This highly selective list of literary lights that were extinguished during the past year ranges from brand names to barely-knowns. Feel free to add your own names to the list in the comments section below. Joan Didion, anyone?
While working as a newspaper reporter in Virginia in 1988, I got sent to the College of William & Mary to interview Scott Donaldson, a professor who had just published a biography of John Cheever. Donaldson spent a long afternoon telling me about how his one encounter with Cheever in the summer of 1976 blossomed into a critically acclaimed biography. The conversation wandered to other topics—F. Scott Fitzgerald’s drinking, the Cheever family’s protective attitude toward John, the impossibility of ever truly understanding another person’s life. As I wrote of Donaldson in my newspaper article: “It was his turn to do the talking, and he, like Cheever a dozen summers ago on Nantucket, had plenty to say.”
Donaldson, who died on Dec. 1, 2020 at 92 (the announcement came too late for last year’s wrap-up), also produced biographies and critical studies of Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Archibald MacLeish, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Winfield Townley Scott, and Charles Fenton. Donaldson’s book about this last subject, Death of a Rebel: The Charlie Fenton Story, led me to interview him again in 2012 for The Millions. By then, Blake Bailey had come out with his own critically acclaimed—and much darker—biography of Cheever, and Donaldson had mellowed after some sharp skirmishing with Bailey and the Cheever family. During our second interview, Donaldson shared a passage from a work in progress that became his final book, The Impossible Craft, a study of the art of writing literary biography. The passage closed with Donaldson’s clear-eyed, nearly cold-blooded assessment of his Cheever biography: “Perhaps no life ends happily, but I depicted Cheever—as I had Fitzgerald, a man he resembled in many ways—as heroic for overcoming addiction and soldiering on. In doing so, I may well have traveled from unjustified fault-finding to unwarranted praise.”
See also: The Millions Interviews Scott Donaldson
Eric Jerome Dickey
Known for his complex Black female characters and scorching sex scenes, Eric Jerome Dickey was a perennial fixture on bestseller lists before his death on Jan. 3 at 59. After dabbling in software development and stand-up comedy, Dickey fell into novel writing almost by accident. Explaining the genesis of his 1996 debut, Sister, Sister, he told his hometown newspaper, the Memphis Commercial Appeal: “I thought I was writing a short story, and it kept going… You have these characters, and you say, ‘What if, what if, what if,’ and the thing starts to grow, and it grew to 300 pages, and I was sitting there looking at it thinking, ‘Man, this is a book.’”
Dubbed a “king of chick lit” by one headline writer, Dickey said he got inside the heads of his female characters by reading women’s magazines, from Cosmo to Essence, and by using one of the oldest tools in the novelist’s kit: he listened. Then he picked up not only on what was said but what was left unsaid. And it worked. He was selling half a million books a year when his life and thriving career were cut short by cancer.
His role in getting the Pentagon Papers published in The New York Times may be his major legacy, but to me Neil Sheehan’s greatest achievement was his sweeping, devastating nonfiction book about America’s first failed war. Sixteen years in the making, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize for Sheehan, who died on Jan. 7 at 84. It’s the story of a charismatic American soldier turned adviser to South Vietnamese troops who became disillusioned with the war effort in the early 1960s and began leaking damaging truths to Sheehan and other American correspondents, truths that ran counter to the sunshine the U.S. military was peddling. That relationship with Vann was the seed for the book, which consumed Sheehan’s life as his discoveries grew darker and twistier. It turned out that Vann, who awakened Sheehan to the government’s lie about the war, was living a lie of his own. The overall effect is devastating. “It was a grim business,” Sheehan said about writing the book, before adding: “I hope it endures as a piece of history to be read again and again. All I can say in my later days, I’m deeply satisfied.”
