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Humorist is focus of club’s meeting

Dr. Leanna McMahon

The eighth virtual meeting of the Fredonia Shakespeare Club’s 2020-2021 year was held on Dec. 3, with fourteen members present. Secretary Gail Crowe read the minutes from Nov. 19, which were approved as written.

Mary Croxton introduced Dr. Leanna McMahon, who presented her paper on humorist David Sedaris:

David Raymond Sedaris was born near Binghamton, NY in 1956 to IBM engineer Lou Sedaris and his wife Sharon. Lou Sedaris was soon transferred to Raleigh, North Carolina. Sedaris grew up there along with his four sisters; Lisa, Gretchen, Amy, and Tiffany; and the baby of the family, his brother, Paul; all have been frequent subjects of his many humorous essays.

Sedaris briefly attended Kent State University but dropped out and traveled the country for a time, picking up work as he could but always keeping notebooks and diaries about the people and events he encountered. He went back to school in 1984 at the Art Institute of Chicago and then taught creative writing there for a few years.

It was by reading his work in public that Sedaris experienced his initial successes. He began participating in readings while still a student and one reading led to another until he was speaking to audiences of up to 700 people. At that point he decided to move to New York, as he hoped to publish a book and thought New York was where such things happened. He began doing readings in New York, and before long he was invited to read on NPR. Many first encountered Sedaris in 1992 through his Morning Edition readings of The Santaland Diaries, detailing his adventures working as Crumpet the Elf at Macy’s, at Christmastime. For almost 30 years now NPR has played those recordings annually, a true holiday tradition.

Shortly after his NPR debut he got a phone call from a representative of Little Brown Publishing who asked Sedaris if he had a book he might be interested in publishing. Sedaris says he responded, “Yes, I have it right here in my drawer. I’ve been waiting for you to call.” That book, “Barrel Fever” was published in 1994.

Most of Sedaris work is autobiographical and is classified as nonfiction, but in a 2007 article in The New Republic, Alexander Heard argued that Sedaris’ work is not sufficiently factual to be called nonfiction. Several published responses noted that readers understand that his work is exaggerated and manipulated for maximum entertainment value. In the words of Sarah Crown, who reviewed Sedaris’ book Calypso for “The Guardian,” “Looking for truth in the courtroom sense in Sedaris’ essays has always been a mug’s game, missing the point. Truthfulness, though – emotional, spiritual – he’s always traded on those.”

That emotional truthfulness comes through with devastating effect in his recent essays on the subject of his sister Tiffany’s death by suicide. Sedaris doesn’t hide from his readers the fact that he had been estranged from her for eight years prior to her death or that he refused to see her when she showed up at the stage door after one of his show during that time. Sedaris offers us deeply painful realities and at the same time offer us the relief of humor in the telling, leaving the reader simultaneously flattened and amused.

Sedaris is the author of 12 books, at least 5 of which have been New York Times best sellers. His books have sold over 12 million copies and his work has been translated into 27 languages. One of his books, “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” won the 2001 Thurber Prize for American Humor. Sedaris is a regular on NPR, appearing frequently on “This American Life” with Ira Glass, and featured occasionally on other shows as well, and he is a frequent guest on television talk shows. Over 40 of Sedaris’ essays have been published in The New Yorker and he has also been published in other prestigious magazines such as Harper’s and Esquire. He has written successful plays with his sister, Amy Sedaris, the sibling David identifies as “the funniest Sedaris,” under the name, “The Talent Family.” In 2008 The State University of New York at Binghamton awarded him an honorary Doctor of Letters degree. He has been nominated 5 times for Grammy awards for his recordings of his readings, and Sedaris was Time magazine’s 2001 Humorist of the Year. In 2019, David Sedaris was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

The Shakespeare Club will meet on Dec. 10, with Mrs. Barbara Albert presenting her paper on cartoonist Walt Kelly.

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