Well-wrought, deeply thoughtful personal essays from a master of the form.
“Memory is a room always hitched to our travels,” writes Masters (English/Carnegie Mellon Univ.; Elegy for Sam Emerson, 2006, etc.). That room gets a thorough airing as the aging author looks back on a rich literary life, which has included an unbalanced literary friendship with William Humphrey and a warm one with Wright Morris, who in retirement supplies Masters with a remark that could serve as an inscription for this collection: “I am overwhelmed by the past.” This son of poet Edgar Lee Masters writes about his grandparents, parents, lovers, wives and children (he alludes to an estranged daughter)—“generations scrambling over each other”—to bring a kind of order to the discontinuity of his life. He memorably recounts his arrest on trumped-up disorderly-conduct charge as a teenager, all the while confessing in his mind guilt for an array of larger sins and offenses for which he’d heretofore gone unpunished. He recaptures the exhilaration of criss-crossing the country as a youth and his repeated, treasured visits to France. He recalls working as a 15-year-old civilian plane spotter during World War II. He honors the return of a long-lost, runaway dog, who, like the author, “[has] had adventures, but…remembered where he came from.” He fondly looks back on the gift of Robinson Crusoe that inspired his writing career. Whether he’s remarking on the mundane—a pear, a piece of pie, a hotel room—or his mother’s dementia (“a revision of history in progress”), Masters reliably delivers insights that make every page a delight. Hints of Thoreau, Twain, Hemingway and, above all, Montaigne, mark his approach, but the hard-earned voice that emerges is surely his own.
Uncommonly graceful and wise.