The Indian writer Ved Mehta lost his eyesight as a child but didn’t let that deter him from writing more than two dozen volumes that included reportage (much of it published in The New Yorker), as well as forays into philosophy, theology, and linguistics, all of it capped by his 12-volume, million-word history of modern India in the form of a prolonged autobiography collectively known as Continents of Exile. Mehta, who died on Jan. 9 at 86, suffered a bout of cerebrospinal meningitis shortly before his fourth birthday, which left him blind. Yet through memory and imagination, he was able to produce vividly visual prose, which he dictated to an assistant, who then read it back to him over and over until he had polished it to a high shine. The loss of eyesight sharpened his other senses, and Mehta claimed he could tell the make of a passing car by the sound of its engine. He traveled widely, without benefit of guide dog or cane, and he said that his work was driven by a singular impulse: “To write as if I could see.”
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ed McClanahan, and Larry McMurtry
The graying ranks of the Beat generation and its psychedelicized spawn got a little thinner this year. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet, owner of San Francisco’s beloved City Lights bookstore, and author of the foundational Beat poetry collection, A Coney Island of the Mind, died on Feb. 22 at 101. He was working right to the end of his long life. On the occasion of his 100th birthday, Ferlinghetti published a cuddly little mongrel of a book called Little Boy, a fictionalized memoir about a character he called “an imaginary me.” It was a lovely valedictory to a life well-lived.
See also: Ferlinghetti at 100: An Appreciation
Ed McClanahan, a member of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters who went on to become a renowned novelist, journalist, and teacher, died on Nov. 27 at 89. McClanahan met Kesey in 1962 in a creative writing workshop at Stanford, then happily joined the LSD-fueled happenings that became fodder for Tom Wolfe’s 1968 book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. McClanahan, known as “Captain Kentucky” by his fellow Pranksters, brought the writer Robert Stone into a fold that included a writer from Texas named Larry McMurtry, who died on March 25 at 84. McMurtry, author of more than 30 novels and as many screenplays, as well as books of essays, memoir, and history, said his mission was to dismantle “the myth of the cowboy.” He did so, brilliantly, in his sprawling masterpiece, Lonesome Dove, which became a hit TV series, and in his screenplay for Brokeback Mountain, based on a short story by Annie Proulx, for which he shared an Academy Award. Many of McMurtry’s fictions transitioned successfully to the screen, including Horseman, Pass By (which became Hud, starring Paul Newman), The Last Picture Show and Terms of Endearment. McMurtry, like Ferlinghetti, also owned a bookstore—Booked Up, a collection of rare books in his native Archer City, Texas, that grew to some 400,000 volumes housed in six buildings. McMurtry’s personal library numbered about 30,000 volumes. He called it “an achievement equal to if not better than my writings themselves.”
Without getting too grand about it, Anne Beatts, who died on April 7 at 74, was a pioneer. At a time when comedy writing was dominated by men, she didn’t merely break barriers—she smashed them and then hoisted fellow female writers through the breach. Beatts got her start writing for the male-dominated The National Lampoon in the early 1970s, then got hired by Lorne Michaels in 1975 as one of the original writers for a new show called Saturday Night Live. Working in collaboration with Rosie Shuster, her most memorable creation was the geeky, lovable Nerds—Lisa Loopner (Gilda Radner) and Todd DiLaMuca (Bill Murray).
Beatts almost turned down the SNL gig because she was busy collaborating on a book with a fellow comedy writer, Deanne Stillman. That book, Titters: The First Collection of Humor by Women, was published in 1976 and led Beatts to bring Stillman along as a writer on her next project, the TV comedy series Square Pegs, about a group of high school misfits starring the then-unknown Sara Jessica Parker as Patty, a character based on Beatts’s own experience as one of the uncool kids at her Westchester County high school. As Stillman recalled for the L.A. Review of Books in 2019: “When Anne created Square Pegs, it was her policy to hire as many female writers as she could wrangle network approval for, and thus that show became the first television comedy to have mostly women writers in staff positions.” Beatts was known for writing that produced laughs wrapped around razor blades. Here, for instance, is how she described her five years at SNL: “It was a combination of summer camp and concentration camp.”
