It would be a shame if the death of the Russian novelist Vasily Aksyonov yesterday got lost in the welter of cultural losses that surrounds it. Aksyonov is one of the towering literary figures of the postwar era – one who might have been more widely recognized as such were it not for the strictures of Soviet publishing culture. In his novels The Burn, The New Sweet Style, and especially Generations of Winter (which we have championed at this site), Aksyonov synthesized the Tolstoyan legacy of the 19th Century with the innovating impulses of the revolutionary generation. In making Russian literary tradition his own, and re-opening its dialogue with the rest of world literature, he pointed the way for the novelists who would succeed him. I can think of no more fitting way to honor him than to read him.
Not having really read anything that David Halberstam wrote, I cannot write a good-faith eulogy of the man, nor engage in anything deeper than a surface discussion of his books. But because what I have read about Halberstam has painted him as a great journalistic voice of 20th century America, and because I have recently been barking about journalists and their books, it is appropriate to acknowledge Halberstam’s unfortunate death Monday with some choice words.Two aspects of Halberstam’s written work resonate with me: his war correspondence and his interest in sports, specifically baseball. Halberstam wrote an acclaimed book about America’s journey down the road to Vietnam, The Best and the Brightest. This road was built by a few American power brokers and followed by many American GIs, and though we did finally find the off-ramp, the road we are on today offers similar views of an ugly countryside for those who have not fallen asleep at the back of the bus.On a more personal level, I have a vivid memory of being a young kid sitting at the foot of my parents’ bed as my Dad read aloud from a book by David Halberstam called Summer of ’49. A book about a different sort of journey, Summer of ’49 chronicles the legendary pennant race that year between two little baseball teams: The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. The reader will learn that Joe DiMaggio had a brother, Dominick, who could play ball (though for the Sox), that Ted Williams hit like a hawk-eyed lumberjack, and that this particular race for first place was arguably the greatest in the vaunted History Of Baseball – and also represented a coming of age for the game in post-WWII America.There is something to the notion of sports as a balm for citizens suffering from war fatigue. They are soldiers abroad gathered in a tent in the desert somewhere to watch the Super Bowl on television, and they are children bypassing front page headlines in favor of the sports section, and the box scores of games that they were forbidden to watch because of woefully premature bed times. Sporting events bring people together in celebration of achievement, rather than in protest of failure, and are thus both a distraction from the duty of citizens as witnesses to history, no matter how grim, and at the same time real and not insignificant demonstrations of the values of a free society, complete with overpriced cotton candy, and (today) overpriced athletes. Athletic competition, so often couched in terms of battle when described, transcends violence. It is an elevated and, I would argue, rather sophisticated form of human interaction.David Halberstam will be recognized as a writer who occupied territory where these two cultural phenomena, sports and war – with seemingly endless parallel lines of history – could be said to intersect.
This year we lost a Nobel laureate, several Pulitzer Prize winners, many writers with wide readerships, and many more who never achieved the acclaim or the audiences they deserved. Happily for them all, their books live on.
C.D. Wright’s poetry was grounded in her native Arkansas — she called her early style “idiom Ozarkia” — but her work broke so many boundaries and wandered so freely that she belonged, in the words of the poet Joel Brouwer, “to a school of exactly one.” Wright, who died on Jan. 12 at 67, wrote that her poems were about “desire, conflict, the dearth of justice for all. About persons of small means.” Some of those persons were inmates she interviewed in Louisiana prisons, who inspired these lines:
AC or DC
You want to be Westinghoused or Edisoned
Your pick you’re the one condemned
Tennessee’s retired chair available on eBay.
In an autobiographical prose poem from 2005, Wright, a MacArthur fellow and winner of the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, wrote this of herself: “I poetry. I write it, study it, read it, edit it, publish it, teach it…Sometimes I weary of it. I could not live without it. Not in this world.”
Umberto Eco, who died on Feb. 15 at 84, was a semiotician by training, a scholar who studied signs and symbols — religious icons, clothing, words, musical scores. When he turned his hand to writing novels, Eco achieved superstar success on a global scale, never more so than with the first of his seven novels, The Name of the Rose, a yarn about murderous monks in a medieval monastery. Though it was larded with descriptions of heresies and Christian theology, it succeeded as a page-turner, a shameless whodunit that sold 10 million copies and was made into a big-budget Hollywood movie starring Sean Connery. Eco’s runaway popularity won the scorn of some critics and more than a few disgruntled academics, but he was unapologetic about wearing two hats. “I think of myself as a serious professor who, during the weekend, writes novels,” he said. In a postscript to The Name of the Rose, he added, “I wrote a novel because I had a yen to do it. I believe this is sufficient reason to set out to tell a story. Man is a storytelling animal by nature. I began writing in March of 1978, prodded by a seminal idea: I felt like poisoning a monk.”
