We’re all aware of the big fish of the literary world who died in 2018—Ursula K. Le Guin, V.S. Naipul, Philip Roth, Anthony Bourdain, Tom Wolfe, Stan Lee, Neil Simon, Harlan Ellison and Amos Oz, to name a few. Let us now praise some of the under-sung literary figures who left us. They may have lacked the name recognition of the big fish, but they made rich contributions of their own and they deserve to find new generations of readers. Here, in chronological order of their deaths, is a highly selective list of a handful of these wonders, several of whom touched my life in deeply personal ways.
Nicholas von Hoffman
While researching a nonfiction book about the 1970s, I became enamored of a now-forgotten media magazine called MORE, which was a showcase for the acidic journalism of Nicholas von Hoffman, who died on Feb. 1 at 88. The ’70s was a golden age of American journalism—and New Journalism—and von Hoffman was a sort of tarnished knight, always marching against the grain, always pissing people off, from his unlucky targets to his long-suffering bosses. He spent the 1967 Summer of Love in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, where he insisted on wearing a suit to interview hippies who were zonked out of their skulls on acid. He went on to write for newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, he wrote books and plays, even a libretto. He was famously fired by 60 Minutes during the Watergate fiasco for describing President Richard Nixon as “a dead mouse on the American family kitchen floor. The question is: Who is going to pick it up by the tail and drop it in the trash?” A question worth asking again today! Yet for all the furor he caused, von Hoffman had a refreshingly modest view of what he did for a living. “I think you’re mad if you come into journalism with the idea that you’re going to change things for the better,” he told an interviewer late in life. “I write because I enjoy it.”
Before writing a novel built around the coup in Saigon in 1963, I immersed myself in the work of a dedicated band of young war correspondents who were telling a very different story from the rosy fantasy the Pentagon and the White House were pedaling about the early progress of the Vietnam War. While doing this research, I got an unexpected gift: a magisterial book called Once Upon a Distant War: Young War Correspondents and the Early Vietnam Battles by William Prochnau, who died on March 28 at 80. Himself a war correspondent for the Seattle Times, Prochnau told the story of his colleagues who brought down the wrath of Washington—and, in some cases, the wrath of their own bosses—for daring to tell battlefield truths they were seeing with their own eyes. Prochnau’s book is a portrait of one of American journalism’s finest hours, when Malcolm Browne, Peter Arnett, David Halberstam, Horst Faas, Charles Mohr, Neil Sheehan and other courageous correspondents were sounding the earliest alarms that the American misadventure was built on lies and doomed to fail. Their prescience and courage are worth remembering today, when Donald Trump repeatedly derides the press as “the enemy of the people.” As a New York Times reviewer said of Prochnau’s masterpiece: “When all was said and done, in Mr. Prochnau’s view, blaming the journalists was simply a case of shooting the messenger.”
Bobbie Louise Hawkins
For all their wild sad dramas in the spectral American night, the Beats were, with few exceptions, a great big moveable boys’ club. One woman who kicked down the club’s door was Carolyn Cassady, who was married to Jack Kerouac’s roadmate Neal Cassady and wrote about her life. Another was Bobbie Louise Hawkins, who died May 4 at 87. From an impoverished, book-drenched Texas childhood Hawkins joined the Beats’ orbit, spinning out more than 20 books of poetry, fiction, nonfiction and monologues. In 1978, Allen Ginsberg recruited her to join the faculty of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colo., where she taught until her retirement in 2010. All along, Hawkins refused to sit in the back seat while the boys did the driving. “People are absolutely willing to let a woman be a muse,” she said, “and that has to be the worst job description in the world. Being a muse means you sit someplace and watch this other person have all the fun.” Among her other achievements was to walk away from an 18-year marriage to the venerable poet Robert Creeley, who dismissed her writerly ambitions. She claimed he tried to convince she was “too married, too old and too late” to make it as a writer on her own. “But,” she added triumphantly after the divorce and the flowering of her career, “he was wrong.”
Few writers forget their first literary agent. Elaine Markson, who died on May 21 at 87, was mine. She was the first person in New York to say she believed my writing had the potential to make money, the one thing every writer must hear if he or she is going to continue doing the work. Elaine’s belief meant the world to me—and, I have been told, to the rest of her clients. She was among the first women to own a literary agency, and she became known for promoting feminist authors, though her roster of clients was eclectic. At various times it included Grace Paley, Alice Hoffman, Angela Carter, Salman Rushdie, Peter Carey, and her husband, the experimental novelist David Markson. After Elaine’s death, Hoffman wrote on LitHub: “I was Elaine’s second client. I was a nothing kid from New York, living a hippie student life in California, but to her I was a novelist. Considering Elaine’s faith and confidence, what choice did I have? I came to believe it, too.” And so, thanks to Elaine Markson, did I.