It’s a safe bet that a few hundred thousand journalists have memorized the indelible opening sentence of Janet Malcolm’s masterpiece: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” From there The Journalist and the Murderer expanded into much more than a recounting of the duplicity of bestselling author Joe McGinniss as he put together his true-crime book Fatal Vision, the story of Green Beret Capt. Jeffrey MacDonald’s conviction for murdering his pregnant wife and their two children at Fort Bragg, N.C. Specifically, Malcolm charged that McGinniss continued to profess his belief in MacDonald’s innocence long after he had become convinced of his guilt. MacDonald sued McGinniss for fraud and breach of contract, claiming the book was the opposite of what McGinniss had promised to write. (McGinniss wound up settling the case for $325,000.) The Journalist and the Murderer then became nothing less than a dissection of the journalist’s craft, with all of its subterfuge, slippery truths, moral equivocation, and ultimate ruthlessness. The book’s opening continues with this portrayal of the journalist at work: “He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”
Malcolm, who died on June 16 at 86, became famous for this merciless view of journalism, and in return there were journalists who were happy to be merciless toward her. After The New Yorker published The Journalist and the Murderer in two installments, these disgruntled writers pointed out that no mention had been made of the prolonged libel suit that grew out of Malcolm’s 1983 profile of the psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson, who claimed Malcolm had stitched together dozens of interviews and turned them into a single lunchtime monologue. Malcolm claimed that inaccurate reporting about the lawsuit turned her into “the fallen woman of journalism.” The jury concluded that Malcolm’s quotes, while flawed, were not written with reckless disregard for the truth and therefore were not libelous. But Malcolm surely would have admitted that they were laced with malice. In her book Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial, Malcolm had this to say about her chosen craft: “Human frailty continues to be the currency in which it trades. Malice remains its animating impulse.”
Eloise Greenfield and Leon Litwack
Two writers who mined the African American experience to great effect—one for popular children’s books, the other for provocative works of history—died on Aug. 5. Eloise Greenfield, 92, grew up in a Washington, D.C., housing project, where she studied piano and buried herself in the public library. She started writing books during lulls in her drudge job as a clerk in the patent office but endured years of rejection from mainstream—that is, white—publishers. She finally broke through with the 1972 picture book for children, Bubbles, which was published by Drum and Spear Press, an independent house founded by former members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Greenfield was on her way. She wound up producing more than 40 picture books, novels, poetry collections, and biographies. Through it all, Greenfield said she was guided by a simple but profound desire: “I wanted my books to enable Black children to realize how beautiful and smart they are.” But she didn’t write feel-good write fluff. Her stories drew on neighborhood drug dealers, sibling rivalries, the Great Migration, African American midwives, orphan girls, and imaginary trips to ancestral homes in Africa, and her biographies captured the lives of such luminaries as Rosa Parks and Paul Robeson. Greenfield explained her attraction to historical figures and events this way: “It is necessary for Black children to have a true knowledge of their past and present in order that they may develop an informed sense of direction for their future.”
Leon Litwack, 91, also immersed himself in African American history—specifically the Black experience of Reconstruction and its aftermath. At a time when that history was told from a largely white perspective, Litwack, the blue-collar son of Russian Jewish immigrants, took the radical step of plundering obscure archives and telling the story through the voices of the Black people who lived it. His career was launched, spectacularly, with North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860, which made the discomfiting point that racial segregation was birthed not in the post-Civil War South but in the antebellum North. His most notable book was 1979’s Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery, which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Equally powerful was his last major book, 1998’s Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow. In granular detail it delves into the survival strategies that enabled Black southerners to survive and sometimes thrive under the crushing day-to-day strictures of a separate-and-unequal world. Yet Litwack was pilloried for the very sin he spent his career trying to rectify. Writing in The Nation, the historian Nell Irvin Painter contended that Trouble in Mind portrayed “Black southerners as victims rather than Black southerners as people.” She added that the book was “stale.” In his 2005 book The Rural Face of White Supremacy: Beyond Jim Crow, Mark Schultz seconded Painter’s contention that Litwack painted the South as a region where “African Americans had for centuries been victims and rarely agents…the descendants of a long line of pawns and impotent victims, which evokes not fellow feeling but pity and condescension.” Despite such barbs, Litwack, a lover of blues music, will be remembered as a ground-breaking historian and a hugely popular professor at the University of California-Berkeley. When he gave his last lecture there in 2007, thousands of current and former students packed the hall as he strode onto the stage wearing his trademark leather jacket, the sound system blasting the Isley Brothers’ “Fight the Power.”