Harper Lee, who died on Feb. 19 at 89, spent most of her long life claiming she was perfectly content being a one-hit wonder. No wonder. To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize and has been branded “America’s most beloved novel,” with more than 40 million copies in print and a permanent place on every high school reading list in the land. The love was enormous but not universal. Flannery O’Connor dismissed the novel as “a child’s book,” which strikes me as neither unkind nor unfair.
In 2015, Lee’s lawyer talked her into publishing a “lost” novel, Go Set a Watchman. Reviews were mixed, to put it kindly, and many fans were dismayed to learn that Atticus Finch did not always walk on water, that he was capable, in fact, of being a card-carrying south Alabama peckerwood racist. Of course Watchman became an instantaneous #1 bestseller, but that doesn’t dispel the fact that some books should have the decency to stay lost and die a quiet death.
When I heard that Jim Harrison had died on March 26 at 78, I immediately reread Revenge, my personal favorite of his many magnificent novellas, a form at which he had few peers. This one has it all: vivid descriptions of the twinned geographies of the natural world and the human heart, a torrid affair between a former fighter pilot and a dangerous friend’s wife, which leads to rococo violence, which leads to more violence during a long campaign for revenge. The novella runs just 96 pages, yet it contains worlds. Jim Harrison’s world was a moral place, as finely calibrated as a clock. Violence begets violence; violation demands vengeance; every act has its price, and that price must be paid.
Harrison was also a prolific novelist, essayist and poet, author of a memoir, a children’s book, and some very funny writing about food. A shaggy Falstaffian from the wilds of northern Michigan, Harrison was a man with boundless appetites for food and wine, hunting and fishing, literature and life, a man who adored antelope liver and detested skinless chicken breasts, a man who once flew to France to take part in a 37-course lunch that featured 19 wines. French readers revere him, though his American readership is smaller than it should be. No matter. Jim Harrison lived and wrote his own way, the only way — all the way to the brim.
Read: A personal account of a decades-long friendship with Harrison.
Many books have captured the physical horrors of our Vietnam misadventure, but only one captured its psychedelic, rock ‘n’ roll absurdity. That book was Dispatches, a bombshell piece of reporting by Michael Herr that appeared in 1977, nearly a decade after his tour of duty as a war correspondent for Esquire magazine, covering an unwinnable orgy of carnage the only purpose of which, as he put it, was “maintaining the equilibrium of the Dingdong by containing the ever encroaching Doodah.” Herr, who died on June 23 at 76, made no secret of his respect for what the grunts went through, or his disdain for the officers and politicians who put them through it. John le Carré called Dispatches “the best book I have ever read about men and war in our time.” A decade after it appeared, Herr co-wrote the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. He also wrote a book about his friendship with Kubrick, and a fictionalized biography of Walter Winchell. But in the last years of his life, Herr took up Buddhism and gave up writing.
Read: Our look at war books and the work Herr inspired.
James Alan McPherson
James Alan McPherson was the first black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, for his 1977 story collection Elbow Room. After attending segregated schools in his native Georgia and graduating from Harvard Law School, McPherson took a sharp detour into the writing life, earning a master of fine arts degree from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he wound up teaching from 1981 until his retirement in 2014.
Though his short stories, essays, and memoirs didn’t flinch from the evils of Jim Crow, McPherson strove to embrace the one thing he felt could possibly bestow greatness on America: its cultural diversity. An acolyte and occasional collaborator with Ralph Ellison, McPherson wrote in a 1978 essay in The Atlantic: “I believe that if one can experience its diversity, touch a variety of its people, laugh at its craziness, distill wisdom from its tragedies, and attempt to synthesize this inside oneself without going crazy, one will have earned to right to call oneself a citizen of the United States.” Speaking of the characters in his first collection of short stories, Hue and Cry, McPherson said, “Certain of these people happen to be black, and certain of them happen to be white; I have tried to keep the color part of most of them far in the background, where these things should rightly be kept.”
Read: A note on McPherson’s skill as a eulogist.
