Featured Drone: Anne Fadiman '74-'75
My parents were both writers, and I grew up in a house with six thousand books. Salinger, Aristophanes, Raymond Chandler, Victorian pornographers: they leapt into my hands indiscriminately, and because I had no idea who was famous and who wasn’t, and when they’d lived, and to what literary schools they’d belonged, I read them blissfully unaware of the imagination-quashing contexts I was later to study as a History and Lit concentrator. I was attracted mainly by the colors of the spines.
When I got to Harvard, the Signet Society, a place I imagined to be constantly buzzing with conversation about Aristophanes and maybe even about Victorian pornographers, naturally seemed like the epicenter of civilization. I doubted that an unpolished L.A. girl could find a place there, but somehow, through a combination of latitude and generosity, 46 Dunster Street made room for me. I remember the initiation ceremony, at which the president, Tina Rathborne, stunningly beautiful and clad in a little black dress whose perfection made me wonder if it was worth ever getting dressed again, passed out roses that we were each to return to the Signet pressed between the pages of our first book.
I didn’t finish that first book until I was in my thirties, after a decade of traipsing around the country reporting for magazines. Although I’d briefly considered an academic life, I suppose it was inevitable that I’d become a writer. (In most families, writers are considered black sheep, daringly flouting their parents’ vicarious hopes for careers in accounting or dentistry. In mine, writing was more like joining the family used car business.) By the time I finished The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, a nonfiction account of a Hmong refugee family and its conflicts with the American medical system, my Signet rose was long gone. Would that it might yet turn up in some forgotten box in our damp basement! What a thrill it would be to follow Tina’s command, nearly four decades later!
When I was pregnant with my second child and had to spend eight months in bed, I turned from reporting to essays: an excellent genre on which to focus in a small double bed, in a small bedroom, on a small laptop computer. After I got up again I found I still liked the genre, so I wrote a couple of books of essays and edited an essay-centered quarterly. These days I teach nonfiction writing of various sorts to Yale undergraduates. Although I’m incapable of loving more than one man–I lucked out in finding the right one, a Harvard guy who’s also a writer–I seem to have little difficulty loving two universities.
I get to spend a fair amount of time at Harvard these days, partly because my daughter is a junior in Dunster House (my old haunts) and partly because I serve as an Overseer, which doesn’t mean I actually provide any useful oversight but does give me an excuse to hang out with my fellow Overseer Walter Isaacson, a former Signet president, and, before the meetings start, to sneak away to see Tina Rathborne, who is still just as beautiful and still one of my dearest friends.
When I walk past the little yellow building on Dunster Street, I envy the students who get to eat lunch there today and to dream about pressing a rose inside their own first books. I might point out that you can’t press a rose in a Kindle, an iPad, or a Nook.