Those Who Left Us: Literary Obits of 2021

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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?
Scott Donaldson
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.
Neil Sheehan
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.”
Ved Mehta
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.”
Anne Beatts
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.”
Janet Malcolm
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.
Robert Bly
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.

The Anti-Adventures of Gary Paulsen

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If Gary Paulsen taught readers one lesson, it was to always carry a hatchet into the woods.  But if he taught us a second lesson, it was to occasionally pack a notebook, too.

Paulsen, who died Oct. 13, 2021, is best remembered for his 1986 Newberry Honor-winning young adult adventure book, Hatchet, whose lead character—13-year-old Brian Robeson—taught a generation of city kids like me that if we kept our wits about us, and held our hatchets close, we might just survive in the wild.

Thankfully, most of us never had to test the accuracy of that lesson.  Especially me, whose every encounter with a can opener ended in stitches.  I knew I was no match for a bear, or a porcupine, or a moose.  And I knew, too, that in my incapable hands, a hatchet was more of a liability than a lifeline.

Yet for reluctant readers, Hatchet was a lifeline.  Even my least literary friends burned through its pages faster than a fire kindled by Brian Robeson himself.  The book went on to sell more than 4.5 million copies, prompting Paulsen to write four additional books featuring Brian’s trials in the wilderness.  By book five, I began to wonder: how much trouble can one kid get into in the woods?

Hatchet fans didn’t care.  Suspension of disbelief was a small price to pay for a few more adventures with Brian.

Meanwhile, I spent my adolescence admiring Gary Paulsen’s far humbler hero—14-year-old Wil Newton, the main character in Paulsen’s 1988 book The Island.  If you’ve never heard of The Island, you’re hardly alone.  While Kirkus Reviews bestowed Hatchet with a coveted starred review, hailing it as “a winner,” the kindest remark Kirkus could muster for the The Island was that it would “appeal most to the unusual reader.”

At Wil Newton’s age, I was that unusual reader, preferring The Island to Hatchet because I preferred Wil to Brian Robeson.  While Brian’s plight centered on a singular purpose—survival—Wil was navigating something that defied back cover copy.  When he and his family move to a former logging town in Wisconsin, Wil begins embarking upon daily pilgrimages to an uninhabited island just a few miles outside of town, spending his days—and eventually his nights—studying nature’s rhythms, and writing and sketching in his notebook.

While Brian Robeson remains in constant conflict with nature, Wil Newton seeks out harmony within it, recalibrating his life by way of his self-imposed solitude on the island.  According to the book flap, Wil is “trying to see through the kernel of clear truth hidden in the cluttered world around him.”

Which was a far cry from what Hatchet readers had come to expect.

Those who’d reveled in Brian’s MacGyver-like resourcefulness were puzzled by Wil’s quiet, introspective journey.  Thirty-three years after The Island’s publication, I can still hear the echo of some exasperated editor whose pleading margin note surely read: Maybe add a few more bears?

While Gary Paulsen penned dozens of adventure books (many of which found homes within the Brian’s Saga series, and the Mr. Tucket Saga series, and a series aptly titled World of Adventure), it’s his more understated, “anti-adventure” works that continue to resonate with readers like me.  Books like The Island, of course, but also The Haymeadow, The Monument, The Winter Room, and The Voyage of the Frog.  Each of these relies upon young characters tiptoeing toward the existential, confronting life and death and the natural world in a manner with more universal implications than some of Paulsen’s more rip-roaring adventures.

While Hatchet provided readers with some much-needed escapism, The Island centered its focus on what we can never escape—mortality, which, in the immediate aftermath of Paulsen’s passing, now takes on new significance.

In the spring of 1999, shortly after the release of Brian’s Return—the fourth book in the Brian’s Saga series—I shared a brief encounter with Gary Paulsen at a bookstore where I’d later work.  At some point during our 30 second conversation, I made mention of how much I’d enjoyed The Island, and how it had spoken to me.  Paulsen halted his autographing pen, our eyes momentarily locked.

“Is that right?” he asked.  “Well, I’m glad to hear that.”

A few decades later, when I was nearly twice Wil Newton’s age, I, too, moved to a former logging town in Wisconsin.  With a population of 60,000, my town was far larger than Wil’s, though it shared similarities—namely, an island not far from my home.  By that point in my life, I was too old to pull off any adolescent-inspired journeys of self-discovery, though that hardly kept me from trying.

That August, when the river was low, I buckled into a life jacket and made the 50-or-so-yard swim to the island’s shoreline.  While Wil’s island was a true example of untouched wilderness, mine came complete with a strand of telephone lines and the Highway 12 bridge humming with not-so-distant traffic.  Still, I ventured deep into that island’s shadowy interior, where all traces of human presence (a few busted beer bottles and shards of a porcelain plate) soon gave way to something wilder: water ripples, frogs, and the occasional great blue heron.  That afternoon, I studied flowers and rubbed tree bark to dust in my hands.  I made careful note of the various textures of rocks and touched muck and nearly strained my ears trying to hear silence.

There were no bear sightings that day, though that was probably for the best.

After all, I’d forgotten my hatchet.

But I remembered my notebook.

Nightcap with Gian


This is a story I now wish I could revisit in more precise detail, the way I’d read work on the written page. We were not really friends, and he did not publish me; I never sent any writing his way. I doubt he’d have recognized me years later and to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have recognized him either, despite our having been in the same room more than once since this happened. I have heard his name a lot in more recent times. Spoken of like an anchor amid the storm of literary ambition, or to put it more clearly, a pivot around which a great lot turns. I met Gian only once, though, circa 2012. It was with some finance guys a couple of years older than me who I used to go drinking with (round after round on them), among whose number was a friend in common. I remember the beatific energy, and his eyes, that hilarious mercurial shine, the way he leaned in to share an opinion. It was late, a vast, posh, nearly empty space in TriBeCa, all copper and dark glass, our final destination of the night. Since almost nobody else was there, we eventually left our booth and were perched at the bar. He didn’t say that he was a publisher or an editor, only that some of his own writing could be found here and there, like in Vice, really being modest about himself, while I plumped up about, you know, whatever I believed my accomplishments were at the time. I probably at some point mentioned James Franco. He talked up A Confederacy of Dunces, and Firework by Eugene Marten, which I had to read because I’d love it, he told me. I texted “Eugene Martin Firecracker” to myself. He asked whether I was working on a novel manuscript in a way that suggested I had no excuse not to be working on a novel manuscript. But I want it to be perfect, I believe I probably said: you know that feeling—of wanting something to be perfect? Doesn’t have to be, I believe he answered, laughing: Have you seen the kind of shit they publish? I had no understanding he was someone who could have published me himself; we were speaking only as avid believers in the art of fiction. I was truly, thoroughly soused, and another four or so rounds were ordered after his arrival, none of which I paid for—the kind of night into which you grow more intensely present for the knowledge of what you and your cohort are doing to your bodies, while at the same time your awareness starts going swimmy at the edges, slipperier and more unsteady, a state preceding the obliteration of consciousness. Even in your proximity to another human being, the force and style of increasing candor—my God how eloquently you are now finally saying all the things you really mean!—recognition dawns that you will soon start to forget, are already forgetting, for example, what just happened. What did just happen? In the end it was him and me. What I do most definitely recall is Gian ordering another round—I might have just as well told him not to, however many sheets to the wind I was, but didn’t want to be rude. I remember watching as he leaned over the leatherette check presenter, penning his signature. Then, when I looked again, after taking another slug of scotch, his own drink was sitting there to my right, on the corner of the bar, just barely touched. And he was gone. I initially had the thought that he’d ducked into the bathroom and would be back. I continued to nurse my drink. The bartender asked, “Is he coming back?” I said that I didn’t know, maybe not. Eventually the drink, which had started to spin like a barrel over a waterfall, was cleared. A friend I’ve told this story to called it an “Irish goodbye,” but it seems to me to go beyond that… More lavish somehow, and prompting a different set of thoughts in the aftermath. What kind of a goodbye is that? I remember how the fact of his mostly full drink on the dark bar made his absence feel provisional, as if the drink itself, unconsumed, were a commentary on what all we’d just been rapping about. I remember how my attention clung to it, attempting to will my surroundings into a steadiness that my swimming consciousness refused. Absence as a precondition of the power of literary fiction was a favorite topic of mine back then. Maybe it had come up along the way. More certain is that he punctuated his gesture of magnanimity by disappearing, whether deliberately or on the spur-of-the-moment, I can’t say. Through the next morning’s hangover I went on Twitter, where I’d only recently started an account (30 followers), and found my erstwhile interlocutor: Giancarlo DiTrapano, publisher of Tyrant Books (probably about 7,000 followers at that point). Honestly can’t remember exactly whether I followed him, then unfollowed a week later when he didn’t follow back, or if I was just too cowed to show myself, fellow of grand literary ambition, as a fringe character with tweets of little to no traction. Either way, how totally ridiculous. The main feeling I took from that night, as pieced together over the course of the following day? I actually had better finally write a novel manuscript if I was going to continue calling myself a fiction writer. This, to be able to, if not impress someone like Gian, then, at least, hold my own in that kind of company. If you take a look at what he published at Tyrant, with Atticus Lish’s novel probably being the most well-known among several other darkly glimmering titles, you’ll see his taste was pretty pronounced: granular gritty evocation of states of sexual and drug-induced derangement that skirt up against titanic emptiness, with a major emphasis on authenticity. You couldn’t doubt when reading these texts that the authors had experienced something very much like the extremity of what is described. He lived hard himself, and published work that reflected his own openness to experience, and while I wouldn’t say we need more like him—because, honestly, who could be just like him?—we definitely do need more generous readers with the courage of conviction in their own taste, who believe in books and are willing to stand up for those convictions, which he was, and did, in spades. Who know, as Gian did, that artistic integrity is tough to maintain without opposition to the reigning pieties.
I initially started writing the above for myself after reading news of Gian’s passing during the week of April 4. When I thought I had something coherent (what’s above), I shared it with a few friends: “A sweet story,” one wrote. “Seems like a classic Gian evening,” voiced another. I went ahead and read the remembrances in the Paris Review Daily and at the Believer, which being mostly by those who knew him far better than I did, offer a fuller portrait of who he was. I also read, in its entirety, the text chain from the course of a single year that Tao Lin and Gian shared on Vice, a thread whose general tenor is probably recognizable to many of us who have lived in New York City for any significant amount of time (what’s happening tonight?, when are you going to get there?, what’s the crowd like?), if not necessarily in canny specifics (jokes about their shared dealer, habitual invocations of the word “sweet”). Later that week I finally followed the link to Gian’s story from the now-defunct lit site Pindeldyboz, preserved for posterity with all the ballyhoo of the trunkless legs of Ozymandias. Fortunately, for a writer, all that matters are the words on the tablet, and with “The Rumor That Reached West Virginia” Giancarlo DiTrapano seems to have boiled the essence of his being down to around a thousand keenly ordered parts, fiction that registers as stingingly fresh today as it probably did the moment he decided his work on the piece was complete, and shifted focus to ushering into being other writers’ aspirations. “The Rumor…” reads like an ars poetica almost, vivid in both language and arc. ‘Content’ is the word that some use now for literary work and much of anything else, the suggestion being that all writers are doing is supplying chocolate dollops on a never-ceasing conveyor belt—and not, like, the essence of themselves—something it might be remotely possible to get right in one go. “I want to be able to say, ‘I’ve had my vision,’” seems like the kind of thing I might have said, quoting Virginia Woolf’s Lily Briscoe, mid-drunken monologue, on my night at the bar with Gian, the kind of thing he might have cheered on my saying. As he did for me that night, he was willing to make himself available to young or up-and-coming writers, to show himself as a human being, the polar opposite of a corporate functionary.