George and Martha — sad, sad, sad. It’s unlikely anyone will ever write a more acidic portrait of an American marriage than Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. After his 1959 debut, The Zoo Story, which opened in Berlin on a bill with Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, Albee went on to write some 30 plays that shone light into the darkest precincts of well-to-do lives, where the regrets and the lies and the self-deception dwell. Though Albee, who died on Sept. 16 at 88, won two Tony Awards and three Pulitzer Prizes, he was not always embraced by critics or audiences. One reviewer dismissed Virginia Woolf as “a sick play for sick people.” Its film adaptation, starring Richard Burton as George, a bitter alcoholic academic, and Liz Taylor as Martha, his bitter alcoholic wife, captured the essence of Albee’s output. He described his work this way to a New York Times interviewer in 1991: “All of my plays are about people missing the boat, closing down too young, coming to the end of their lives with regret at things not done, as opposed to things done. I find most people spend too much time living as if they’re never going to die.”
Read: A personal account of someone who got his mail from Albee (really).
With her 1982 debut novel, The Women of Brewster Place, Gloria Naylor hit the trifecta: a National Book Award, a TV adaptation by Oprah Winfrey, and a wide and devoted readership. Naylor, who died on Sept. 28 at 66, spun her best-known novel around seven African-American women, straight and gay, who live in a shabby housing project plagued by sexual predators and poverty. Naylor said she regarded those seven women “like an ebony phoenix, each in her own time and with her own season had a story.” The Women of Brewster Place won the National Book Award for a first novel in 1983. A New York native and one-time Jehovah’s Witnesses missionary, Naylor said she left the church out of frustration over its limited role for women, a break that sent her into a deep depression. Like the “ebony phoenix,” she rose and was saved by her writing.
William Trevor wrote extraordinary fiction about the most ordinary of people — mechanics, priests, and farmers who lived in small English and Irish towns. Trevor, a native of Ireland who died on Nov. 20 at 88, wrote nearly 20 novels, many of them prize-winners, but he considered his true form the short story. Few would argue. “I’m a short story writer who writes novels when he can’t get them into short stories,” he said, adding, “I’m very interested in the sadness of fate, the things that just happen to people.” Like the evening a lovelorn Irish mechanic named Cahal, in the short story “The Dressmaker’s Child,” is driving a pair of Spanish lovers back from a visit to a bogus religious pilgrimage site — and the girl of the story’s title hurls herself at the passing car. Cahal is tortured by uncertainty over what happened to the girl and what will happen to him — until the dressmaker offers him a twisted form of absolution. Things just happen to people, and suddenly their ordinary predicaments are transformed into something startling and new.
Read: Lionel Shriver on reading Trevor.
And let’s not forget these notables, in alphabetical order:
Anita Brookner, 87, was an accomplished art historian when she started writing novels in her 50s, many of them about women mired in gloom. Her fourth novel, 1984’s Hotel du Lac, won the Booker Prize.
Read: A detailed exploration of of Brookner’s considerable charms.
David Budbill, 76, worked out of a remote cabin in rural Vermont for more than 40 years, writing stripped-down poems about the Vermont mountains and the “invisible” people who live there, in all their beauty and ugliness. A workmanlike writer who detested artsy pretension, Budbill was once asked about the source of his inspiration. “I don’t know where it comes from,” he replied, “and I don’t care.”
Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, 74, was the author of an autobiography, but he’ll be remembered as the brash mayor who breathed new life into his tired old hometown of Providence, Rhode Island — only to be undone by some nasty habits. He assaulted a romantic rival with a fireplace log, an ashtray, and a lit cigarette, which cost him his job as mayor. After serving a suspended sentence and winning re-election, Cianci was convicted of racketeering for accepting envelopes of cash in return for city jobs. After serving a federal prison sentence, he made a third run for the mayor’s office in 2015, but lost. His autobiography was called Politics and Pasta.
Read: A personal account of meeting Cianci.
Pat Conroy, 70, may have written his share of prose dripping with Spanish moss and Low Country hokum, but he attracted an army of devoted readers. he son of an abusive Marine fighter pilot, Conroy turned the horrors of his childhood into the novel The Great Santini, then followed it with The Lords of Discipline and The Prince of Tides, all made into hit Hollywood movies, all gobbled up by his fans. Asked to describe his son’s readers, the ever-charming Donald Conroy said, “That’s easy: psychiatrists, homosexuals, extreme liberals and women.” He forgot to add: and lots of them.
Read: Conroy’s reaction to having his books banned.
