Katha Pollitt is known as a good old-fashioned feminist and leftist columnist for The Nation, as well as a prize-winning poet. Her most recent collection of essays, Learning to Drive, establishes her as an affecting memoirist as well. A collection of witty reportage on the vicissitudes of a post–World War II child of left-wing parents, the book is also a reminder of a lost New York, a vanished generation, and the gentle persuasive power of memory itself. The essays, which start with Pollitt’s difficulty in learning to drive and end with a meditation on plastic surgery, describe the challenges that are the lot of an intelligent, fair-minded, politically alert woman with an inconvenient sense of the absurd. They are full of insight and charm. But more than that—and that is quite a bit; as much as readers have any right to expect from a collection of journalistic pieces—Learning to Drive is a deeply personal collection. Not because the essays deal with marriage and divorce and breast-feeding and betrayal and death, which they do, but because, in her exploration of these routine dilemmas, Pollitt’s reflections disclose an even more personal subject, the most intimate subject of all—an imagination.
Pollitt begins with a story about her driving lessons, at the age of fifty-two, after a painful breakup—a lightly brooding parable about observation. “Observation, Kahta, observation! This is your weakness,” according to Ben, her driving instructor. “That, and lining up too far away when you go to park.”
Observation is my weakness. I did not realize that my mother was a secret drinker. I did not realize that the man I lived with, my soul mate, made for me in Marxist heaven, was a dedicated philanderer….
On the contrary, of course, Katha Pollitt is an exquisite observer. But to the frustration of her driving teacher, of her ghastly Marxist boyfriend, of her parents, and in the face of every expectation, from political to maternal, her observations are inspired not by the rules of the road or the rules of the Party, but by curiosity, sensibility, and whimsy. “For example,” Pollitt writes of her problems learning to drive,
I’ll be staring at the red light, determined not to let my mind wander, and then I start wondering why red means “stop” and green means “go.” Is there some optic science behind this color scheme? Is it arbitrary? Perhaps it derives from an ancient custom, the way the distance between railroad tracks is derived from the distance between the wheels on Roman carts. I think how sad and romantic streetlights look when blurred in the rain, and how before electricity no one could experience that exact romantic sadness, because nothing could have looked like that.
It is no surprise that Pollitt doesn’t see such a visible and suggestive red light turn green. When unfamiliar underpants turn up in her clean laundry basket, her thought is not that the boyfriend is a philanderer. What she …