Part of the humor, I imagine, of publishing a piece as cheekily mind-melting and potentially shaming as a year’s worth of text messages, is knowing that when you did shatter the clock with that one flash fiction piece, every word seared in a defining passion, you then woke the next day to find… well, the heads along the way might have proven savvy to what you did. Generally speaking, though? The world goes on as before, apparently none the wiser. I know there is some question of what will happen with Tyrant Books; if there’s any justice in the literary realm, always a disputed notion, to be sure, “The Rumor That Reached West Virginia” will find its way between two covers, on the printed page, perhaps in a book that contains both Gian’s own work, and remembrances of him by the writers he championed at Tyrant, a form of collective legacy-making.
All of us who aspire to create art have our muses. Alongside those guiding spirits, in a kind of dialectic, are the actual gatekeepers, those who say yes and no. I think, for some reason—maybe because located next door to KGB Bar, where a memorial for Giancarlo DiTrapano was held on Friday, April 16, is the New York Theatre Workshop that debuted Hadestown here—of Orpheus and Eurydice. Who bring to mind Persephone and ol’ Hades himself. Would Gian have hated being compared to the King of the Underworld? Hoping not. Like all the great publishers, he probably knew it was best to be a little bit muse and gatekeeper.

On the entrance floor, those who made the trip to KGB Bar that evening left flowers—bunches of roses, single stems, a cluster of lilacs—around a circle of votary candles, at the center of which other personal offerings were arranged with care. Above the candles’ gently wavering glow and attached to the closed grate of the downstairs theater (the pandemic still hovering) stood a large printed image of Gian: affectless, in a dark t-shirt, and with cigarette poised by his side, a lamppost’s light glaring through the night sky. Almost seeming to dare the viewer not to make such a big deal. Saturnine grace acknowledging the brokenness of things, without sentimentality or posturing. Yet those who made his acquaintance for almost any period of time will recall that he also laughed. That he joked. That some shit was too fucking hilarious not to. Running over the top of the picture, another printed banner, larger even than what was below, of a tweet from winter of 2014: “it’s ok to say no, it’s okay to say fuck you, and it’s okay to say goodbye.” Gian’s choice to abridge the first ‘okay,’ no doubt made in abeyance to Twitter’s then 140-character limit, now all but sacramental. Friends and admirers paused before the shrine to pay respects, some weeping. For others, it seemed, it was all they could bear to spend a moment there, then head back outside, red-eyed, for a cigarette and a walk off into the awaiting evening.

Upstairs, in the third floor Red Room at least, where the overflow crowd found itself, things were weirdly—if not exactly normal—then the most casually familiar they have been, for me anyway, in a good long while. This, despite the current of sadness underlying most all that was said. Perhaps disconcertingly, conversations picked up, in some cases, almost exactly where they left off in December of 2019.

Late in the day, as light faded outside the open window, the writer Kaitlin Phillips spoke briefly before editor Jonathan Smith read a statement from Gian’s husband in Italy, Giuseppe Avallone: a remembrance of a chance first meeting involving a missed subway stop, followed by a statement of intent concerning the preservation of the legacy of Tyrant Books.

From our grouping over by the window, someone observed a guy in a gray sport-coat and loafers who had just walked in the door at a good distance from where we stood. Gian almost definitely had no friends who fit that guy’s description, the observer suggested.

“The night I hung out with him, we were on the town with a group of finance guys,” I volunteered.

“Finance guys?”

I nodded.

“Finance, really?”

We all of us speak our truth against that which would subsume us.

Death is, naturally, the cosmic Big Gulp awaiting if not all of humanity—will Peter Thiel’s consciousness live on, in a container somewhere, on a rocket out past Pluto, in centuries to come?—then for the vast majority of us. Against that encroachment on our lives, for some time now, there have been those who answer the calling to commit words to the page. Behold, all those in the grip of metempsychosis! Yes, finance guys rule the epicurean sandbox of the city, lords of pleasure and forgetting, while increasingly corporatized, risk-averse book publishers carry on at least the facsimile, if not always the spirit, of the rogue gatekeepers who founded the houses whose names they still carry. All these efforts geared toward resisting the seemingly unbreakable monopsony whose name we all know. Hey, don’t get me wrong—the ground beneath us all is shifting; the ground beneath us all is always shifting. Great books still make their way through the channel. It is not, after all, a science. Big money, as it always does, runs off in myriad directions, some more and some less worthy: angel investing, film production, economy-of-scale driven apps, crowd-funded performance spaces, drugs (that old staple), activism, festivals, presidential campaigns. All I’m saying, really, if legacy still matters—and given the prospect of rising ocean water, there are no doubt those who would scoff at the presumption of claiming it does—is a body could do a lot worse, in 47-too-brief years, than to found a publishing house to champion works of art on the page. All I’m saying, really, is the editor and publisher of Tyrant Books, by every indication, took a lot of love with him when he went.

Thanks for the drink, Gian.

Image Credit: Pixabay

Those Who Left Us: Select Literary Obits From 2020


Strange. In a year when more than 330,000 Americans died from Covid-19, just one person on this highly selective list of literary obituaries is known to have died after contracting the novel coronavirus. Maybe that’s not so strange. This was, after all, the year when everything stopped making sense.

Mary Higgins Clark must have done something right. She didn’t publish her first novel until she was in her forties, but every one of her 57 mysteries after that became a bestseller, selling a total of more than 100 million copies before she died on Jan. 31 at 92. Like other brand-name authors who dominate the best-seller lists (Steel, Patterson, King, Grisham, Roberts, Child), Clark found what worked for her, then stuck with it. In her case, she set out to answer the question: “What happens after bad things happen to good people (usually women)?” It worked so well that in 1988 she became the first American writer to sign an eight-figure deal — a $10.1 million, multi-book contract. She sometimes collaborated with her daughter, Carol Higgins Clark, and she amassed a fortune that afforded her luxuries few novelists ever experience outside their imaginations, including Cadillacs, jewelry, and homes in Manhattan, New Jersey, Cape Cod, and Florida. Though her fans venerated her, few critics confused her books with literature. She could not possibly have cared less. “Let others decide whether or not I’m a good writer,” this Bronx-born daughter of Irish immigrants said in a 2017 video. “I know I’m a good Irish story-teller.”

A quartet of venerable editors died this year — a woman and three men I have come to think of as The Fantastic Four of the Blue-Pencil Set. Alice Mayhew, who died Feb. 4 at 87, got her start by editing 1974’s All the President’s Men by the Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the chronicle of their investigation of the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up; 55 days after the book was published, President Richard Nixon resigned. That book birthed a genre that might be called Inside-the-Beltway Lit, and Mayhew went on to edit bestsellers by scores of D.C.-centric writers, including Jimmy Carter, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Kitty Kelley, Frances Fitzgerald, John Dean, and Richard Reeves (who also died this year, see below). The aptly named Robert Loomis loomed over American publishing for half a century, a reign that put him in a league with the legendary editor Maxwell Perkins. In his long career, Loomis, who died April 19 at 93, edited Maya Angelou, William Styron, Shelby Foote, Pete Dexter, and Neil Sheehan, among many others. Sheehan, whose nonfiction book, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, described Loomis’s approach to editing to the New York Times: “He would help me to understand what he would have done, and then do it his way to make it a better book. That book would not be the book it is without Bob.” Harold Evans, the most recognizable name among the four, died Sept. 23 at 92, after a two-act run that began with a distinguished newspaper career in London and then crossed the Atlantic for a second act that included stints as president and publisher of Random House, magazine editor, and writer of histories and a best-selling memoir — all the while leading a glittery social life with his wife, Tina Brown. And Fred Hills, who died Nov. 7 at 85, edited more than 50 New York Times bestsellers that ranged from the shamelessly commercial to the loftily literary, by writers as different as Jane Fonda, Raymond Carver, Phil Donahue, and David Halberstam. But it was a Russian émigré who most impressed Hills. After working with Vladimir Nabokov on his last completed novel, Look at the Harlequins!, Hills said: “Having worked with many other writers, I still believe that Nabokov was the most dazzling of them all.” These four editors lived an average of just under 90 years, which surely says something about the salutary effects of spending your life trying to improve the writing of others.

