanent state of war.

David Blight, a history professor at Yale University, observed that an event’s meaning is always made by the subsequent history. “That’s how memory works,” he said. “Memory is always about the present.”

He added: “That innocence that we live above history, that we’re not vulnerable, that we control our own fate, got a big, big hit. I think this still lingers. But I think we are pleasantly recycling that.”

Which is not to say the day didn’t leave obligations, impose debts some people felt they had to pay.

Opening Tiny Doors

The sorrow needed to go somewhere. There were places to receive it, online receptacles, and the flutter of contributions arrived from all over. On Sept. 19, 2001, one came from Colleen Casey of Bolingbrook, Ill. She expressed the accepted condition that many people felt: “I do not expect my life to ever be as it was before.”

She offered up a poem, “I Needed the Quiet,” that she had discovered when she was 14 and her father died of a heart attack. It helped her; maybe it could help others.

And she wrote, “I will try to live my life better.”

Americans had died by going to work. She felt she had to earn their sacrifice.

Now Ms. Casey lives in Addison, Ill., a materials license reviewer for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Same job, new home. She is 54 and single.

Had she lived her life “better?”

You don’t remold yourself easily. She knew that. But there were tiny doors that she could open. She was shy. But she began to do more, not be moony about her own troubles, go to places she hadn’t gone, feed the fires.

She mentioned participating in a diabetes walk, another for a homeless shelter, one for suicide prevention.

She started doing water aerobics, wanting to improve her health.

“I’ve tried to spend more time listening, really listening to people I come across in daily life,” she said. “People need to be validated and heard.”

She has had her scrapes with adversity — two bad car crashes, her Subarus totaled. She bought a third Subaru. One had been white, one blue and now she was on red, completing the colors of her country’s flag.

She tries to be a little kinder. Now she gives money to those professing need, like men she spots at roadway intersections. The ones squatting there with the hand-scribbled signs: “Homeless” or “Help.” It was just something she got in her head to do. She always has a spare $20 and bottled water in the car to hand over.

“Although some of my friends think I’m nuts for doing this,” she said, “I’ve never, ever had any kind of adverse outcome. Just gratitude.”

She said: “We’re all trying to slog through life together. I’m trying to do a little more. That’s all I can do.”

‘We’re Wired to Cope’

The day burrowed into the mind, and who knew how deep and how long it would stay. But deep and long. That’s what so many accepted. People slack on couches, struggling to push the ache out of them.

But the lasting psychological toll, studies suggested, was nowhere as bad as many experts predicted. The preponderance of people, they got on.

“I think we are innately resilient,” said George A. Bonanno, professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University, who studies grief and trauma. “The norm is to be resilient.”

In part, this is because we get so much practice, from less singular but still powerful traumas like divorce or disease. “We’re wired to cope with traumatic events,” he said.

So 33 Chilean miners buried deep in the ground can come out of it with their sanity. People can watch a mudslide scoop up their home. They can see tall towers fall and keep going.

“Human history is full of tragedy, and within these tragedies there is room for growth,” said Grady Bray, a disaster psychologist based in Texas. “There is no growth in human beings without struggle. I’m convinced of that.”

A 5-Year-Old’s Premonition

Sasha Vaccaro finished cooking camp — shish kebab today, lots of fun — and was free for the afternoon. He slid into a seat at the Starbucks across the street from his Upper East Side home, sipped Passion Tea Lemonade. He was dressed cool, in a T-shirt and shorts. He is 15.

Sasha has a complicated life. He suffers from depression that can be crippling. He has been given diagnoses of aspects of Asperger syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. His younger brother is autistic. His parents are divorced.

He explained some things he copes with. “If I touch my body on one side, I have to touch it on the other,” he said. “If I have an itch, I have to scratch on the other side too. But I’ve gotten better at it. I try to ride out the wave.”

He overreacts to criticism. When he hears sad things, he gets very sad.

His Sept. 11 was this. He was in kindergarten four blocks from the trade center, playing the tambourine in music class. His father clutched him in his arms, carrying him away as the second plane of the suicidal fanatics sliced into the flank of the tower. He watched both buildings aflame. His father cried; so did he.

