The Amateur: An Independent Life of Letters

Wendy Lesser, Author Pantheon Books $24 (288p) ISBN 978-0-375-40402-3
This finely wrought volume of essays deserves to be considered a ""literary memoir"" in several senses: it is the autobiographical account of a life in literature (Lesser, the author of A Director Calls, is best known as the founding editor of the ThreePenny Review); many of the most intimate and affecting moments are those that dissolve into literary analogy or analysis; and further, it merits ""literary"" as a term of approbation. Lesser shows admirable agility of mind, for instance, as she considers James, Dickens, Fielding, Johnson and her own experiences in the grant-giving world of philanthropy, in light of a homeless person's request for a handout--all without letting her momentum slacken or falling into pedantry. Despite her range, she remains sure-footed, engaging and accessible. Although some essays are less spectacular than others, Lesser is always entertaining--in a section of straightforward narrative, she works in this remark: ""I've noticed that people often do look saner with their clothes on."" The essays are a diverse lot, offering meditations on San Francisco, the city she has made her home; accounts of visits to the compound of the cultish Synanon rehab center and the retreat of a ""madman"" who has proclaimed himself an artist; critiques of dancer Mark Morris and poet Thom Gunn; and, of course, tales of the joys and travails of producing an admired periodical from scratch. One might object that Lesser's eclecticism feels studied, that she flits too quickly from insight to insight. But such mobility of mind, she contends, is in the nature of the amateur, the character whom she makes it her business to celebrate. Lesser justifiably styles herself ""an eighteenth-century man of letters,"" showing the versatility and taste of an English Augustan in these essays of reflective erudition. (Feb.)
Reviewed on: 02/01/1999
Release date: 02/01/1999
Genre: Nonfiction
Ebook - 128 pages - 978-0-307-87420-7
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