Warren Hinckle, 77, was the swashbuckling, hard-drinking editor of Ramparts and other magazines who railed against the Vietnam War, published Che Guevara’s diaries and Eldridge Cleaver’s letters from prison, and helped birth gonzo journalism by publishing Hunter S. Thompson’s seminal article “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” along with Ralph Steadman’s volcanic drawings. American journalism was changed forever.
Thom Jones, 71, was a recovering alcoholic working as a high school janitor when he mailed a short story called “The Pugilist at Rest” to The New Yorker. The magazine published the story in 1991, and it won the O. Henry Prize for best short story. It was a stunning beginning to a career of writing semi-autobiographical stories about soldiers, boxers, janitors, crime victims — “people,” as Jones put it, “you don’t want living next door to you.”
Read: A Year in Reading on Jones.
Imre Kertész, 86, survived internment at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, then spent years writing semi-autobiographical novels about the Holocaust and its aftermath. The books, remarkable for their lack of sensationalism, languished in obscurity until 2002, when Kertesz became the only Hungarian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Read: A Year in Reading on Kertész.
Florence King, 80, was one of the last of a breed that is all but extinct: the misanthropic curmudgeon. In columns for the conservative National Review and several books, most notably Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady, King skewered liberalism, feminism, and anything that smelled remotely of political correctness. Nobody could possibly agree with all of her opinions, but just about everybody admired her ability to lacerate and enrage, which, after all, is what misanthropic curmudgeons are supposed to do. She once wrote: “Feminists will not be satisfied until every abortion is performed by a gay black doctor under an endangered tree on a reservation for handicapped Indians.” Wow.
Read: A detailed look at King’s work and life.
W.P. Kinsella, 81, wrote 30 books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, much of it infused with his intertwined love for magic realism and the game of baseball. His best known book is the novel Shoeless Joe, which was made into the 1989 movie Field of Dreams, in which Kevin Costner plays an Iowa farmer who carves a baseball diamond into his cornfield to attract Shoeless Joe Jackson and the rest of the disgraced Chicago “Black Sox” back from the grave. One viewer dismissed the movie as “Field of Corn,” but it produced a line that lives on: “If you build it, he will come.”
Read: A piece on the great writers of baseball.
Image Credit: Public Domain Pictures.
I still remember with hallucinatory precision reading Barry Hannah’s Ray while laying out on my futon in my graduate school hovel in Charlottesville, Virginia. I was a southern transplant having moved from the north to the south when I was ten. I had a love/hate relationship with the place. None of the then popular southern writers moved me much—Lee Smith, Clyde Edgerton, Jill McCorkle—all romanticized the South and its characters. Hannah, on the other hand, hadn’t gotten the memo about the folksy-soft-glow south; instead he drove full throttle into the taboos of the messed up region, taking on the Jesus-obsessed nuts, the macho lunatics still hurting from the loss of the Civil War, the racial friction, and the lush almost mystical landscape.
Ray, the main character of the book of the same name, was familiar to me. He was a drunken doctor, a poet, an adulterer, a bigot, a deeply charming and unconventional man. The sentences in the book inspired me, reminding me of another hero, Jane Bowles. From the first few words you could not tell where the rest of the sentence might careen. “So I ordered a double Vodka to hose down my conscience” and “I invent cheerfulness from my heart, the biggest engine.” I quickly read more: the masterful Geronimo Rex about a factory owner’s son and his friendship with an African American marching-band leader and the mind-blowing stories in Airships. Ray, though, remained my favorite. Thoughout graduate school I dove continuously into its pages. Hannah was direct about the erotic sphere, a subject I was also trying to take on. “She was a violent delight. For about an hour we went into the beautiful nowhere together.” He was also honest about the derailing effects of that desire. “Ray, the filthy call of random sex is a killer. It kills all you know of the benevolent order of your new life.” The high low jam-up, the economy of language and the eccentric, incandescent phrasing: “To live and delight in healing, flying, fucking. Here are the men and women.” It all convinced me that if the power ever went off I could use the book to electrify my entire house.
Flash forward eight years, my novel Suicide Blonde had recently come out and while it was getting good reviews, The New Yorker had not liked it. I tried to let that sink in. The New Yorker, the magazine I’d read since I was a teenager, willing myself into its pages on a weekly basis. The New Yorker, that Mount Olympus of the Literary World, had in its pages a cartoon caricature of me! The article, which was also a send up of my charismatic publisher, Morgan Entrekin, critiqued something I’d also been worried about, my novels grim fixation on sex. At first I cried and then spent days roaming around my apartment, pulling books off the shelf, only to convince myself that everything I read was better then anything I’d ever compose.
