A reader's delight by Noel Perrin

By Noel Perrin

One in all America's best essayists writes approximately forty literary masterpieces which were wrongfully forgotten or have been overlooked within the first position.

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His father works for an obscure provincial newspaper, making just enough money to count as middle class. Nobody in that family goes to college. Everybody in it starts work young. Bruce picked the wrong family to be born in. What he wants is first educationlots and lots of it, at the best schoolsand then fame. He'd like to be a great biologist, preferably the greatest of his generation. He knows he has the temperament. By the time he's fifteen, he is reading Darwin, dissecting leeches, teaching himself chemistry.

They were kids' books. American kids' Page ix books. By some woman I had never heard of, named Laura Ingalls Wilder. ) It seemed wildly improbable that an English scientist would use two of his five slots for children's books written in the colonies, when he could have been plugging some major work by Sir Humphrey Davy or showing off his familiarity with Robert Boyle's Sceptical Chemist, that hit of the year 1661. It made me curious. Though I wasn't even married at the time, let alone a father with children to read aloud to, I promptly went to the town library and checked out Little House on the Prairie.

Smollett's decency! The Victorians didn't know he had any. If Jonathan was even worse, I could hardly wait to read it. After some difficulty I got hold of a copy in the library of the New York Historical Society, and did read it. Did not find it particularly obscene (though I could see right away what upset the reviewer); did find it strikingly funny. A genuine minor masterpiece. Worthy of a spot in my display case, if I ever got to have one. I didn't. I missed by twenty years. I had been teaching at Dartmouth for only about eighteen months and had not even advanced to assistant professor when a new librarian took over.

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