Roger Kahn was a member of a small tribe who took sports writing to a new level. The tribe counted Ring Lardner, A.J. Liebling, Bernard Malamud, Roger Angell, Joyce Carol Oates, Norman Mailer, and Gay Talese as members, and Kahn, who died Feb. 4 at 92, merited membership for The Boys of Summer, a classic that mined his Brooklyn boyhood and his time covering the Brooklyn Dodgers for the New York Herald Tribune in the early 1950s. The book, one of some two dozen Kahn wrote, ranged far beyond the baseball diamond to offer meditations on civil rights, fathers and sons, teamwork, and the curveball thrown to all of us by heartbreak. And Kahn knew heartbreak. He, like millions of his fellow baseball-obsessed Brooklynites, never recovered after the Dodgers decamped for Los Angeles in 1958.

Charles Portis died Feb. 17 at 86 in an Arkansas hospice, quietly, out of view, without fanfare — the same way he chose to live. One of the most reclusive, original, and flat-out hilarious writers ever produced by America, Portis is best known for his novel True Grit—which was adapted for the screen and resulted in the only Academy Award of John Wayne’s career, then was remade in 2010 by the Coen brothers, with Jeff Bridges in the outsize role of the one-eyed U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn. Portis’s other four novels have won a zealous fan base that shades toward a cult, but his journalism, travel writing, memoirs, and drama were shamefully neglected until Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany appeared in 2012, lovingly curated and introduced by Jay Jennings. It was an overdue reminder that Portis was, first and last, a brilliant reporter with a laser eye, an unerring ear, and an ability to turn anyone and anything into grist for his delightfully skewed take on life. That grist included dump hotels, country singers, civil rights activists, Civil War veterans, Ku Kluxers, road trips, and Elvis’s mama. Jennings, in his introduction to the miscellany, notes that Portis’s strengths were evident in his very earliest writings: “unpretentious diction, an expert ear for the spoken word, deep knowledge worn lightly, stoic acceptance of trying circumstances, skill with internal combustion engines.” And, I would add, the rare ability to make readers laugh until it hurts.

Grace Edwards published her first novel at the age of 55, then waited another decade to publish If I Should Die, which introduced Mali Anderson, a female cop turned sociologist and amateur sleuth, a stylish black woman who’s better at guiding readers around her beloved Harlem than she is at solving crimes. No matter. Edwards, who died Feb. 25 at 87, knew the hood, as witnessed by this passage from the first of her six Mali Anderson novels: “The women and the old men gathered for comfort where folks were known to do the most talking: The women drifted into Tootsie’s Twist ‘n’ Snap Beauty Saloon, where the air was thick with gossip and fried Dixie peach. The men congregated in Bubba’s Barber Shop to listen to orators, smooth as water-washed pebbles, alter history with mile-long lies.” The woman knew how to write.

One week after Edwards’s death, a kindred soul named Barbara Neely died at 78. A former social activist, Neely turned to writing fiction in her fifties and had an instant hit with Blanche on the Lam, the first of four mysteries starring Blanche White, a heavyset, dark-skinned black maid who solves a murder while working for a wealthy white family. Blanche had enough mother-wit to turn her liability — her invisibility — into an advantage, and she also knew the score far better than her employers did: “For all the chatelaine fantasies of some of the women for whom she worked, she really was her own boss, and her clients knew it. She ordered her employers’ lives, not the other way around.” Neely was named the 2020 Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America.

Richard Reeves never achieved the fame of Alice Mayhew’s best-selling authors, but he produced an impressive body of reportage and commentary, plus biographies of presidents and other lesser scoundrels during a long and lustrous career that ended with his death on March 24 at 83. To his credit, Reeves wasn’t afraid of tackling second-rate subjects, which he proved with his witty and insightful — and surprisingly gentle — biography of our 38th president, A Ford, Not a Lincoln. A syndicated columnist and PBS regular, Reeves ranked George W. Bush on a par with three presidents who were forgettable, execrable, or both: James Buchanan, Warren Harding, and Richard Nixon. But Reeves saved his frothiest bile for the lame duck now waddling around the White House, calling Donald Trump “a hyperactive kid who’s lived in a bubble for his whole life,” then adding: “The irony that people who voted for him think he relates to their lives — yeah, he’s been above their lives a hundred thousand feet in his private jet flying over Youngstown.”

Christopher Dickey made his name as a globe-trotting war correspondent, wrote nonfiction books about expats, the Civil War, and the New York Police Department, and finally, for good measure, produced a couple of novels. But the book that gut-punched me was his 1998 memoir, Summer of Deliverance, which chronicles his tortured coming to terms with his father, the impossible James Dickey. As I read the book, I kept thinking, “And I thought my father was a monster!” Both men were alcoholics, egomaniacs, and philanderers, but James Dickey, unlike my father, possessed a prodigious literary gift, which brought fame and fortune to Dickey and misery to everyone in his orbit. Given all that, Summer of Deliverance is a surprisingly equable book. Christopher Dickey, who died July 16 at 68, never stoops to whining and never wraps himself in the shroud of the victim so common among today’s memoirists. The book, almost miraculously, winds up being a begrudged homage to a deeply flawed man, a hard-won reconciliation, a laying to rest of a lifetime of grievance. In short, a triumph. “Chris was weirdly objective about his dad,” says Malcolm Jones, who worked with Dickey at Newsweek and more recently at The Daily Beast. “He could talk about the monster stuff, but he didn’t go on about it. And he seemed to genuinely like the work. I think he was really proud of his dad’s writing.” I hope he was at least as proud of his own.

Like the Abstract Expressionists, the Beats were almost exclusively a boys’ club. One of the most dazzling of the female gate crashers was the poet Diane di Prima, who ranged far beyond the Beat movement and produced some 50 books before her death on Oct. 25 at 86. Her career opened with the poetry collection This Kind of Bird Flies Backward in 1958, two years after Allen Ginsberg rattled the world with Howl. Di Prima soon became a supernova in the hothouse of Greenwich Village, an avatar of the Beats’ urge to burst out of the beige Eisenhower conformity that was supposedly coating the land. In 1961, The Floating Bear, a literary magazine she published with her lover LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka), was seized for obscene content. Eight years later, after the Beat movement had played out and di Prima had decamped to San Francisco, she showed that she wasn’t above cashing in on her adventures in the freewheeling late-’50s, early-’60s counterculture. Her novelistic Memoirs of a Beatnik was commissioned by the French publisher Maurice Girodias, who kept scrawling “MORE SEX!” on the manuscript and sending it back to di Prima for revisions. She obliged. The book was revered as a rare account of a free-spirited woman navigating a subculture dominated by men. Di Prima proceeded to leave that subculture in her dust. “I don’t mind that people use the Beat label,” she told a newspaper reporter in 2000. “It’s just that it’s very much of one time, a long time ago.”

Jan Morris will probably be best remembered for Conundrum, her 1974 account of her gender transition. Fair enough. Conundrum was a shocker when it was published, and it still bristles with insights that speak to our gender blurry times. But Morris, who died Nov. 20 at 94, was much more than a gifted memoirist. She was a travel writer in a class of her own — and, not incidentally, an accomplished historian, biographer, and novelist. She roamed the world, diving into local history, architecture and street life wherever she went, bringing people and places to pungent life on the page. Her best-known travel writing is about obvious glamorous spots, including Manhattan, Venice, Hong Kong and Oxford. But to her credit she said her personal favorite was Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, a loving portrait of the overlooked Italian port on the Adriatic. Here is a writer who roamed the world, looking everywhere for that most elusive of places: nowhere.

Chuck Yeager will be forever known as the first man to break the sound barrier, but he also wrote a best-selling autobiography in 1985 (with the help of Leo Janos). And he was the beating heart of Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book about the elite cowboy test pilots — those swaggering possessors of the right stuff — who were being overshadowed by cool technicians known as astronauts in America’s space race against the Russians. Yeager shot down five German planes in one day during World War II, a total of 13 overall, and he was, in Wolfe’s telling, “the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff.” (He was played in the movie adaptation by Sam Shepard, then at the peak of his heartthrob phase.) But as his memoir revealed, Yeager bristled at the suggestion that he and his fellow test pilots possessed some gift from the gods. “All I know is I worked my tail off learning to learn how to fly, and worked hard at it all the way,” he wrote. “If there is such a thing as the right stuff in piloting, then it is experience. The secret to my success was that somehow I always managed to live to fly another day.” Yeager also punctured the myth that possession of the so-called right stuff rendered a man fearless in the face of death. “I was always afraid of dying,” he wrote. “Always.”

My introduction to John le Carré came when I was a teenager, soon after his third novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, had turned the former British spy into an international literary sensation. Having already made the acquaintance of James Bond, I picked up the novel expecting a hero who drove flashy cars, bedded countless women and swilled bone-dry Martinis. Instead, le Carré, who died Dec. 12 at 89, took me deep into a world of moral murk, duplicity, and tragedy—where nothing is what it seems and good people can be made to serve bad causes, and vice versa. The novel’s hero is no James Bond; he’s Alec Leamas, a worn-out spy at the end of his string who is coldly manipulated by his own handlers. What a revelation! Le Carré taught me that, in the right hands, even the tawdriest genre can be made to rise to the level of art.

Barry Lopez died on Christmas Day at 75 after a half-century producing a long shelf of fiction, nonfiction, and essays that strove to reconnect human beings to the miraculous natural world we inhabit. A fool’s errand, perhaps, but Lopez won the 1986 nonfiction National Book Award for Arctic Dreams, his account of five years spent with indigenous Inuit people in a world of lunar barrenness; a frigid, forbidding world that offered its own special magic; a place where “airplanes track icebergs the size of Cleveland and polar bears fly down out of the stars.” In Of Wolves and Men, Lopez sought to set the record straight on an animal that had been demonized for centuries. As part of his research, he raised a wolf pup.

