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David Sedaris is an American humorist, radio contributor, and best-selling author. His work became nationally known when National Public Radio broadcast ”Santa Land Diaries, his essay about his time working as a Christmas elf at Macy’s, in 1992. Several of his autobiographical essay collections have become New York Times best sellers.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Sedaris, the second of six children, was born in 1956. His family moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, when he was very young, and it was there that he grew up. Sedaris later described his home as fairly chaotic and dysfunctional, and he used these stories in his books of essays about his life. He attended Kent State University for a short time but dropped out in 1977. He attended the Art Institute in Chicago and occasionally read his work on the National Public Radio programs The Wild Room and This American Life.
After Sedaris moved to New York City in 1991, National Public Radio personality Ira Glass asked him to put together a holiday-themed essay for one of his programs. Sedaris did, and scored his first hit, ”Santa-Land Diaries,” which aired on December 23, 1992. In this essay, Sedaris recounts his experiences working as Crumpet the Elf in Macy s department store during the holiday shopping season. This story became an instant hit and earned him a monthly spot on NPR s Morning Edition and a two-book contract with Little, Brown. Just like ”Santa Land Diaries, his monologues drew on his personal experience in the many odd jobs he held to supplement his income, such as cleaning houses.
Sedaris bases his stories on not only his family’s quirks but also on his feeling of alienation growing up as a gay man in Southern society. He pokes fun not only at his family and society but at himself.
Sedaris s first book, Barrel Fever, was published in 1994. These essays attracted national attention as well when he read them on National Public Radio. His second collection of essays, Naked (1997), established Sedaris as a premier essayist. Critics praised not only Sedaris s humor but the emotional range in his essays, which ranged from stories about hitchhiking and his battle with childhood nervous disorders to his stay at a nudist colony. Sedaris’s work took a softer turn with the publication of Me Talk Pretty One Day. Sedaris continues to tell stories about his family, about living in New York, and about his life in his new home in Paris with his partner, Hugh Hamrick. His latest book, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, was published in 2008.
Works in Literary Context
Sedaris emerged from two traditions: humor writing and gay and lesbian literature. He was one of the first humor writers to speak and write openly about his homosexuality and yet still achieve phenomenal success. Most of his essay collections have become New York Times best sellers, highlighting his crossover appeal.
Humor writing has a long history in the United States. Newspapers and magazines in the nineteenth century published many humorous essays. The first American humorist may have been Washington Irving, who published History of New York … by Diedrich Knickerbocker (1809) and The Sketch Book (1820), both of which include exaggerated tall tales about Northeastern Americans. Mark Twain continued this American tradition of humor in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). In the early twentieth century, humor writing remained largely the domain of newspaper and magazine columnists, with authors like H. L. Mencken and Dorothy Parker achieving success at the Baltimore Sun and the New Yorker, respectively. By the latter half of the twentieth century, popular writers of American humor included Erma Bombeck and Dave Barry, both nationally syndicated humor columnists.
Gay and Lesbian Literature
The visibility of gay and lesbian literature increased in the early twentieth century with the publication of works such as The Well of Loneliness (1929) by Radclyffe Hall, which was censored in Britain and nearly banned in the United States because of its lesbian theme. Gay and lesbian pulp fiction proliferated in the 1940s and 1950s, but the Stonewall riots in 1969 in New York City, credited as the beginning of the modern gay rights movement, proved a watershed for gay and lesbian writers. Openly homosexual writers of the twentieth century include Audre Lorde, Augusten Burroughs, Alice Walker, and James Baldwin. In his humorous essays, Sedaris often addresses the issues he encounters as a homosexual and his difficulties adjusting to his environment while growing up. However, he always addresses these issues for humorous effect and in a way that touches upon universal themes, such as awkwardness and the desire to fit in.
Works in Critical Context
David Sedaris has achieved recognition as not just a humorist but as a commentator on family, society, and daily life. Ira Glass was quoted in People magazine saying, ”People come to his work because he’s funny. … But there’s a complicated moral vision there.” Others agree, noting that beneath Sedaris’s humor is often a deeper commentary. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly wrote, ”Sedaris can hardly be called a humorist in the ordinary sense . . . Sedaris is instead an essayist who happens to be very funny.”
Sedaris’s first big hit was his ”SantaLand Diaries,” read on the air on National Public Radio. Booklist critic Benjamin Segedin calls the piece a ”minor classic.” John Marchese writes in the New York Times, ”Mr. Sedaris has shown remarkable skill as a mimic and the ability to mix the sweet and the bitter: to be naive and vulnerable and at the same time, jaded and wickedly funny.” Newsweek reviewer Jeff Giles praises Sedaris’s delivery, saying his ”nicely nerdy, quavering voice” is particularly effective on the radio.
Me Talk Pretty One Day
Critics have noted that Sedaris’s 2000 book Me Talk Pretty One Day is somewhat softer than his earlier work. Ira Glass writes in Esquire,” A lot of people think they love David for his acidic tongue . . . but I think it’s … his skill in evoking real affection and sadness in his stories, that from the beginning brought people back for more.” Michiko Kakutani also notes that much of his newer work is softer than his previous work, which she praised. ”Though he still whips off tart put-downs with practiced ease … he also shows himself capable, in these pages, of something approaching empathy and introspection.” Entertainment Weekly writer Lisa Schwarzbaum comments, ”These days Sedaris glitters as one of the wittiest writers around.”
- ”Sedaris, David.” Newsmakers. Edited by Laura Avery. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2005.
- Carlin, Peter Ames. ”Elf-Made Writer: Former Santa’s Helper David Sedaris Turns His Odd Life into Literature.” People, October 20, 1997.
- Glass, Ira. Review of Me Talk Pretty One Day. Esquire, June 2000.
- Kakutani, Michiko. ”Books of the Times; The Zeitgeist of Cyberspace Isn’t at 59th and Lex.” New York Times, June 16, 2000.
- Marchese, John. ”He Does Radio and Windows.” New York Times, July 4, 1993.
- Schwarzbaum, Lisa. Review of Me Talk Pretty One Day. Entertainment Weekly, June 2, 2000.
- Segedin, Benjamin. Review of Barrel Eever. Booklist (June 1, 1994).
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