“Before, I thought the world was perfect and everyone was nice,” he said. “It’s when I stopped believing in God.”

The World Trade towers had been of outsize importance to the family. They used to go down there and lie flat on their backs, their feet grazing the base of a tower, and look up at the majestic presence.

What does 9/11 do to someone a decade later? Everyone has complications, and how do you filter them out and assign one cause to one effect? How would you ever do it in a boy with so much going on?

Year after year, Sasha didn’t talk about 9/11.

Then in March, he wrote a graphic novel to satisfy a school assignment to relate a pivotal moment. It was his 9/11 day, from morning pancakes to music class to calamity and tears. And also his sixth-sense moment: At school he had a premonition that something awful was imminent in the towers. He looked toward them and said to his father, “Daddy, twin tower alert! Twin tower alert!”

In getting it out, he thought, maybe he was finally confronting what no child should have to see. The graphic novel got a good grade. The class was absorbed.

On all fronts, he has been doing better of late. Therapy has helped his mass of issues. His medications are being cut back. His last school year was his best. He wants to be a neurosurgeon or a veterinarian. He had a gecko once.

He has not been back to ground zero. Maybe when it’s done, he’ll go see how it came out.

Down at the site, things were happening, 3,000 workers a day — the equal of the dead — belatedly putting together the replacements for the vanished buildings. A sandwich-board peddler promoted $22-per-ounce cash for unwanted sterling silver. The tourists jostled past, peering through the fence, watching steel sprout on a land of ghosts.

That day was 10 years ago, and one day it will be 20 years ago and 50 and 100, sinking further into history.

What does 9/11 mean?

Sasha wanted to think on that for a moment. His face tightened into deep thought. “I honestly don’t know,” he said. “I can’t understand why people would do that. I don’t know what to say. It’s just sadness. That’s all it will ever be. Lots and lots and lots of sadness.”

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Expanding the Essay Canon, One Decade at a Time

Ned Stuckey-French, author of the recent study The American Essay in the American Century (University of Missouri Press), offers suggestions for expanding the essay canon. His list of 10 American essays—one from each decade of the 20th century—includes some familiar titles and some that may be less so. All 10, however, are important and challenging essays worthy of being read, studied, anthologized and taught.


In her groundbreaking 1999 article The Essay Canon, Lynn Z. Bloom argued that the essays most people know—the essays that, effectively, define the genre—are the ones that appear most frequently in freshman composition anthologies. As a result, the essay canon is fundamentally a teaching canon as opposed to a historical, critical or national canon, and the essay is too easily dismissed as a service genre, one that is used to write about other, more “literary” genres. It is a genre used to teach 19-year-olds how to write.

Such teaching is hard work. New teaching assistants are assigned multiple sections, in which they are expected to introduce the entire writing process, from brainstorming through proofreading. Editors select essays for first-year writing anthologies with the needs of these beginning teachers and their students in mind. Is the selection current and accessible? Can it be used to model this or that rhetorical mode? Is it short enough for use in a one-hour class? Is it in the public domain, and if not, how much will the permissions cost? Will it help diversify the anthology in terms of race, ethnicity and gender? Does it help establish a balance between classic and contemporary essays, and between emerging authors and established big names? These concerns are real and understandable, but they push toward the inclusion of shorter, simpler, more “teachable” essays.

Important anthologies, such as those edited by Gerald Early, Phillip Lopate, Robert Atwan, Joyce Carol Oates and John D’Agata, have sought to position the essay historically and argued for the genre’s centrality, but, as Bloom points out, “All anthologies (not just [first-year] readers) deracinate their material—old or new—from its original context and replant it in the anthologist’s soil.”

The essay is more than the “fourth genre.” It deserves to be studied in literature as well as writing classes. It deserves anthologies that emphasize historical and cultural contexts, and promote extensive critical interpretations.  It deserves a diverse and expansive canon full of challenging essays that are read by general readers and scholars alike. 

1900s

W. E. B. Du Bois, Of Our Spiritual Strivings

In this piece, Du Bois recalls the moment when, as a young boy in western Massachusetts, he was introduced to the color line. During a “merry” exchange of cards in school, a white girl refused his, and it dawned on him that he “was different from the others” and “shut out from their world by a vast veil.” Hidden behind this veil, says Du Bois, he and other Negroes are “gifted with second-sight,” the ability to see the racism to which whites are often blind. This trope of finding power in invisibility later inspired Ralph Ellison.

