Those Who Left Us: Select Literary Obituaries from 2016

This year we lost a Nobel laureate, several Pulitzer Prize winners, many writers with wide readerships, and many more who never achieved the acclaim or the audiences they deserved.  Happily for them all, their books live on. C.D. Wright C.D. Wright’s poetry was grounded in her native Arkansas -- she called her early style “idiom Ozarkia” -- but her work broke so many boundaries and wandered so freely that she belonged, in the words of the poet Joel Brouwer, “to a school of exactly one.”  Wright, who died on Jan. 12 at 67, wrote that her poems were about “desire, conflict, the dearth of justice for all.  About persons of small means.”  Some of those persons were inmates she interviewed in Louisiana prisons, who inspired these lines: AC or DC You want to be Westinghoused or Edisoned Your pick you’re the one condemned Tennessee’s retired chair available on eBay. In an autobiographical prose poem from 2005, Wright, a MacArthur fellow and winner of the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, wrote this of herself: “I poetry.  I write it, study it, read it, edit it, publish it, teach it…Sometimes I weary of it.  I could not live without it.  Not in this world.” Read: Several Millions Year in Reading contributors on Wright's work. Umberto Eco Umberto Eco, who died on Feb. 15 at 84, was a semiotician by training, a scholar who studied signs and symbols -- religious icons, clothing, words, musical scores. When he turned his hand to writing novels, Eco achieved superstar success on a global scale, never more so than with the first of his seven novels, The Name of the Rose, a yarn about murderous monks in a medieval monastery.  Though it was larded with descriptions of heresies and Christian theology, it succeeded as a page-turner, a shameless whodunit that sold 10 million copies and was made into a big-budget Hollywood movie starring Sean Connery.  Eco’s runaway popularity won the scorn of some critics and more than a few disgruntled academics, but he was unapologetic about wearing two hats. “I think of myself as a serious professor who, during the weekend, writes novels,” he said.  In a postscript to The Name of the Rose, he added, “I wrote a novel because I had a yen to do it.  I believe this is sufficient reason to set out to tell a story.  Man is a storytelling animal by nature.  I began writing in March of 1978, prodded by a seminal idea: I felt like poisoning a monk.” Read: An account of an in-person Eco sighting or our review of Confessions of a Young Novelist.  Harper Lee Harper Lee, who died on Feb. 19 at 89, spent most of her long life claiming she was perfectly content being a one-hit wonder.  No wonder.  To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize and has been branded “America’s most beloved novel,” with more than 40 million copies in print and a permanent place on every high school reading list in the land.  The love was enormous but not universal.  Flannery O’Connor dismissed the novel as “a child’s book,” which strikes me as neither unkind nor unfair. In 2015, Lee's lawyer talked her into publishing a “lost” novel, Go Set a Watchman.  Reviews were mixed, to put it kindly, and many fans were dismayed to learn that Atticus Finch did not always walk on water, that he was capable, in fact, of being a card-carrying south Alabama peckerwood racist.  Of course Watchman became an instantaneous #1 bestseller, but that doesn’t dispel the fact that some books should have the decency to stay lost and die a quiet death. Read: An account of a visit to Lee's hometown; an analysis of Lee's symbolism; or our review of Watchman. Jim Harrison When I heard that Jim Harrison had died on March 26 at 78, I immediately reread Revenge, my personal favorite of his many magnificent novellas, a form at which he had few peers. This one has it all: vivid descriptions of the twinned geographies of the natural world and the human heart, a torrid affair between a former fighter pilot and a dangerous friend’s wife, which leads to rococo violence, which leads to more violence during a long campaign for revenge. The novella runs just 96 pages, yet it contains worlds. Jim Harrison’s world was a moral place, as finely calibrated as a clock. Violence begets violence; violation demands vengeance; every act has its price, and that price must be paid. Harrison was also a prolific novelist, essayist and poet, author of a memoir, a children’s book, and some very funny writing about food. A shaggy Falstaffian from the wilds of northern Michigan, Harrison was a man with boundless appetites for food and wine, hunting and fishing, literature and life, a man who adored antelope liver and detested skinless chicken breasts, a man who once flew to France to take part in a 37-course lunch that featured 19 wines. French readers revere him, though his American readership is smaller than it should be.  