“The American Man, Age Ten” by Susan Orlean (1992)

December 5, 2012 | Posted in Essays in America |

Susan Orlean: Photo by Gaspar Tringale

Susan Orlean is a celebrated voice of our time. As a journalist and author, she has captured unique American profiles through her prolific essays, articles, and novels.

Orlean is the nonfiction writer of The Orchid Thief, My Kind of Place, The Bullfighter Checks her Makeup, and Saturday Night.  Her essays have appeared in Esquire, Rolling Stone, and the Village Voice.

Orlean immerses herself in her subjects. Instead of flatly reporting facts, she includes accounts of her own experience, creating more nuanced essays. Currently, Orlean is a staffwriter for the New Yorker.

Essay’s Form

Susan Orlean’s essay, “The American Man, Age Ten,” was written for Esquire in 1992.  Originally, the editor asked Orlean to write a profile of Macauley Culkin (who appears on the cover) under the headline “The American Man, Age Ten,” but she said she would only write the piece if it was about a more typical ten year old.

Esquire Cover Dec 1992 (Source: whosdatedwho.com)

Orlean spent two weeks observing Colin Duffy, a ten-year old living in a New Jersey suburb.  Their conversations ranged in subject matter from girls, television, and Street Fighter II, to AIDS, abortion, and finances.  All of Colin’s opinions are reported by Orlean in a childish matter-of-fact flat tone which adds to the raw humor of the piece.

Orlean begins the piece by reporting on how Colin sees his eventual adulthood: an FBI career, a ranch in Wyoming, frequent visits by Morgan Freeman, hours spent shooting dogfood kibbles at girl’s butts with a slingshot.  However, the fanciful narrative becomes a critical analysis of boyhood on the cusp of adolescence.  In one section, she transcribes an entire conversation.  Orlean acts as more of an ethnographer than a reporter and includes her own experiences throughout.

Immediate Context

“The American Man, Age Ten,” was first featured in 1992’s December Issue of Esquire, whose readership is principally composed of middle-class, educated men.  Other articles featured in that issue include profiles of Moira Kelly and Madonna, book and music reviews, an essay on feminist pornography, and the usual travel, finance, and sports features common to mens’ magazines.

Subsequent Appearances

— The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup.
New York: Random House, 2001. Print

After its appearance in Esquire, “The American Man, Age Ten” was then collected in Orlean’s book The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup, a selection of her favorite profiles. In 2007, NPR host Ira Glass selected the essay for his anthology,The New Kings of Nonfiction. The essay is frequently taught in New Journalism and essay-writing classes.

Biographical Materials
— “The American Man, Age Ten.” The New Kings of Nonfiction. Ira Glass Ed. 144- 159 New York: Riverhead, 2007. Print.– Orlean, Susan. “The American Man, Age Ten.” Esquire Vol. 118.6: 115-127. Print.

Text and images: Kilby Allen.