And let’s not forget (in alphabetical order): Stanley Crouch, a member of a dying breed in our kid-glove literary world: the hard-punching iconoclast. Crouch, who died at 74, was a former Black Nationalist who championed jazz and didn’t hesitate to attack such black icons as Toni Morrison, gangsta rap, Louis Farrakhan, Rev. Al Sharpton, Alex Haley, and even post-1960s Miles Davis. Crouch considered himself a “radical pragmatist” on a mission to move “beyond the decoy of race.” In a syndicated newspaper column, criticism, fiction, and biography, he stepped on an unknowable number of toes while striving to remain true to his intellectual lodestars: Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Albert Murray.

New York City lost two of its greatest street-level journalists with the deaths of dogged Jim Dwyer at 63 and venerable Pete Hamill at 85.

Shirley Ann Grau’s best-known novel, The Keepers of the House, is the story of a wealthy white widower who has a 30-relationship with his black housekeeper, which produces three children. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1965 at the peak of the civil rights movement, and its taboo subject matter stoked the fury of the local Ku Klux Klan, which burned a cross on Grau’s front lawn. Grau, who died at 91, dismissed the episode as a “Groucho Marx” stunt. Her other five novels and four short story collections, redolent of the weathers and ways of her native Deep South and every bit as unflinching as Keepers, also explored the collisions of that potent quartet: race, class, power, and love.

Poor Winston Groom, who died at 77, was no one-trick pony — he published eight novels, plus histories and biographies, and was a finalist for a nonfiction Pulitzer Prize — but he will be forever locked into the pigeonhole as “the man who wrote Forrest Gump.” The man deserves way better.

Allison Lurie, on the other hand, was acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic for her 10 novels, plus short story collections and essays that meticulously dissected the amorous follies of smart people who have mastered the art of self-destruction. Lurie, who died at 94, won comparisons to Jane Austen and Henry James and also won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1984 novel Foreign Affairs. Along the way, unlike Groom, she managed to dodge all pigeonholes.

Michael McClure, who died at 87, was present at the beginning: the poetry reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco on Oct. 7, 1955 that has become enshrined as the Beat movement’s blastoff. McClure, who went on to a long career as a poet, playwright, lyricist, and novelist, later wrote of that night: “We had gone beyond a point of no return… None of us wanted to go back to the gray, chill, militaristic silence, to the intellective void — to the land without poetry — to the spiritual drabness.”

Terrence McNally wrote three dozen plays as well as the books for 10 musicals, librettos for operas, and screenplays for movies and TV during a five-decade career that mapped gay America’s journey from the closet to the mainstream. McNally, who won four Tony Awards, died at 81 from complications of the coronavirus.

Maybe the literary world’s cruelest loss in this cruelest of years was Anthony Veasna So, a son of Cambodian immigrants who died at 28, just months before the publication of his highly anticipated debut story collection, Afterparties. When he died, So was working on a novel called Straight Through Cambotown. One of his last pieces of published writing was his posthumous entry in The Millions’s Year in Reading wrap-up earlier this month. In it, So wrote about the futility of reading books in an effort to locate his own novel’s voice, structure and ancestors: “I realized how hopeless it was to locate heirs for my stoner novel about queer Khmer Americans. Might as well be my own daddy.” Wise words from a promising talent gone too soon.

Image credit: Pexels/Markus Winkler.

Those Who Left Us: Select Literary Obituaries of 2019

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Death didn’t discriminate in 2019—it took down the acclaimed, the obscure, and a little bit of everything in between.

Here, in more or less chronological order, is a highly selective list of literary lights that were extinguished in the past year.

The Giants

Someone needs to buy a granite mountain and get out the chisels and jackhammers and start carving a monument to the three literary giants who left us this year: the decorated poet laureate W.S. Merwin, on March 15 at 91; the beloved Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, on Aug. 5 at 88; and the empyrean critic Harold Bloom, on Oct. 14 at 89. This monument will put Mount Rushmore in the shade.

The Two-Bit Publisher

Elizabeth Norah Jones was born in 1919 in India, where her British father worked as an agent in the lucrative opium trade. After marrying an American named Ian Ballantine and changing her name to Betty, she sailed with her husband from London to New York in 1939 to escape the looming war and undertake a daring mission: to establish an American beachhead of Penguin books, the British publisher that had hit upon the novel idea of reprinting quality literature between paper covers at the irresistible price of 25 cents.

Betty Ballantine, who died on Feb. 12 at 99, faced daunting challenges. There were just 1,500 bookstores in America at the time, so Betty and Ian started displaying their books—by H.G. Wells, P.G. Wodehouse and other British writers—in drugstores, newsstands, train stations, and department stores. In 1952, when the Ballantines opened their own eponymous line of both original and reprinted paperbacks, Betty demonstrated that she was no genre snob. She scoured the pulps for promising science fiction stories and worked to turn their authors into novelists, among them Samuel R. Delany, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury. She also published fantasy, westerns, mysteries, even romance. The Ballantines democratized literature by literally bringing it to the streets. Writing in 1989, on the 50th anniversary of their arrival in New York, Betty wrote that Ian and she were “the only surviving father and mother of the paperback revolution.”

The Biographer

Edmund Morris has posthumously published another magisterial biography. His Edison belongs on the same shelf with his three-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt, the first of which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Edison, published five months after Morris died on May 24 at 78, opens with the great inventor’s death in 1931—an event of national importance—and it then moves backward in time to his birth in Milan, Ohio, in 1847. This narrative ploy is jarring at first, but eventually it coheres, unlike Morris’s decision to inject a fictional character named Edmund Morris into his nonfiction book Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan. That book got mixed reviews, including charges that it was “dishonorable” and “bizarre” and “a loony hodgepodge.” Morris, who got a $3 million advance, was unfazed. He claimed he was not a historian and was less interested in politics and government than in “character, narrative, the strangeness of reality.” And in Ronald Reagan he might have found his ideal subject. “He was,” Morris said, “truly one of the strangest men who ever lived.”

The Queen of Poolside Reading

Judith Krantz understood that people will buy your books by the tens of millions, no matter how they’re written, as long as they’re packed with those most seductive and timeless of human pursuits: money, sex, and shopping. Known as the Queen of Poolside Reading, Krantz, who died on June 22 at 91, reigned atop the bestseller lists for two decades, beginning with Scruples in 1978. I was an apprentice writer at the time, and I read the novel in the hopes of understanding what it takes to send a book to the top of The New York Times bestseller list. The answer was in the opening paragraphs: money. The titular boutique is described as “the world’s most lavish specialty store, a virtual club for the floating principality of the very, very rich and the truly famous.” The floating rich? I thought the very, very rich traveled in private Leer jets. Scruples was nestled on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, “the most staggering display of luxury in the whole world.”

In a single sentence, Krantz mentions the fashion houses of Saint Laurent, Lanvin, Nina Ricci, Balmain, Givenchy, and Chanel. I had never heard of Balmain, but I remember being impressed by the brazenness of Krantz’s brand name-dropping. And then, of course, there was the sex. Here’s our heroine seducing her pilot after he has taken her aloft so she can scatter her late husband’s ashes: “Now her lips and tongue were working together around the almost erect penis, which, though fairly short, was thick, as sturdily built as the rest of him. As he grew thick and then thicker still, she shifted her mouth slightly and worked only the swelling tip, treating it with strong, unfaltering suction, while the fingers of bother her hands now slid up and down his wet, straining shaft.” After taking a cold shower, I realized I had learned an invaluable lesson. Though I had no interest in reading or writing such prose, I had genuine admiration for someone who could pull it off without a hint of apology or shame. Krantz claimed she wrote “Horatio Alger stories for women.” I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that she sold more than 85 million books and made many millions of dollars. You can’t take it with you, but during her long productive life Judith Krantz raked in a whole lot of it by sticking to an unbeatable formula: She gave her readers exactly what they wanted.

The Immigrants’ Daughter

Paule Marshall was born and raised in Brooklyn by parents who had emigrated from Barbados. Throughout her five novels and various short story collections and novellas, Marshall used the rhythms of West Indian speech to paint pictures of resolute black women who had tasted loss but refused to become acquainted with defeat. Her breakout novel was 1959’s Brown Girl, Brownstones, about a couple from Barbados living in a Brooklyn brownstone that is riven by a conflict: As told by their daughter Selina, “a ten-year-old girl with scuffed legs and a body as straggly as the clothes she wore,” the mother dreams of buying the brownstone, while the father dreams of returning home to Barbados. The pungent, richly atmospheric novel was championed by Langston Hughes and was, in the words of the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature, “the beginning of contemporary African-American women’s writings.”

Paule (the “e” was silent) Marshall, who died on Aug. 12 at 90, said that her life as a writer began at her family’s kitchen table. She came to regard the West Indian women who gathered around that table as poets. These women spent their days scrubbing floors to earn “a few raw-mouth pennies,” and they had come to understand that language was their only weapon in America, a forbidding place they called “this man world.” As in: “In this man world, you got to take yuh mouth and make a gun!” Language was also therapy, a refuge, a homeland, an outlet for their rumbustious creative energy. To be pregnant was to be “tumbling big,” which inspired: “Guess who I butt up on in the market the other day tumbling big again!” The young girl doing her homework in the corner drank in every word, and a writer was born.

“They taught me my first lessons in the narrative art,” Marshall wrote in The New York Times in 1983. “They trained my ear.” She also noted that other early influences included Austen, Thackeray, Fielding, and Dickens—and then, belatedly, Paul Laurence Dunbar, whose poetry and fiction taught her that her own experience, including the stories told by those strong women at her family’s kitchen table, could become the stuff of literature. When Brown Girl was reissued in 1983, Darryl Pinckney wrote in an introduction: “Paule Marshall does not let the black women in her fiction lose.”

The Bartender’s Son

There are three things I remember about the day in 2000 when I interviewed Nick Tosches at his go-to lunch spot, the celebrity hangout Da Silvano restaurant in Greenwich Village. The first was his black fedora, the second was the cloud of cigarette that seemed to wreath his head for hours, and the third was what happened when the magazine magnate S.I. Newhouse passed our table. Tosches said, “Hi, Si, how’s it going?” To which Newhouse replied, “Not bad, Nick. You?” I was stunned—this slash-and-burn writer, this street-rat son of a Newark bartender, was on a first-name basis with power and money!

