Samuel F. Pickering Jr. was born in Nashville, attended Montgomery Bell Academy and the University of the South, and took advanced degrees at Cambridge and Princeton on his way to becoming a scholar of children’s literature. In addition to scholarly books and articles, his writing life has been built on the familiar essay, where his wit, crusty affability, and sense of wonder often tinged with mischief shine through what he calls “forthright, workaday sentences.” His topics range from wildflowers in Nova Scotia to small town gossip in Tennessee to the fusty pretensions of university life. As exercises in “gilding the mundane,” Pickering’s essays discover subtle ironies, juxtapose delight and melancholy, and wander afield but always return home.
Pickering’s allegiance is always to the essays themselves, which are often based in fact but are not slaves to it. In “Composing a Life” from his first collection, A Continuing Education (1985), he writes, “The trouble is that I’m not sure if the things I remember actually happened.” His blend of the madcap and mundane, as he says in another piece, can “thrust him against the actual.” Pickering sees truth as composite, to be picked apart by language. His books include May Days (1987), Still Life (1990), and Walkabout Year: Twelve Months in Australia (1995). His life, he says, is like his writing: “slow, relaxed, punctuated by fits of pique and occasionally lust, but all in all meandering and gently contemplative.”