No matter. Jim Harrison lived and wrote his own way, the only way -- all the way to the brim. Read: A personal account of a decades-long friendship with Harrison. Michael Herr Many books have captured the physical horrors of our Vietnam misadventure, but only one captured its psychedelic, rock 'n' roll absurdity.  That book was Dispatches, a bombshell piece of reporting by Michael Herr that appeared in 1977, nearly a decade after his tour of duty as a war correspondent for Esquire magazine, covering an unwinnable orgy of carnage the only purpose of which, as he put it, was “maintaining the equilibrium of the Dingdong by containing the ever encroaching Doodah.”  Herr, who died on June 23 at 76, made no secret of his respect for what the grunts went through, or his disdain for the officers and politicians who put them through it. John le Carré called Dispatches “the best book I have ever read about men and war in our time.”  A decade after it appeared, Herr co-wrote the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.  He also wrote a book about his friendship with Kubrick, and a fictionalized biography of Walter Winchell. But in the last years of his life, Herr took up Buddhism and gave up writing. Read: Our look at war books and the work Herr inspired. James Alan McPherson James Alan McPherson was the first black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, for his 1977 story collection Elbow Room.  After attending segregated schools in his native Georgia and graduating from Harvard Law School, McPherson took a sharp detour into the writing life, earning a master of fine arts degree from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he wound up teaching from 1981 until his retirement in 2014. Though his short stories, essays, and memoirs didn’t flinch from the evils of Jim Crow, McPherson strove to embrace the one thing he felt could possibly bestow greatness on America: its cultural diversity. An acolyte and occasional collaborator with Ralph Ellison, McPherson wrote in a 1978 essay in The Atlantic: “I believe that if one can experience its diversity, touch a variety of its people, laugh at its craziness, distill wisdom from its tragedies, and attempt to synthesize this inside oneself without going crazy, one will have earned to right to call oneself a citizen of the United States.” Speaking of the characters in his first collection of short stories, Hue and Cry, McPherson said, “Certain of these people happen to be black, and certain of them happen to be white; I have tried to keep the color part of most of them far in the background, where these things should rightly be kept.” Read: A note on McPherson's skill as a eulogist. Edward Albee George and Martha --- sad, sad, sad.  It’s unlikely anyone will ever write a more acidic portrait of an American marriage than Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.  After his 1959 debut, The Zoo Story, which opened in Berlin on a bill with Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, Albee went on to write some 30 plays that shone light into the darkest precincts of well-to-do lives, where the regrets and the lies and the self-deception dwell. Though Albee, who died on Sept. 16 at 88, won two Tony Awards and three Pulitzer Prizes, he was not always embraced by critics or audiences. One reviewer dismissed Virginia Woolf as “a sick play for sick people.”  Its film adaptation, starring Richard Burton as George, a bitter alcoholic academic, and Liz Taylor as Martha, his bitter alcoholic wife, captured the essence of Albee’s output. He described his work this way to a New York Times interviewer in 1991: “All of my plays are about people missing the boat, closing down too young, coming to the end of their lives with regret at things not done, as opposed to things done.  I find most people spend too much time living as if they’re never going to die.” Read: A personal account of someone who got his mail from Albee (really). Gloria Naylor With her 1982 debut novel, The Women of Brewster Place, Gloria Naylor hit the trifecta: a National Book Award, a TV adaptation by Oprah Winfrey, and a wide and devoted readership. Naylor, who died on Sept. 28 at 66, spun her best-known novel around seven African-American women, straight and gay, who live in a shabby housing project plagued by sexual predators and poverty.  