Just as memorable about that day was Tosches’s excited talk about the novel he was working on, which would become 2002’s In the Hand of Dante. Tosches, who died on Oct. 20 at 69, predicted that the novel was going to be his “big book,” the one that would overshadow his celebrated rock ’n’ roll journalism and his bestselling biographies of Dean Martin and Jerry Lee Lewis. I enjoyed the book, but I’ll let the critics judge if he was right. Eventually that day at Da Silvano, Tosches and I got around to talking about the thing I had come there to talk about: his weird little new book, The Devil and Sonny Liston, which was not quite a biography, not quite a memoir, more a riff on the journey of a man who came from nowhere, rose to the pinnacle of the boxing world, then crashed and abruptly returned to oblivion. The story of the man who dethroned Liston, Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali), did not interest a writer with Tosches’s deliciously skewed sensibilities. Sonny Liston’s life, on the other hand, was Tosches’s idea of the perfect parable about the killing cost of fame in America. Like everything else he produced, it was a book only Nick Tosches could have written.

The Sharecroppers’ Son

Ernest J. Gaines, the son of Louisiana sharecroppers, will be best remembered for creating a 110-year-old black character named Jane Pittman who was born a slave on a Louisiana plantation and lived long enough to fight for civil rights in the 1960s. Gaines’s 1971 novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, was a critical hit, a bestseller, and fodder for a TV movie starring Cicely Tyson that won nine Emmy Awards. The novel, told in Jane Pittman’s distinctive vernacular, is an act of ventriloquism in a league with Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, and anything Mark Twain ever wrote. Gaines, who died on Nov. 5 at 86, followed his breakthrough with A Gathering of Old Men and A Lesson Before Dying. Gaines was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Bill Clinton and the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama, and in 1993 he received a MacArthur “genius” grant. Quite a journey for someone who grew up on the River Lake Plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish, La., where he attended school five months of the year because he had to spend the other seven months working.

The Pit Bull

Stephen Dixon came to fiction writing after studying international relations and dentistry, but once he found his voice, there was no stopping him. In prose that was “knotty” and “challenging”—these are words used by his devoted fans—Dixon poured out 18 novels and some 600 stories, pounding away on a portable typewriter like a pit bull on steroids. His subjects included random spasms of violence in suburbia, a drive-by shooting on an interstate highway, a bar owner’s battle against corrupt garbage collectors—in short, the undertow of unease in modern urban life. Two of his novels, Frog and Interstate, were finalists for the National Book Award, but his writing never sold well. His paragraphs had no desire to end, sometimes running for pages, veering from marital bickering to tender depictions of friendship, love, and the writing life, and many of his stories entertain possible alternate futures. His most memorable creation may have been his compulsively randy alter-ego, the writer Gould Bookbinder, whose overheated libido inspires one of his seduction targets to tell him: “You’re not only a big schmo, but a pathetic jerk.” A complicated, fascinating, pathetic jerk.

Dixon taught at Johns Hopkins University for many years, where he gave his students a copy of his guide to pitching stories to magazines, which included dozens of publications, the names of editors, rates, and insider tips on what to try to sell them. As one of his students, David Dudley, put it: “Dixon seemed to approach the whole Art of Fiction thing with a refreshing absence of pretense; writing was more like steam-fitting or hanging drywall, a craft performed by hand, every day, until you got halfway good at it and could get paid.” Stephen Dixon, who died on Nov. 6 at 83, understood that writing was work, it was a job, it was something you do every day because you have to do it and because it’s worth doing and it’s worth doing well as you possibly can.

The Polymath

Clive James succeeded in marrying that oddest of couples: erudition and television. James, who died Nov. 24 at 80, was a polymath who wrote novels, poems, memoirs, translations, song lyrics, journalism, and criticism. He seemed to be interested in everything, from Dante to tango to Formula One racing. He was a serious writer—and wit—who became a television star in England, where he settled after leaving his native Australia. He called his television column in The Observer “the real backbone of my career as a writer,” and its popularity—along with his ubiquitous appearances on the small screen—probably lowered critical opinion of the rest of his writing. Life can be as unfair as death. As if to rehabilitate his reputation as a serious critic, James published Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts in 2007, an alphabetical compendium of everyone he considered worth knowing in the 20th century. A giddy, wide-ranging mash-up of high and low, the book was 40 years in the making, and it’s a delight to read. Here’s how James described his approach: “The writer represents all the expressive people to whom he has ever paid attention, even if he disapproved of what they expressed.” Thus he gives us sparkling sketches of Adolf Hitler and Margaret Thatcher, as well as Albert Camus and Dick Cavett (the closest any American has come to being a Clive James), W.C. Fields and Gustave Flaubert. How did Tacitus make the cut? Don’t ask, just enjoy. Who ever decreed that food that’s good for you brain shouldn’t be fun to read?

James has been called a comic public intellectual, but he had the mashed face of a pub brawler or, as he put it, a bank robber who forgot to take the stocking off his head. Looks can be a blessing in disguise. With James, as with all writers, the work is all that matters. And this polymath’s work was built on solid rock. As he was dying from leukemia and emphysema, he said that if a plaque were ever erected in his honor, he would like it to read: He loved the written word, and told the young.

The Sidekick

This last one is personal. Keith Botsford, a versatile man of letters who was a friend and collaborator of Saul Bellow’s, died in London the summer before last, on Aug. 19, 2018, at 90. His death went largely unnoticed until this past summer, when The New York Times obituary desk was updating a prepared obituary of Botsford and learned, belatedly, of his death. I was the writer of that advance obituary, and it ran in The Times on June 14 of this year, nearly 10 months after Botsford’s death. It was the delayed realization of a lifelong dream for me—to publish an obituary in The New York Times.

The obituary noted that Botsford met Bellow when both were teaching at Bard College in the early 1950s. At a cocktail party one night, Botsford, then a budding novelist in his mid-20s, looked across the room and saw a colleague in distress. “It was Saul Bellow, and he was pinned against the wall by a dreadful man from Winnipeg,” Botsford told me when I interviewed him by phone for the obituary. “I had just read The Adventures of Augie March, so I walked up and started talking to him.”

A friendship blossomed, and the two men wound up collaborating on several literary magazines, including The Noble Savage, ANON, and News From the Republic of Letters. Bellow, who died in 2005 at 89, called this last effort “a tabloid for literates,” and he described himself and Botsford as “a pair of utopian codgers who feel we have a duty to literature.”

In his long life, Botsford wore many hats—novelist, essayist, journalist, biographer, memoirist, teacher and translator. He was also a composer of chamber works, choral music, and a ballet, and was fluent in half a dozen languages. He said he helped Bellow write his acceptance speech when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976. “We had an intellectual love for each other,” Botsford said of his long-time friend. “He liked to call me his sidekick. I found the title perfectly honorable.” I get the feeling that after living such a long, rich life, Keith Botsford died a happy man.