Du Bois also introduces his idea of “double-consciousness,” that “peculiar sensation” experienced by African Americans who find themselves neither African nor American, but are left, instead, with a “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

Published originally in The Atlantic Monthly (August 1897) as "Strivings of the Negro People"; a revised version appeared as Chapter One of The Souls of Black Folk (1903).

1910s

Randolph Bourne, A Philosophy of Handicap

Bourne’s face was disfigured at birth by misused forceps, and his body was crippled soon after by tuberculosis of the spine—disabilities he wrote about in this stunning essay, first published anonymously. Struggling to be both objective and personal, Bourne found himself caught between pronouns and trapped in subordinate clauses: “If he [the Handicapped] has to go out for himself to look for work, without fortune, training, or influence, as I personally did, his way will indeed be rugged.”

Two years later, Bourne revised the essay, changed its title to “A Philosophy of Handicap” and included it in his first book, “Youth and Life.” In the later version, he stopped using the term “deformed,” removed some descriptions of himself, folded “he” and “I” into “the handicapped man” and argued that disability is not only a physical state but also a social category that is used to define what is “normal” and what is not.

It would be 60 years before the last Unsightly Beggar Ordinances, or “ugly laws,” were repealed and 16 after that before Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Published originally in The Atlantic Monthly (September 1911) as "The Handicapped—by One of Them"; revised as "A Philosophy of Handicap", in Youth and Life (1913).

1920s

William Carlos Williams, An Essay on Virginia

During the period of “In the American Grain” (1925), William Carlos Williams rethought the essay and America. Eliot, Pound and Stein had left for Europe and dismissed the personal essay as a middlebrow form, but Williams used the essay to establish what he called “contact” with America. “An Essay on Virginia” is his contribution to the surveys of “these united states,” popular at the time; it is also cubist and modern, an essay on the essay. With whiplash disjunctiveness, it simultaneously advances and enacts a modernist theory of the essay while also critiquing Virginia, regionalism, and American democracy: “These are essentially the component moments of all essays, hams, anecdotes of battles, broken buildings—the materia are the same. It is their feudal allocation in Virginia that is important. But the essay is essentially modern.”

Published originally in This Quarter (Paris) (Spring 1925); first collected in A Novelette and Other Prose, 1921-1931 (1932).

1930s

Richard Wright, The Ethics of Living Jim Crow

In the punning title of this essay, Living can be a verb or an adjective, and Jim Crow an adverb or noun. Either way, “ethics” is to be taken ironically, and Americans, both black and white, find themselves undone by their country’s racism.

In nine numbered sections, Wright takes us from one “lesson” to another, showing how he was taught to act as if racism did not exist, until he “learned to lie, to steal, to dissemble.” But, what he “steals” are knowledge and an educated self. He does this by convincing a fellow worker, a white Catholic from the North, to loan him his library card so he can check out (ostensibly for his white friend) subversive books by authors such as Mencken.

In the fall of 1939, during a House Un-American Activities Committee hearing, Texas congressman Martin Dies, Jr., called Wright’s essay “the most filthy thing I have ever seen.” Dies accused Wright of fomenting racial hatred and entered into the Congressional Record Wright’s explanation of how Black people in the South saw their situation:

How do Negroes feel about the way they have to live? How do they discuss it when alone among themselves? I think this question can be answered in a single sentence. A friend of mine who ran an elevator once told me:

“Lawd, man! Ef it wuzn't fer them polices ’n’ them ol’ lynch-mobs, there wouldn’t be nothin’ but uproar down here!”

Published originally in 1937 as “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow: An Autobiographical Sketch” in American Stuff: WPA Writers’ Anthology; first reprinted as the introduction to the second edition of Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children (1940).

1940s

E. B. White, Once More to the Lake

Once More to the Lake, the most widely anthologized American essay of the last half of the 20th century, is usually taught as a nostalgia piece about fathers and sons, often serving as a prompt for a what-I-did-on-my-summer-vacation essay.

