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Letters & Essays: 1990s

Letters & Essays of the Day

The Mirror Test

By Melissa Febos

1.

 

always squeeze bread to make sure it’s fresh; but what if the baker won’t let me feel the bread?; you mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won’t let near the bread?

—Jamaica Kincaid, “Girl”

 

In the eighteenth century, “slut’s pennies” were hard nuggets in a loaf of bread that resulted from incomplete kneading. I imagine them salty and dense, soft enough to sink your tooth into, but tough enough to stick. What could a handful of slut’s pennies buy you? Nothing—a hard word, a slap in the face, a fast hand for your slow ones.

A slut was the maid who left dust on the floor— “slut’s wool”—or who left a corner of the room overlooked in her cleaning—a “slut’s corner.” An untidy man might occasionally be referred to as “sluttish,” but for his sloppy jacket, not his unswept floor, because a slut was a doer of menial housework, a drudge, a maid, a servant—a woman.

A slut was a careless girl, hands sunk haphazardly into the dough, broom stilled against her shoulder—eyes cast out the window, mouth humming a song, always thinking of something else.

Growing up with Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy

By Reuel K. Wilson

My earliest memories revolve around a handsome white house in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, built by a sea captain toward the middle of the nineteenth century. It rests midway down a low-lying rise called Money Hill. Perhaps money had once been buried there; in any event its illustrious owner, EW, never had enough of it-due to financially irresponsible habits that included not paying income taxes, the lavish use of taxis (he never learned to drive) and the long-distance telephone.

Postwar Paris: Chronicles of Literary Life

By Alice Adams

Two of the most distinguished American literary artists of their generation—their names as frequently invoked by critics and historians as they are seldom linked—appear here in a conversation that is mostly about being in Pans after the Second World War. The occasion giving rise to this conversation was a late September, 1996, University of Pennsylvania weekend observation of my retirement from the English faculty there. When friends Norman Malier and Richard Wilbur accepted invitations to attend, I suggested talking about this experience that both had often said was personally important, that neither had ever overtly visited in his works, and that happened to have a particular relevance to the Penn audience in that season.

On the Cover: Kenneth Noland

By Karen Wilkin

Kenneth Noland’s name is synonymous with a particular kind of American abstraction—one based on the potency of color, rooted in the belief that relationships of hues, like music, can directly and wordlessly stir our deepest emotional and intellectual reserves. Noland’s name stands, too, for pictures with lucid, near-geometric formats—images that ring changes on frontal, symmetrical, deceptively simple compositions, brought to life by seductive color. Probably the best known of these are the Circle paintings—unabashedly beautiful concentric rings of disembodied hues—with which he first announced himself as a painter to be reckoned with, four decades ago.

Selected Notes from Hampstead

By Elias Canetti

In 1980, the year before Elias Canetti was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, Susan Sontag wrote that the notebook was the perfect form for a writer like him-a man who was a student of everything rather than of anything in particular or “it allows entries of all lengths and shapes and degrees of impatience and roughness.” Canetti's published works are as various in their shapes as the entries in his notebooks. He originally intended his 1936 Auto-da-Fe to be the first in a series of eight novels, each examining a monomaniac whose madness typified a facet of the modern era.