I Know He Enjoyed Your Calls


In early March of 2019, I spoke with my friend Frank on the phone for only the second time in months. He had recently moved into a senior center in Maryland, and he was depressed. His younger daughter had died of cancer. I had written, called, and left messages for him, not realizing how restricted communications can be with someone in a senior facility when you’re not related. Access is often limited.
It was the longest I’d gone without seeing or talking with Frank for more than five years.
That day he called. It was after dinner on a Saturday. He was trying to get better, he said. He was focused on it. “I wanted to call because I consider you like family,” he said. “I told my daughter if something should happen to me—”
I started to interrupt. But he was firm: “Face it, I’m 92 years old.”
He told me a story. He said one of the staff at Greenfield Senior Living had found “the book” in Frank’s room. By the book, he meant my book, Cork Wars, which had just come out, about Frank and a few others during World War II. Frank had been keeping his copy to himself—he didn’t want to draw attention. “But Trish found it and asked if she could read it,” he said. “She was surprised” that he was in a book.
Later, Trish told him she and another staffer wanted to read the book aloud to all the residents over a few days. Frank grudgingly let her. But he wanted to curate it: He marked the chapters that related to him and said those were the ones they should read. Of course it felt good to hear him say this. Besides massaging my author’s pride, it told me Frank was feeling better.
First Interview
It was November 2013 when I first visited Frank at his home in east Baltimore. I was just going to scout a potential source for my book about corporate espionage in WWII, immigrants, and the different ways families got entangled in war, from the factory floor to the CEO suite. I wanted to interview Frank about the company where he had worked, Crown Cork and Seal, and what he’d seen during WWII.
I walked up to the front door of the bungalow on suburban 47th Street, a blue-collar neighborhood. I gave even odds that we wouldn’t click at all. When I called Frank to set up the interview, what struck me was his voice: cement poured through a coarse sieve, a fibrous Baltimore baritone with grit and street. Which is how he sounded when he welcomed me inside his house. I imagined myself through his eyes: a privileged, college-educated guy who hadn’t had to work as hard as he had. But he invited me to have a seat in an overstuffed chair and we talked. We meandered around several topics, and in that first conversation I wasn’t sure if he was providing much I could use in my writing.
One of my early questions, about his first factory job as a drill operator at a war factory, immediately made him defensive. I asked how old he had been. “I was working with a permit,” he said. “I was 15 years old.”
He handed me a slim folder documenting the milestones of his career at Crown Cork and his pay history. “Look through it and tell me what you want to know,” he said. “I don’t want to get you all confused.”
Invasion of Privacy
I got a little confused about timelines when Frank spoke, but his story felt important to the story I wanted to tell. I wasn’t sure how, at first, but over the course of more than a dozen conversations, we focused on his teenage years during the war, growing up in an Italian-American family, and being part of the war effort. We’d sit in the two living room chairs facing the front door, and he’d give me an hour or so of his time.
My questions got more personal: How was it when he had to leave high school to get a job after his father died? How did it feel getting drafted when his three older brothers were already in the army? I asked where his father was buried, and how his mother responded when she was left to take care of the family.
We talked about Frank’s fears of shipping out to the Pacific. How did he feel, landing in the Philippines? What did he think then about the impending invasion of Japan? What did he see, coming back to unemployment in America? How did he propose to his girlfriend? How much did they spend on the wedding?
These conversations happened a couple years after my father died. So besides gathering string for my work-in-progress, I was asking questions I couldn’t ask my father. I enjoyed talking with someone from that generation. Frank was almost 90, almost my father’s age.
The Words That Bind
There’s a long tradition of interview relationships. Truman Capote famously befriended Perry Smith in prison and used that rapport to craft the most chilling details of In Cold Blood. “I thought he was a very nice gentleman,” Smith told Capote about Herb Clutter. “Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.”
At the other end of the emotional spectrum is Mitch Albom, who already knew the man whose conversations would become Tuesdays with Morrie (first a memoir, then a film, then Broadway!). Morrie Schwartz had been Albom’s sociology professor. Albom framed the book as his last class, a one-person tutorial on the meaning of life. “The son of poor Russian immigrants, Morrie was blessed with a crescent smile that crinkled his eyes and made everyone feel like family,” Albom wrote after seeing him again. These visits yielded dialogue but also caregiving lessons as Albom accompanied Morrie to the toilet and pounded his back at the direction of a physical therapist to loosen congestion. But Albom’s journey was into his own emotional core. From a college grad who mocked Schwartz’s sentiment, their conversations moved the author to epitomize that sentimentality, ending with a vision of his departed friend amid “stars and moons and planets, I see him dancing in the sky.”
Polymaths Eileen Myles and Jill Soloway engaged in a double fantasy version when they interviewed each other after—or rather, during—the dissolution of their relationship. Myles’s memoir Afterglow was in bookstores when they appeared together at the Hammer Museum in October 2016. To watch the video is to witness a fascinating performance of disclosure. Soloway frames the conversation: “We have things in our relationship that we haven’t quite worked out yet. And we thought we’d just process our relationship onstage here for you guys,” she says, adding, “We want to invite audience participation throughout.”
“We met very much like this. We met onstage,” Myles observes. “Being in each other’s work is a funny kind of exposure for a relationship.” Later Soloway’s 2018 memoir, She Wants It, talked more about Myles and the relationship.
I had no intention of complications as I returned again and again to visit Frank. I had a book to write and was simply grateful he made time to talk. I was also interviewing two other families about their experiences of life during wartime.
Escalator to the Galleys
Frank and I talked about ways to change our routine: going to the racetrack with his Pimlico group, or heading out for lunch at one of his favorites. But his schedule was as jammed as mine. He and his friends in the Pimlico group already had a regular outing. By the weekend, sitting and talking in his living room was usually his preferred option.
I would get there in the afternoon, having gone through my notes of our previous talk and identified gaps I meant to flesh out. The Eastern Avenue exit from the highway just after the tunnel, past the harbor, became a familiar turn.
Over time, Frank shared more personal memories and frustrations. He recalled the indignities of government suspicion of Italian Americans, and officials taking away his father’s shortwave radio as a security risk. He wrestled with how difficult it was to express some things from that time.
“How can I instill that I have seen death, that I’ve seen poverty, that I’ve seen sadness, that I’ve seen people that, if you have any compassion, it would break your heart?” he asks. “How do I relate that to someone who didn’t see it?”
His tangents added a dimension to my book. I realized it was important to include more about the wartime restrictions on immigrant families from different backgrounds labeled “enemy aliens.”
The book finally came together and I sent the manuscript to my editor, but I kept finding reasons to visit Frank. Did he still have the letters he and Irma exchanged during the war when he was in the Pacific? Did he have photos of the two of them during those years? And what did his grandson do for the Patent Office anyway?
This was how our relationship shifted: through Frank’s endless patience with my questions and through his sense of being heard. Finally in late 2017, I had a printout of the chapters that involved him, and brought the sheaf of pages for him to peruse.
That time, he made me lunch. Gnocchi with red sauce—he pulled out the jar, so I’d know what to look for when I wanted to make it myself. We enjoyed it at his kitchen table, and he sent some home for my wife. Frank’s independence at 91 staggered me. He was still driving himself around, volunteering at his local delegate’s office, and handling calls from constituents.
I was conscious of the transition in our exchanges from informant to writer to something else. The book launch was a few months away. Frank said he would join some events including one at the Baltimore Museum of Industry.
He was facing the annoyances of age. But then one hit him from out of the blue: His younger daughter got a cancer diagnosis. She was fighting it, and he was visiting her every week.
In April 2018, I called him several times and left a voicemail after his cheeky prompt (“You’ve reached the voicemail of Frankie Dee. Please leave a message.”). Unusually for him, I didn’t hear back. So that weekend I went to check on him. It was a glorious spring afternoon and I walked up to his door and rang the bell. I waited. Eventually the next-door neighbor came out and told me that Frank had been taken to the hospital a few days before. He’d been depressed since his daughter died. We both hoped Frank would be home after a few weeks’ rest.
On the highway back to D.C., I passed 18-wheelers as Courtney Barnett’s “Sunday Roast” expressed my hopes for Frank: Keep on keepin’ on. You’re not alone. I’ve heard your stories.
By late summer, the family saw he would not be able to stay in his house alone. I was still talking about book events we could do together, where Frank could tell his story like we’d talked about. I invited Frank and his daughter to a launch event in December. But I was losing direct touch with him.
Back in Dialogue
Rafael Alvarez, the writer who had introduced us, messaged me in January: “i just visited with frank at the nursing home. very sad.” Rafael said. I realized Frank had swayed at least two of us scribblers to keep up with him long after filing our stories. There were probably more.
I phoned Frank a few times at the center, and caught him once after the 5:30 dinner. It was good to hear his voice, but he sounded down. Still, he stayed on the line and by the time we ended the call he was laughing.
When he called me in early March, he sounded somewhat stronger. He started chatting about his surroundings and spoke about why he was depressed. He wanted to inform me, as if for the first time and he was breaking the news gently, that his younger daughter had died. It was really hard on his older daughter, he said.
Late Fragment
He’d become sort of a star at Greenfield. There are so many women and so few men. “A few weeks ago they had elections for the King and Queen of Valentines,” he said. He got worried. There was no way he would be King of Valentines, he said. So he filled out five or six ballots with other men’s names and put them in the ballot box. Still, it looked like the staff was intent on their plan so he—“and my daughter told me I shouldn’t do this”—pried open the box and grabbed out half a dozen ballots with his name on it.
It didn’t matter. He still ended up King of Valentines at Greenfield.
By the end of his story we were both laughing. Maybe, it seemed, he would have some more days that were OK.
But, as we ended the call, he was clear: He would reach out and call me when he felt like it. So I held back. I let go of our fantasy of having him join the event at the museum, which would highlight his part of the book and his career in Baltimore industry. But I wanted to visit him at Greenfield.
The Longest Odds
A few weeks after our phone call, I shared his story at the Museum of Industry. It was a crisp evening and the last sunlight off the harbor was shimmering. The only missing element was Frank.
Later I made notes to myself to call him. I knew I had said I’d wait for him to call, but I also thought the calls helped him. So I called on Saturday evening, May 4. It was Kentucky Derby day and I figured we’d have something to say. He did. He already knew the outcome and was aware that it was the longest-odds win in the Derby’s history. He said to tell my wife hello, and to be sure to pick up a jar of gnocchi from the store, reminding me of the brand name. “Sure, Frank,” I said. “I’ll do it.”
Two weeks later I heard from Frank’s daughter that he had passed away that Sunday. “It was unexpected,” she said, “He never got over my sister’s passing,” she said. She thanked me for staying in touch. “I know he enjoyed your calls.”
Probably not as much as I did. But the main body of our relationship remained in the book, and for that I’m grateful. Frank would say life is not all sweetness and light. Then he’d make a joke.
Image source: Hans

Gene Wolfe and the Book of Gold

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On a Saturday afternoon in 1983, I picked up Gene Wolfe’s The Shadow of the Torturer in the Fountain Bookshop in Belfast, Northern Ireland. I was 15 years old and a Dungeons & Dragons nerd; I spent a lot of time skulking around the Fantasy and Science Fiction sections of the city’s bookstores. I was drawn to The Shadow of the Torturer by Bruce Pennington’s cover art, which depicted a man in a black cloak striding away from a ruined citadel, a huge sword on his back. The image promised something along the lines of Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion Cycle, a baroque, heroic tale with melancholy underpinnings. Promising, too, were the blurbs from Ursula K. Le Guin (“The first volume of a masterpiece.”) and Thomas M. Disch (“Dark, daunting, and thoroughly believable.”). I opened the book and started reading. The first chapter was called “Resurrection and Death.” The first sentence included a word I’d never encountered before: “presentiment.” In the opening scene, some kids were up to no good, trying to get past the locked gate of a cemetery. Sold.

The Shadow of the Torturer concerns an orphan named Severian, who is an apprentice in the guild of torturers—known formally as the Order of the Seekers of Truth and Penitence. The setting is a vast city on Earth (now called Urth) so far in the future that the sun is dying, so far in the future, in fact, that at times it feels like the past. In the world of this novel, science is so advanced that it resembles sorcery. It’s hard to know the mystical from the mechanical. For example, the torturers and other guilds occupy “towers” that the attentive reader realizes before long, are rocket ships. On one level, The Shadow of the Torturer is a fairly conventional bildungsroman. Severian advances from adolescence to early manhood, has his first sexual experience, learns about the complexities of adult life, commits a crime and, by the end of the book, is exiled, setting him on his heroic (or, perhaps, anti-heroic) path.