Melvin Van Peebles
To call Melvin Van Peebles a writer doesn’t begin to get it. Yes, he published novels (in French as well as English) and short fiction, he wrote and produced two Broadway musicals, and he wrote and performed spoken-word albums that presaged rap. But he also worked as a portrait painter in Mexico City, a navigator of a B-47 Air Force bomber, a Paris street performer, a San Francisco cable-car driver, an options trader in New York, a visual artist, a postal worker, and a much-in-demand gigolo. Somehow he found time to raise the money, write the script and the music, direct and play the lead role in the 1971 movie that gave birth to Blaxploitation: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. The movie pimp-slapped me the first time I saw it—a Black hero working in a sex show at a brothel beats up two racist white cops and flees to Mexico…lots of blood and sex and funk music…all of it driven by gleeful fury toward the white power structure. There had never been anything close to it, and Van Peebles, who died Sept. 22 at 89, dedicated it “to all the Black brothers and sisters who have had enough of The Man.” Though it opened in just two theaters, one in Detroit and the other in Atlanta, the word-of-mouth became a brush fire and the movie wound up taking in a staggering $15 million. The Black Panthers considered it “required viewing.” The NAACP loathed it. Van Peebles called it a “take-no-prisoners political manifesto,” and he was not pleased with all of its offspring, which, as he saw it, watered down the political message but kept the skin and the flash and the funk. Sweetback paved the way for generations of Black actors and directors ranging from Gordon Parks to Rudy Ray Moore, Richard Pryor, Spike Lee, Barry Jenkins, Ava DuVernay, Jordan Peele, Dominique Morisseau, and many others. After Melvin Van Peebles, the long-overdue deluge.
A friend of mine interviewed Robert Bly for a documentary in the early 1990s, when his manifesto, Iron John: A Book About Men, was on top of the bestseller lists and the “men’s movement” it helped spawn was in full flower. My friend came away from that interview with a two-word verdict on Bly: “Unbelievable gasbag.” She was not the only one who felt that way. Many people mocked the men who flocked to Bly’s sylvan retreats to form drum circles and study mythology and recite poetry in an attempt to get back in touch with their innate manliness, which, according to Bly, had been watered down by the Industrial Revolution. He declared at the time: “The primary experience of the American man is to be inadequate.” In a 2000 interview with The Paris Review, Bly defended his weekend seminars: “Men we saw took a deep interest in poetry and mythology. I thought it was beautiful. The media dismissed all this work as drumming and running in the woods, which reduced it to something ridiculous.” He added that the news media missed the importance of poetry in the gatherings. “The media doesn’t want to know that,” he said. “The media has tried to paint things differently. The most powerful opponents of men’s openness are the corporate men. Three or four years ago there were hundreds of posters in New York saying, ‘You don’t need to beat a drum or hug a tree to be a man.’ At the bottom: ‘Dewar’s Whiskey.’”
Say what you will about Iron John and the men’s movement, there’s no denying that Bly’s 50 books of poetry, nonfiction, anthologies, and translations—from the Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, German and Spanish—are fruits of a towering intelligence. His social engagement, most notably his loud and vigorous opposition to the Vietnam War, brought stinging rebukes from purists who believed poetry and politics are a poisonous pair. Bly was a co-founder of American Writers Against the Vietnam War, and when he won a National Book Award in 1968 for his second collection of poetry, The Light Around the Body, he donated the $1,000 prize to the draft resistance movement. When asked if he would spend so much time and energy protesting another Vietnam War, he replied, to his eternal credit, with one word: “Certainly.”
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.