One of the unlikeliest pairings in the history of American literature had to be the collaboration between the high-minded poet Tom Clark and the Detroit Tigers’ eccentric pitcher Mark “the Bird” Fidrych, who worked together to produce a book about the pitcher’s sensational but short-lived career called No Big Deal. Then again, maybe it wasn’t all that unlikely. Clark, who died on Aug. 18 at 77, was a serious baseball fan who once said that “the best poems and the best baseball games share a dramatic tension you can’t find in very many other places.” And Fidrych was deliciously nuts. “I’m supposed to be writing a book,” he joked to Sports Illustrated, “and I can hardly read.
But that book was a small piece of Clark’s output. He wrote two dozen books of spare unfussy poetry; biographies of several poets, including Robert Creeley (see the Bobbie Louise Hawkins obit above); a biography of Jack Kerouac. Clark was also a revered teacher, and one of his own teachers, the poet Donald Hall (who died in June of 2018), called Clark “the best student I ever had.” To round out his résumé, Clark served as poetry editor of The Paris Review and once hitchhiked across England with Allen Ginsberg. Much can be gleaned from the admonitions in three spare lines of Clark’s poetry:
Be kind to animals no matter what
Listen to the angel
Try to look upon death as a friend
At a time when nearly all network television writers were white, Thad Mumford crossed the color barrier. Mumford, who died Sept. 6 at 67, started out as a page at NBC while in college, sold jokes on the side to Johnny Carson, and went on to become an Emmy Award-winning writer and producer for shows like M*A*S*H to The Cosby Show, Sesame Street, NYPD Blue, That’s My Mama! and Maude.
Mumford was also hired to write for the ABC mini-series Roots: The Next Generation, a follow-up to Alex Haley’s blockbuster book and TV series. Mumford hoped to work with his long-time collaborator, Don Wilcox, who is white. But the producers fretted, in Mumford’s telling, that having Wilcox on staff would be seen as politically incorrect. Wilcox was willing to forego the on-screen credit and split the money, but Mumford insisted that both writers’ names appear on the credits, and wound up carrying the day. In a later interview, Wilcox called Mumford’s insistence “the bravest thing I ever saw a human being do.” Mumford had a simpler word for it. He called it “decency.”
She was born Paulette Williams in Trenton, N.J., but when she died on Oct. 27 at 70 she was universally known by her adopted Zulu moniker, Ntozake Shange. She will be remembered primarily for her incendiary, earth-shaking play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf, an astonishing performance for seven black female characters dressed in the colors of the rainbow as they deliver scorching monologues on trauma and abuse. The play started downtown before moving to the Public Theater, then Broadway, then PBS and finally became a star-studded film directed by Tyler Perry. No one who saw it will forget it; but not everyone loved it. As Shange said of the uproar surrounding the play’s original run: “I was truly dumbfounded that I was right then and there deemed the biggest threat to black men since cotton pickin’, and not all the women were in my corner, either.”
Shange was no one-hit wonder. She produced 15 plays, 19 poetry collections, six novels, five children’s books and three essay collections. While all women were not in her corner, many were. Shange became an inspiration to a new generation of female African American playwrights, including the MacArthur fellow Dominique Morisseau, the Pulitzer Prize winners Lynn Nottage and Suzan Lori-Parks, and Anna Deveare Smith, who said of Shange: “She ran her mouth… And even if people thought it was an indictment of men or an indictment of white people, what she brought with her was an incredible love of human beings.”
No list of literary obituaries would be complete without at least one songwriter. Last year it was Gregg Allman, and this year it’s Jerry Chesnut, who grew up poor in the Kentucky coal fields and went on to write songs recorded by more than 100 artists, including both Elvii—Presley and Costello. Few writers in any genre of pop music have written more bitingly about heartache than Chesnut, who died Dec. 15 at 87. But he also wrote songs about other facets of blue-collar life, including factory workers and truck drivers and a bereft soul who feeds his last dime into a jukebox.
Chesnut’s greatest song might be “A Good Year for the Roses,” a country hit for George Jones later covered by the punk star Elvis Costello. It’s told by a man watching his love pack up and leave:
I can hardly bear the sight of lipstick on the cigarettes there in the ashtray
Lyin’ cold like you left them,
But at least your lips caressed them while you packed.
Or the lip print on the half-filled cup of coffee
That you poured and didn’t drink,
At least your thought you wanted it,
That’s so much more than I can say for me.
Late in life, Chesnut admitted that he had never heard of Elvis Costello before the song appeared on his Almost Blue album. But when a $60,000 royalty check arrived from the British Isles, Chesnut allowed, “Punk rock? That may be what I am!”
Rest in peace, all of you—the big, the obscure, the brilliant and the under-sung. Through your words you will live on.