Readers in the fall of 1941 would have taken something different from the essay, however, for in his Harper’s column, White had been making the case against fascists abroad and isolationists at home for three years already. Pearl Harbor was two months away. When, at the end of the essay, White described a thunderstorm as “the revival of an old melodrama that I had seen long ago with childish awe,” when he sadly acknowledged that “America had not changed in any important respect,” when he remarked on “a curious darkening of the sky, and a lull in everything that made life tick” and the storm began to roll in off the North Atlantic with a “crackling light against the dark and the gods grinning and licking their chops in the hills,” White’s readers would have heard him rejecting the naïve view that World War I was the “war to end all wars” and bemoaning the imminent and sickening return of war.

Published originally as an installment of "One Man’s Meat” in Harper’s (October 1941); first collected in “One Man’s Meat” (1942).

1950s

James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son

It took Baldwin 12 years to write this bruising essay about the events of two days: July 29, 1943, when his father died and his sister was born, and August 3, 1943, when the family buried his father in the midst of the Harlem riots and Baldwin himself turned 19. The essay braids together several narratives and reaches several climaxes. At one point, Baldwin realizes that racial hatred has nearly led him to kill and to be killed; at another, he realizes that hatred killed his father. If we are not to be destroyed by such hatred, Baldwin finally decides, we must learn “to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seem to be in opposition”:

The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: In light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength.

The editors of Harper’s apparently did not fully accept this conclusion (or perhaps they did not trust their readers to accept it), for they elided several passages, including the following: “I had discovered the weight of white people in the world. I saw that this had been for my ancestors and now would be for me an awful thing to live with and that the bitterness which had helped to kill my father could also kill me.”

Published originally as “Me and My House…” in Harper’s (November 1955); first collected as “Notes of a Native Son” in the book of the same title (1955).

1960s

Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail

On April 12, 1963—Good Friday—King, Ralph Abernathy and 52 other people were arrested in Birmingham, Ala., for marching in violation of an injunction prohibiting any “parading” or “demonstrating,” including even “conduct customarily known as ‘kneel-ins’ in churches.” King was put in solitary confinement. Four days later, he wrote, first in the margins of The New York Times and later on paper smuggled in by his lawyer and a Negro trusty, this “letter” to eight white, liberal Birmingham clergymen who had published “A Call for Unity,” which criticized non-violent direct action, labeled King an outside agitator and argued that the courts alone should deal with civil rights.

Speaking as a fellow minister, King explained that the black citizens of Birmingham had invited him and his colleagues to the city, that Jesus also spoke against injustice, that Paul, too, had been called an “outsider” and that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Because it is often occasioned by an event, the essay is sometimes dismissed as journalistic and less-than-literary. King’s piece is evidence to the contrary. His letter displays much learning (as in its allusions not only to the Bible, but also to Reinhold Niebuhr, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and Martin Buber), rises often to abstract and careful logic (as in its explanation of nonviolent civil disobedience and the difference between just and unjust laws) and regularly lifts its personal witness to lyrical heights, especially in a famous 316-word sentence that enacts America’s delay of justice—a waiting that has, says King, always meant “never.”

Excerpted without permission in the New York Post Sunday Magazine (May 19, 1963); published in its entirety and with permission under various titles throughout the summer of 1963 in Liberation, The Christian Century, The New Leader, Witness, The Mennonite and The Atlantic Monthly, and as an American Friends Service Committee pamphlet; revised and collected in King, Jr.’s book Why We Can’t Wait (1964).

1970s

Joan Didion, The White Album

When did the ’60s end? With Altamont? The fall of Saigon? Watergate? Didion’s answer—the Manson murders marked the end—is a Los Angeles answer, but not a parochial one. Her essay speaks personally to the large and public issues of race, gender and peace; she connects her own neuroses to those of the age. Finding herself and her times without a narrative or script, she chooses to improvise. Though she mentions it only in her title, Didion’s model for such improvisation is the unnamed Beatles album that came to be called “The White Album”—an album containing bits of narrative (“Rocky Raccoon”) and sound pictures of chaos (“Revolution 9”), an album that contained the helter-skelter which defined a decade and a track named “Helter Skelter” which haunted the murderer who, for Didion, ended that decade.