My phone rang into this atmosphere of despondency and a voice, friendly and southern, asked for me. Barry introduced himself. “I wanted to call and say you wrote an honest book.” He went on to tell me that The New Yorker article had made him angry. “You should be proud of yourself,” he said, “you told the truth.” My heart was beating so loudly in my ears, I could only say, Thank you. Thank you so much.
After that I was like his dog. I wrote to him expressing my adoration for his writing and telling him about myself, that I was a minister’s daughter and a new mother. He wrote to me asking for a “marginally southern story” for the then new magazine Oxford American. “As you know the south is a wide tremendous nation with big fingers in NYC.” As we corresponded I heard about his daily life, his love of tennis. “Trying to get back to my career as a minor tennis hero.” He had a weekly game with a graduate student. “He’s young but I’m old and crafty. I have to win points fast because of my awful Marlboro habit.” In one letter he asked for payment for an essay he’d written for an anthology Rick Moody and I were editing. “I want to start around the square soon with my roll of 100’s spread around to impress certain women who have been ignoring me. Starting with my wife, who’s studying French at night and does not light up like a candle when I enter the room.” When I complained about the business of writing he concurred. “Don’t feel alone. It’s the times, the viciously commercial times—very hard on writers of all sorts.”
Barry entreated me to get “living tissue on the page.” He told me voice was about “finding your own past, your people and the conditions you’ve observed close to you, valuable.” He explained how first person was not about interior intellectual exposition, but a point of view where “you could be more interested in the fool.” Finally, whenever I complained about the difficulty of our profession, he’d remind me that we’d given ourselves to writing without any promises. That there was something “thrilling about risking your whole self for something with no guarantee.”
His letters weren’t always strictly supportive. When I sent him the manuscript for my third book, Jesus Saves, he was honest about his reservations. He liked the mood of the book, the tone and the voice, but “there were many rough patches of prose.” He went on to say, “I do not speak from smug superiority in any way—I’m not above anything myself. I am capable still of huge blunders.” He asked to see a smoother version and, thanks to his honesty, I was able to made the book better.
In 1998 Barry called me again, this time to offer me the Grisham Fellowship at the University of Mississippi. The day I arrived with my three-year-old daughter, Abbie, at the lovely sprawling house the college provided across the street from William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak, Barry drove up in his pickup truck with four stray dogs yapping in the back. In person, he was a round-faced, handsome, and deeply charming man. Our meetings around town thrilled me. Once as I walked into Ajax, a restaurant on the square, for lunch, Barry, who was sitting at a table eating an oyster po’boy and reading the new Phillip Roth novel, yelled out “Steinke! It’s a literary scene. It only takes two of us in Mississippi.” We met for lunch regularly, though it was the chance encounters I remember most. Once I was carrying a Hendrix CD I’d just bought from the local record store, when I ran into Barry. “Hendrix,” he said, “its like the blues with a helicopter in it.”
I also learned the local lore about him. Though sober for years, stories about his drinking days were a staple of Oxford’s oral tradition. How, wearing only a speedo and dark glasses, he’d spend his Saturdays spread out on a lawn chair in his back yard drinking from a tray of martinis and blasting the Stones on his tape player. After each drink was done, he’d throw the glass, shattering it against the trashcan. One story had him, during a drunken night, knocking on doors with the excuse that he was diabetic and needed a ham sandwich for his blood sugar, from second story Square balconies he’d hook passerby’s hats with a fishing line, and then there was the legendary speech he gave at the SPCA on the importance of unifying the cat people and the dog people.
Before I left to go back to Brooklyn, Barry took me to lunch at City Grocery on the downtown square one last time. He was going to give a lecture at the Bennington Summer Workshop about “Oxford Writers.” He dressed up for the lunch in a white sport coat and read off questions he’d written about my novels in a little notebook. I floated up, filled with absolute joy. One of his observations about the theme of motherlessness in my books, remains for me, the most valuable thing ever said about my work.
That lunch was the last time I saw Barry in full and vibrant health. When I went down for a party for him in 2000, he looked thin and pale. His Lymphoma, first diagnosed in 1999, had worsened. “I’ve fallen behind the pack,” he told me. In 2002 though, he’d gained enough strength to come to the New School in New York City, where I taught, to read from his new novel, Yonder Stands Your Orphan. The room was packed with New School and Columbia graduate students as well as the local literati: Wells Tower, Ben Marcus, Amy Hemple, and Barry’s old editor Gordon Lish, who during the questions and answers yelled out repeatedly, I Love You Barry!