On another level however, the book is a meditation on the ravages of time, memory, and the ceaseless struggle against extinction and obsolescence. Severian has the gift of total recall. He can remember every moment of his life back to early childhood. At times this seems like a curse. Early in the novel, the torturer’s apprentice is dispatched to the city library and archives with a message for the curator, Master Ultan. Delighted to have his solitude interrupted by a visitor, Ultan prattles on about the vast collection he oversees. Wolfe’s pacing is unhurried. A narrator who remembers everything will give you lots of details:
We have books whose papers are matted of plants from which spring curious alkaloids, so that the reader, in turning their pages, is taken unaware by bizarre fantasies and chimeric dreams. Books whose pages are not paper at all, but delicate wafers of white jade, ivory, and shell; books, too, whose leaves are the desiccated leaves of unknown plants…. There is a cube of crystal here—though I can no longer tell you where—no larger than the ball of your thumb that contains more books than the library itself does.
This last item is typically Wolfean. How can the crystal contain more books than the library, when it is part of the library’s collection? Ultan then goes on to describe the method by which apprentice librarians are selected:
From time to time, however, a librarian remarks a solitary child, still of tender years, who wanders from the children’s room…and at last deserts it entirely. Such a child eventually discovers, on some low but obscure shelf, The Book of Gold….
Then the librarians come—like vampires, some say, but others say like the fairy godparents at a christening. They speak to the child and the child joins them. Henceforth, he is in the library wherever he may be, and soon his parents know him no more.

For the right reader at the right time, The Book of Gold is more than an escape. It is a gateway out of childhood into the adult world and a companion for life. The Book of Gold is malleable; it is a different volume for every reader. I didn’t know it at the time, but on that Saturday afternoon in Belfast, I’d found my Book of Gold in The Shadow of the Torturer and its successors—The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, and The Citadel of the Autarch—which together make up a long novel called The Book of the New Sun.

Gene Wolfe died on April 14, Palm Sunday. He was 87. I’m writing this on Easter Sunday, April 21. I was offline most of Holy Week, traveling with my family, and didn’t hear the news of Wolfe’s death until Good Friday. All of this feels uncannily appropriate, a turn of events one might find in a Gene Wolfe novel. As Jeet Heer wrote in The New Republic last week, Wolfe was a writer “with a deeply Catholic imagination.” Born in New York City and raised in Houston, he came to his faith in his mid-20s, after serving as a combat engineer in the Korean War. The experience of the war was traumatizing and left him, in his own words, “a mess.” (In 1991, a small Canadian publisher, U.M. Press, released a volume of Wolfe’s letters to his mother from Korea. They do not make for cheerful reading.) Wolfe converted to Catholicism shortly before his marriage to Rosemary Dietsch, in 1956. He credits her with saving him. As Heer observes, Wolfe, like James Joyce and Flannery O’Connor, wrote analogical fiction that “fused the literal, the metaphoric, and the philosophic into the same narrative.”

Wolfe’s service in Korea was part of the impetus for writing The Book of the New Sun. “I wanted to show a young man approaching war,” Wolfe wrote in the essay “Helioscope.” From his apprentice origins in the citadel, Severian goes on to become an executioner, a soldier, and ultimately a Christ-like savior of the world. Wolfe’s faith informed his decision to make his protagonist a torturer: “It has been remarked thousands of times that Christ died under torture. Many of us have read so often that he was a ‘humble carpenter’ that we feel a little surge of nausea on seeing the words yet again. But no one ever seems to notice that the instruments of torture were wood, nails, and a hammer…. Although Christ was a ‘humble carpenter,’ the only object we are specifically told he made was not a table or a chair but a whip.”


In the autumn of 1984, I sent Wolfe a fan letter. My family had moved from Northern Ireland back to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where, after three years in Belfast, I had a hard time fitting in among the cliques of the public high school. I was miserable and contemplated suicide. Fortunately, there were a lot of Gene Wolfe books available at the local public library. I read as many of them as I could: The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Gene Wolfe’s Book of Days, The Devil in a Forest, Operation Ares, Peace, and The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories. The title story of that last volume was a particular favorite. Its adolescent protagonist, Tackman Babcock, lives in a disused resort hotel on a barrier island with his divorced mother and her younger boyfriend, Jason. The atmosphere is Southern Gothic and the setting feels only tenuously connected to reality. (The mother refers to the hotel as the House of 31 February, which tells you everything you need to know.) The reader soon learns that the mother is a drug addict and Jason her supplier. Tackman senses something’s not right, but he’s either unwilling or too young to grapple with it. He copes by reading an adventure story similar to H.G. Wells’s “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” which features a mad scientist, Dr. Death, and his nemesis, the heroic Captain Ransom. The characters and events from the story begin to bleed into Tackman’s life, supplanting his grim reality. It’s a postmodern genre allegory. His mother overdoses but survives. At the hospital, Tackman is told that he will be going into foster care while she recovers. The boy is afraid to finish the book he’s been reading, telling Dr. Death, “I don’t want it to end. You’ll be killed at the end.” To which Dr. Death replies, “But if you start the book again, we’ll all be back.” During that year, I leaned heavily on this idea of reading not as escapist, but as regenerative and sustaining.

A week before Christmas, a padded envelope arrived in the mail for me. Inside, there was a book-shaped object in wrapping paper, with a label reading: DO NOT OPEN BEFORE CHRISTMAS OR YOU WILL BE CROTTLED BY GREEPS. FIAT! FIAT! FIAT! There could be only one person who would write such a label, but I obeyed the directive and didn’t open it until Christmas Day. Gene Wolfe had sent me a copy of Universe 7, an anthology featuring stories by Fritz Leiber, Brian W. Aldiss, and himself. On the title page of Wolfe’s story, “The Marvelous Brass Chessplaying Automaton,” he had written in blue ink, “For Jon Michaud” and signed his name. It was the greatest gift of my short life.

With that, I began a correspondence with Wolfe that lasted about two years. He was kind and generous and patient and encouraging. He answered my questions about his books, and offered reader’s advisory services, directing me to the seminal Harlan Ellison-edited anthologies Dangerous Visions and Again Dangerous Visions as well as the work of an up-and-coming writer named Nancy Kress. I asked him for his 10 desert-island books and his answer was an index of his influences: The Bible, Shakespeare, Remembrance of Things Past, The Pickwick Papers, and The Complete Father Brown. (He also included a practical volume, How to Be a Hermit by Will Cuppy.)

Along the way, Wolfe taught me what it took to be a writer. Here he was, the winner of the Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards, and he still worked a full-time job as an editor at the trade journal Plant Engineering. Wolfe did his writing early in the morning, before going to the office. He wrote at least five drafts of his books, a number that was daunting for a teenager who had trouble finishing first drafts. At one point he noted that his latest book was on hold while he did his taxes. Wolfe was a devoted husband and a father of four children. His example was a welcome counter to the romanticized notion of the philandering rebel artist. Regular habits, a strong work ethic, and a love of revision were the secret ingredients to a successful writing career.

When an English teacher at my high school refused to let me write a term paper about Wolfe’s books because he wasn’t “well known” enough, Wolfe sent the man a letter, listing his awards and prizes. “But judging a novelist by his credentials is like judging a racehorse by its bloodlines; performance is what matters,” he wrote. He included paperback copies of The Shadow of the Torturer and Peace for the teacher to read. By that time, though, I’d graduated from high school and was on my way back to Northern Ireland. Wolfe’s books and letters, his kindness, had carried me through a very difficult time in my life.


Wolfe published more than 30 novels and a dozen collections of short stories in his long career. Eventually, he was able to give up his day job and write full time. His oeuvre is uneven. Though I own a signed, limited edition of Free Live Free, the novel he published after The Book of the New Sun, I’ve never been able to finish it. The arch cleverness of some of his other works has, at times, left me cold. But those examples are the minority. Wolfe memorably explored ancient Greece in The Soldier Trilogy, and he returned to the universe of The Book of the New Sun in The Urth of the New Sun and two successive sequel cycles, which are complex and rewarding extensions to his masterpiece. (And it should also be said that Wolfe remains a chronically underappreciated practitioner of the short story.) His influence can be seen widely. Neil Gaiman has been vocal about his admiration for Wolfe, calling him “possibly the finest living American writer.” Perhaps there would have been no Game of Thrones without Wolfe’s Urth as an antecedent. “I learned so much from Gene,” George R.R. Martin wrote last week.  To my mind, the Citadel, where Samwell Tarly goes to learn to be a maester, is an homage to Master Ultan’s library in The Shadow of the Torturer.

Remember what Ultan said about the child who discovers The Book of Gold? “Henceforth, he is in the library wherever he may be, and soon his parents know him no more.” That was true for me. I went on to become a librarian. About a decade into my library career, I wound up working in the archives of The New Yorker. One day, going through a card catalog of the magazine’s contributors, I came across Wolfe’s name. He’d published a single story in the magazine, “On the Train,” in April of 1983, which would have been right around the time I picked up The Shadow of the Torturer in the Fountain Bookshop.

I made a photocopy of the card and mailed it to Wolfe. It had been more than a dozen years since we’d corresponded and I allowed in my letter that he might not remember me. A week later came the reply. “Of course I remember you,” he wrote. And then he offered to read and critique whatever I was working on. He was there all along. And now he’s not.

The Saving Grace of Mary Oliver


The poet Mary Oliver had one wish for her end of days. “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world,” she wrote in her poem “When Death Comes.” But in the massive outpouring of sympathy that followed her death on Thursday at 83, it is clear she was so much more than a mere visitor. With her evocative poems that combined emotion, nature, and accessibility, Oliver inhabited a life of beauty and language, and she leaves behind a body of work that has taken up residence in the lives of many.

But she was especially beloved by queer readers and writers. She was one of us, after all, sharing her life with the photographer and gallery owner Molly Malone Cook for four decades until Cook’s death in 2005. Oliver’s queer identity and search for meaning provided the subtle underpinning for much of her work and we—in search of understanding, comfort, fortitude—often saw ourselves and our questions reflected in it.

I came to her work as I was coming out, wrestling to break free from the specter of fundamentalist religion that had stalked my childhood and adolescence. At the heart of my struggle was an exhausting question I had asked myself over and over: am I good? I had prayed, fasted, and denied myself for years in hopes of becoming something I was clearly not, of changing myself, and the time had come for a reckoning with the truth.

