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In the past I’ve gotten myself in trouble spouting off my unfiltered (often unreasoned) reactions to the daily paper. (What can I say? I get in moods.) But this review of Christian Wiman’s collected essays, Ambition and Survival, struck me as so unnecessarily cruel, so blistering, that, well, I had to blog about it. (With advance apologies to our three readers…) Encountering this review with my Sunday coffee in those tantalizing moments before I gave myself wholeheartedly to the Sunday crossword, I read someone who put me in the mind of Tobias Wolff’s Anders: “a book critic known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed.”
First I should say that I’ve only read a few of the Wiman essays in this collection, back when they appeared in Threepenny Review, and I thought all of them excellent, surprising, smart, honest, and exemplary enough that I used them in various classes I’ve taught. One of them, “Milton in Guatemala,” gets raked here (for reasons I find completely wrongheaded, as the “mock” humility he reads in it is news to me, but whatever). Another of his essays, for those who haven’t read Wiman’s prose, can be found here. The part that really got me was the grand finale to the thrumping:
About the final piece in this book, “Love Bade Me Welcome,” the less said, the better. It’s the author’s own “mush of me, me, me,” an exceedingly personal essay about three subjects: Wiman gives up writing poetry and then starts writing it again; Wiman falls in love; Wiman receives a diagnosis of ‘an incurable cancer in my blood.’ The effect is to close off all further responses other than to have any reviewer of his book say:
I wish him the best life he can have.
Wow. That’s almost unbelievable in its callousness, and I’m not sure how to read that last line. If it’s sincere, it departs tonally from everything that precedes it. If it’s… well, what else could it be? Sarcastic? I’m baffled. If he really means that the piece leaves a reviewer incapable of reviewing it, then why did he review it? Maybe someone could enlighten me. He uses Wiman’s own phrase “mush of me, me, me” (which, incidentally, referred to a certain kind of confessional poetry, NOT memoir or personal essay, which—I’m no expert, but—kind of relies on “me, me, me,” doesn’t it?), to frame a criticism of the essay.
The essay referred to appeared (perhaps in significantly different form) in American Scholar and can be found here. Is it worthy of such scorn? Maybe he’s saying a personal essay that’s actually personal should not be written or published or read? If that’s what he means, Tucker’s gripe is much larger than (and dare I say misplaced on) Christian Wiman. I hope no one takes his word for it.