Sections 3, 5 and 9 published originally as installments of the “Points West” column of The Saturday Evening Post, entitled respectively “Waiting for Morrison” (March 9, 1968), “Black Panther” (May 4, 1968) and “The Revolution Game” (January 25, 1969); first published in its entirety, with twelve additional sections and significant changes, in New West (1979) as “The White Album: A Chronicle of Survival”; published in book form as The White Album (1979).

1980s

Nancy Mairs, On Being a Cripple

Born in 1943, Mairs came of age as a writer during the politicized ’60s, and her social activism informs how she writes and thinks about her personal life—especially her depression and multiple sclerosis. Her work is distinguished by its self-deprecation and candor. On Being a Cripple opens with an anecdote: While using the bathroom at her office at the University of Arizona, Mairs was thinking again about writing an essay about her MS. Her mind still on the essay, she flushed, tucked in her shirt, picked up her book bag and grabbed her cane off the hook: “So many movements unbalanced me, and as I pulled the door open, I fell over backward, landing fully clothed on the toilet seat with my legs splayed in front of me: the old beetle-on-its-back routine. Saturday afternoon, the building deserted, I was free to laugh aloud as I wriggled back to my feet. … I decided that it was high time to write the essay.”

We are, and are not, a long way from Bourne’s A Philosophy of Handicap. Unlike Bourne, Mairs embraces the first person, but she faces the same paternalism and self-pity he had found himself up against (fortunately, her daughter Anne helps her resist them):

Fortunately, at home no one much cares whether I’m a good cripple or a bad cripple as long as I make vichyssoise with fair regularity. One evening several years ago, Anne was reading at the dining-room table while I cooked dinner. As I opened a can of tomatoes, the can slipped in my left hand and juice spattered me and the counter with bloody spots. Fatigued and infuriated, I bellowed, “I’m so sick of being crippled!” Anne glanced at me over the top of her book. “There now,” she said, “do you feel better?” “Yes,” I said, “yes, I do.” She went back to her reading. I felt better. That’s about all the attention my scurviness ever gets.

In 1998, Mairs was one of seven plaintiffs who successfully sued the Greyhound Lines bus company over its failure to comply with the equal access provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Published originally in MSS (Fall 1983); first collected in Plaintext (1986).

1990s

Jo Ann Beard, The Fourth State of Matter

On November 1, 1991, I walked across the University of Iowa campus, where I was a graduate student, to meet my wife at a coffee shop. I had just left my office at the Iowa Memorial Union, where I worked part-time as writer for the dean of students. Because the weather was gray and sleety and it was Friday afternoon, I’d dropped some newsletter copy in campus mail rather than at the dean’s office in Jessup Hall.

My friend Jo Ann Beard was at home. She shared a job at the physics department with her friend Mary Allen—one working one day, the other the next. Mary called Jo Ann to tell her there had been a disturbance at the office. They were evacuating the building. She’d be right over.

A disturbed physics graduate student named Gang Lu, angry that he had come in second in a contest for best dissertation on campus, had just shot and killed three professors and a graduate student named Linhua Shan, who, like him, was from China and whose dissertation had won the contest. Jo Ann knew them all. One of the professors, Chris Goertz, was a close friend.

Gang Lu then walked across campus and shot a vice president outside her office in Jessup Hall. He also shot a young student employee, leaving her paralyzed from the neck down.

The Fourth State of Matter is about the shootings, but it is about much more: the end of Jo Ann’s marriage; her collie’s final days; the squirrels who infested her attic; her friendship with Chris; the death of Chris’s mother, who killed herself not long after her son’s murder; and the plasma, or the fourth state of matter, that the dead physicists had studied. It is a beautiful essay, fully deserving of the praise it received (inclusion in Best American Essays of 1996 and other anthologies) and the doors it opened (a book contract, a Whiting Award, a Guggenheim). It was also a life-changing essay about a life-changing event, an essay that might make you wonder if you have the right to write about your friends and their deaths, your friends and their work, though, slowly, you accept that their lives were bound up with yours, as are all of our lives bound up with those of others, and so you continue to write.

Published originally in The New Yorker (June 24, 1996); first collected in The Boys of My Youth (1998). 

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