My question, Oliver told me in her poem “Wild Geese,” was beside the point. There was a more open, inclusive spiritual journey to join:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
        love what it loves.
Goodness, she seemed to believe, was innate, a gift not to be earned but accepted. I had a “place / in the family of things.”

As I moved deeper into her images and lines, I realized that her poems were as sturdy as she was, and I leaned on them for strength and balance as my world shifted, as I began to reveal myself to others. Has there ever been a poem that better captures the liberation, the fear, the possibility embodied in coming out than “The Journey”? “One day you finally knew / what you had to do, and began…” That step, Oliver promised, would carry me “deeper and deeper / into the world” and would “save / the only life you could save.”

I would face rejection from a few, she told me in “The Uses of Sorrow.” I would be maimed, yet I would one day recover and thrive:
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
But she also signaled, in “Sometimes,” that I would be surprised at the acceptance of so many more:
Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

Yet there were more lessons she sought to teach me. I had fallen in love with the man I would eventually marry, a fellow writer, and her words deepened our bond. We exchanged her poetry as gifts, tokens that carried messages of our values and devotion. “To pay attention, this is our endless / and proper work,” lines from her poem “Yes! No!”, became a call that has anchored us. Like nature, like the writing life, like words themselves, relationships required proper tending and care, or else they would wither.

But wilting—loss and death—will nevertheless one day come, she warned in the poem “In Blackwater Woods”:
You must be able
to do three things:
to hold what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
Here, though, is where Oliver might have been wrong. Yes, we should learn to hold people and possessions loosely, for they are not ours in the end. But there are also notions that one cannot let go, things we carry inside us—like words and our relationship to them. And to their author. Now, in the wake of her death, I have other questions nestled inside me: How many people’s stories might have been different if not for the questions she embodied on the page? How many lives has she saved with her words?

I see them now, lives that speckle the 50-plus years of her career. Young people across the decades rejected by their families for being who they are. Patients in the AIDS wards of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Soldiers denied the right to serve their country. Couples applying for marriage licenses. Him and her and them, all simply seeking to use a bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity. I imagine her words hovering above them like stardust—lines and images and mysteries that descend and seep in through their ears, mouths, and pores—offering courage, solace, revelation.

And armor. In our present moment, I find myself returning to her quiet assurances and lessons more than ever. They are a haven from what has been loosed in our culture: insults, hate speech, and demagoguery from people and politicians who devalue the beautiful potential of language while simultaneously harnessing its darkest powers. A president who negates the lives of transgender people to pacify his rabid base, a vice president who delights in insulting the existence of gays and lesbians.

What if those people read her? Perhaps they too might be cleansed, changed, by her poetry. An unlikely, naïve hope—for to be changed, one must first be open to the prospect. On my own journey, as I walked a “road full of fallen / branches and stones,” she helped me find a deeper, easier way of the spirit that is not shadowed by fear, that combines the beauty of faith and doubt in equal measure. I am stronger because of her, more open, more settled in myself, more willing to be vulnerable in person and on the page—all because I once asked myself this question, one I return to again and again: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”

Image Credit: Max Pixel.

On Mary Oliver and Resisting Poems of Gladness

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Last Thursday, the poet Mary Oliver died; by mid-afternoon, my social media feeds were flooded with friends mourning her passing and expressing gratitude for her work. These friends—many of them poets, but also a minister, a pianist, an 18th-century scholar—wrote eloquently of Oliver’s impact on their lives: how she’d taught them to pay attention, how she’d comforted them in hard times.

Reading the testimonials, I was moved, and sad for the loss of someone who seemed like a fascinating and kind person, but also—what was this unsettling emotion tucked beneath the other ones?—a little bit envious of these friends who’d had their lives enriched by Mary Oliver’s work. I’d never read Oliver, other than a few poems here and there. How had I missed her?

This question buzzed in the back of my mind as I scrolled through post after post, and then I began to realize: I’d never delved into Mary Oliver because I’d never let myself. Although I’d never really reckoned with why that was, I was familiar with the widespread critical dismissals of her work, like David Orr’s dig in The New York Times, in which he disparaged O Magazine’s profile of Oliver by writing “about [her] poetry one can only say that no animals appear to have been harmed in the making of it.” I knew that in my two decades of studying and writing poetry, no one—not a teacher, not a friend—had ever pressed a Mary Oliver book into my hands, saying, “You’ve got to read this.” I knew the air of condescension, or at least apology, that so often accompanied a mention of Oliver’s poems; at conferences, in grad school bars, if the conversation turned a certain way, someone might say, “Well, Mary Oliver has a poem—I know, I know—but—” and everyone would smile understandingly.

But if I’m being honest, I also had my own set of preconceptions. I knew that Mary Oliver’s poems were popular and beloved. I knew she wrote about celebrating nature. I knew she was considered “accessible.” I knew that her books were always well-stocked on the tiny, sad poetry shelf of every bookstore. I’m ashamed to say that these facts combined to make me wary, even though I also write about the natural world and think of my work as relatively “accessible” (though my books are not, alas, well-stocked in every bookstore), even though many of the poets whose work I most admire fall into one or more of these categories, and even though surely “beloved” is one of the best monikers any of us can hope to earn. I’d read some of Oliver’s individual poems, of course, and a decade ago when I was going through a period of intense anxiety and depression I came across her oft-quoted “Wild Geese” and felt an almost tangible sense of relief at its clear-eyed and compassionate opening lines, which tell the reader:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
        love what it loves.
Even now, typing those words, I’m comforted. Still, I’d never purchased one of her books, never checked one out from the library, never even gone poking around online for her greatest hits. As I read tribute after tribute, I prodded my vague guilt, trying to find its source—yes, I’d unfairly cut myself off from a poet I should have read, but surely this wasn’t the first time I’d missed out on important work. So what was it? Slowly, the deeper underlying worry began to pulse through: was it possible that, despite my best efforts to resist proscriptive poetry doctrines, somewhere along the line I’d internalized the unspoken tenet that accessible poems of praise and wonder are less worthy of real attention?

As a beginning poet, I was wary of anything that smacked even slightly of sentimentality. I learned it was safer to eschew the autobiographical, easier to polish up my dark imaginings until they gleamed. In those early years, what I wanted most was to protect myself from accusations of softness. And though my work became increasingly confident as I kept writing, it wasn’t until my most recent book, a poetry collection centering around a tornado that devastates a small town, that I began to understand it takes some bravery to risk being perceived as soft. That book includes a number of autobiographical poems about the raw intensity of motherhood, and several more written in praise of both the natural and domestic worlds; these were topics that I’d long understood to be dangerous ground. How easily a foot might slip from motherhood to mawkishness, from humming dusk to Hallmark card!

But those were the poems I wanted most to write, and I like to think they stayed on the right side of that tipping point between sentiment and sentimentality because, like any poem that hopes to represent an experience accurately, they paid attention. In writing them, I tried to be as honest and precise as I could. Another oft-quoted Mary Oliver sentence is this one: “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” I love this line. It seems to me as good a directive for writing poems as for living life.

So I’d been feeling good about consciously shaking off reductive precepts about subject matter and approach. And I’d been happy, too, with my work to help my students become skeptical of voices that try to dictate what poetry shouldn’t do. For years I’ve taught that anything can be a ripe subject for poetry, and that poems aren’t limited to one tone or mood. Poems can be funny! I remind my students. Really good sincere love poems exist!

But the morning of the day that Mary Oliver died, one of my poetry students approached me after class and asked if I could recommend any poems that were…she hesitated…less bleak than the ones we’d been reading. She asked me this tentatively, as if she knew it wasn’t something a real writer should want or request, and I was flooded with teacher-guilt: had I, through the poems I emphasized and the ones I left out, inadvertently been teaching my students that poems of comfort and celebration were somehow less-than? I thought about the poems we’d explored so far this semester—all poems I love, all poems of great craft and skill…and all poems that dive into the world’s darkness and swim around. It isn’t that I don’t love and teach hopeful poems, too—but, I realized, by not teaching any in the crucial first few weeks of the semester, I had implied parameters in which I don’t believe. The student took out her phone to jot down notes, and quickly I recommended Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Oceanic. I recommended Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. I pointed her to Twitter, where the poet Chen Chen had recently started an excellent thread of “happy poem” recommendations. Then I went home to the news that a poet who had made her career out of observing and celebrating this world had left it.

I didn’t pay attention to Oliver’s work when she was alive, and that was my own failing, stemming from my own fear. Thinking about this over the past few days, I’ve resolved to incorporate more poems of wonder and solace into my teaching, and to work more consciously to show students that these subjects aren’t off-limits for writers; indeed, aren’t they so much of what we look for in the literature we love most? I’ll be sure, too, to emphasize that just because a poem embraces joy doesn’t mean it can’t also acknowledge suffering, and vice versa—an essential duality I’ve seen underscored again and again in the Mary Oliver poems being posted over the weekend. We’ll discuss the particular risks and challenges that might accompany writing poems that dwell in gladness; we’ll discuss, too, the much greater risk of writing as though poetry doesn’t belong in the business of celebration.

A few days ago, I ordered a copy of Mary Oliver’s Devotions: The Selected Poems from my local bookstore. Though they usually have her books in stock, the owner told me, people have been buying them up since learning of her passing. I’m looking forward to getting the book. I plan to read it slowly, after the kids go to bed, a few poems at a time. I plan to pay attention. When I’m done, I’ll lend it to my student.

Literary Obituaries of 2018: Let Us Now Praise the Under-Sung

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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 HoffmanWhile 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.”

William ProchnauBefore 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 HawkinsFor 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.”

Elaine MarksonFew 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.

Tom ClarkOne 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 whatListen to the angelTry to look upon death as a friend

Thad MumfordAt 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.”

Ntozake ShangeShe 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.”

Jerry ChesnutNo 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

I can hardly bear the sight of lipstick on the cigarettes there in the ashtrayLyin’ 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 coffeeThat 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