After the reading, though, Barry had what he later called “an attack of a bad envious low key god on my person,” and checked himself into an uptown hospital. By the time I got to his room the next day, flowers in hand, he’d broken out of the place and flown back to Mississippi.
Later that year while visiting Oxford, I tried to see Barry, who was again in the hospital. The nurse told me he was too sick for visitors. A few weeks later, back in Brooklyn, I got a letter. He called me an angel for “attempting to visit my corpse when I was so desperately ill.” He went on to tell me that Christ had appeared to him. This was not as surprising as it sounds. We’d both come from religious backgrounds and had, at times, been able to share the more mystical details of our spiritual life. Christ was “both in my room and immortal as promised. This world is a beautiful thing to me now, friend,” he wrote, “and I want it to be for you too.”
Image: Joey Lauren Adams
When I heard he’d died in the spring of 2010, just a few days before the Festival of the Book meant to celebrate him, I flew down to Mississippi immediately. The event became a sort of extended wake, with panels of his high school friends and former students. There were many Grisham Fellows, myself included, that spoke of Barry’s generosity of spirit, his wit, his kick-ass phrasing. Lisa and Richard Howorth, owners of the local bookstore Square Books, and close friends of Barry’s, had a reception after the memorial service. We carried tea lights down to the nearby cemetery, stopping at William Faulkner’s tombstone to place a bumper sticker on the granite that read I’d Rather Be Reading Airships. We stood under a white tent beside the fresh mound of dirt covered with flowers. People told stories; Lisa said how Barry had called her a “closeted nice person,” another how in a faculty meeting after a professor had given details of his new literary theory class, Barry suggested the class be called “The End of Joy.” A former student told how if Barry felt your workshop story wasn’t up to snuff he’d sometimes skip over it entirely. “For God’s sake,” he’d say, “try and do better next time.”
I was too sad and thrilled to speak. My hero was dead, a writer who accomplished with Ray, along with his other books, what I still hoped to do, presenting the messed up and lovely world in raw and nimble prose, never flinching from the ugly, acknowledging joy, being honest about the tug toward God. “I think of rising in the Phantom at dawn and the dawn intense—orange, yellow, violet, blue-black—the day very present because it could be the day of your death.”
We mourners finally laid our candles among the flowers. The high wizard of language was dead. A man who had transformed his brokenness, rage, and grief into stories as moving and powerful, to me, as those in the Old Testament, a man who’d offered me kindness, creative instruction, and in his own way, spiritual advice. I remembered what he’d written at the end of the letter where he’d told me he’d seen Christ, words that I copied and keep on an index card in my wallet. “Your prose gets more elegant. Please maintain this my dear. It’s the only way out of the present trash except Christ himself. I know this.”
The recent death of Tillie Olsen (1912-2007) reminds us that the value of a piece of literature is not quantifiable – not by word count, not by books sold – but, rather, resides in a black box between writer and reader, in a transaction that defies easy explanation. Olsen’s writing was not prodigal – she only published one complete book of fiction – but was, in its artistry and its impact, prodigious.Tell Me a Riddle (1961), a collection of four stories, drew on activist sensibilities forged in the 1920s and 30s and on Olsen’s innate poetic gifts. It consciously reclaimed the lives of minorities, of immigrants, of working-class people, and, especially, of women, as worthy of fictional examination. In so doing, it anticipated much of the finest literature published since.It seems that Olsen was as inspiring in person as she was on the page. Her great-nephew Matt Osypowski, himself a fiction writer, recently told The Millions:I started a novel (unfinished) in her apartment when I was eight or nine years old. Something about her presence made me want to do what she did, to master the language in the way that she had. She would send me the most beautiful birthday cards – short notes of pure music. Her partner, Jack, was deeply involved in labor politics in San Francisco, as was my grandfather. Their work was steeped in conflict, ideology, and mass movements… There was a beautiful contrast between their work and Tillie’s, the big picture on their end and on hers all the small pictures that make the big picture matter. Her work can make me so sad, but it’s never an impotent sadness – beneath it lie all her hopes for a better world, hopes that she wrote for, fought for, and helped all of us in the family share and understand.Another fond remembrance, by John Leonard, is posted at The Nation (via The Mumpsimus).