Naylor said she regarded those seven women “like an ebony phoenix, each in her own time and with her own season had a story.” The Women of Brewster Place won the National Book Award for a first novel in 1983. A New York native and one-time Jehovah’s Witnesses missionary, Naylor said she left the church out of frustration over its limited role for women, a break that sent her into a deep depression. Like the "ebony phoenix," she rose and was saved by her writing. William Trevor William Trevor wrote extraordinary fiction about the most ordinary of people -- mechanics, priests, and farmers who lived in small English and Irish towns. Trevor, a native of Ireland who died on Nov. 20 at 88, wrote nearly 20 novels, many of them prize-winners, but he considered his true form the short story. Few would argue. “I’m a short story writer who writes novels when he can’t get them into short stories,” he said, adding, “I’m very interested in the sadness of fate, the things that just happen to people.”  Like the evening a lovelorn Irish mechanic named Cahal, in the short story “The Dressmaker’s Child,” is driving a pair of Spanish lovers back from a visit to a bogus religious pilgrimage site -- and the girl of the story’s title hurls herself at the passing car. Cahal is tortured by uncertainty over what happened to the girl and what will happen to him -- until the dressmaker offers him a twisted form of absolution. Things just happen to people, and suddenly their ordinary predicaments are transformed into something startling and new. Read: Lionel Shriver on reading Trevor. And let’s not forget these notables, in alphabetical order: Anita Brookner, 87, was an accomplished art historian when she started writing novels in her 50s, many of them about women mired in gloom.  Her fourth novel, 1984’s Hotel du Lac, won the Booker Prize. Read: A detailed exploration of of Brookner's considerable charms. David Budbill, 76, worked out of a remote cabin in rural Vermont for more than 40 years, writing stripped-down poems about the Vermont mountains and the “invisible” people who live there, in all their beauty and ugliness.  A workmanlike writer who detested artsy pretension, Budbill was once asked about the source of his inspiration.  “I don’t know where it comes from,” he replied, “and I don’t care.” Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, 74, was the author of an autobiography, but he’ll be remembered as the brash mayor who breathed new life into his tired old hometown of Providence, Rhode Island -- only to be undone by some nasty habits.  He assaulted a romantic rival with a fireplace log, an ashtray, and a lit cigarette, which cost him his job as mayor.  After serving a suspended sentence and winning re-election, Cianci was convicted of racketeering for accepting envelopes of cash in return for city jobs.  After serving a federal prison sentence, he made a third run for the mayor’s office in 2015, but lost.  His autobiography was called Politics and Pasta. Read: A personal account of meeting Cianci. Pat Conroy, 70, may have written his share of prose dripping with Spanish moss and Low Country hokum, but he attracted an army of devoted readers.  he son of an abusive Marine fighter pilot, Conroy turned the horrors of his childhood into the novel The Great Santini, then followed it with The Lords of Discipline and The Prince of Tides, all made into hit Hollywood movies, all gobbled up by his fans.  Asked to describe his son’s readers, the ever-charming Donald Conroy said, “That’s easy: psychiatrists, homosexuals, extreme liberals and women.”  He forgot to add: and lots of them. Read: Conroy's reaction to having his books banned. Warren Hinckle, 77, was the swashbuckling, hard-drinking editor of Ramparts and other magazines who railed against the Vietnam War, published Che Guevara’s diaries and Eldridge Cleaver’s letters from prison, and helped birth gonzo journalism by publishing Hunter S. Thompson’s seminal article “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” along with Ralph Steadman’s volcanic drawings. American journalism was changed forever. Thom Jones, 71, was a recovering alcoholic working as a high school janitor when he mailed a short story called “The Pugilist at Rest” to The New Yorker.  The magazine published the story in 1991, and it won the O. Henry Prize for best short story.  It was a stunning beginning to a career of writing semi-autobiographical stories about soldiers, boxers, janitors, crime victims -- “people,” as Jones put it, “you don’t want living next door to you.” Read: A Year in Reading on Jones. Imre Kertész, 86, survived internment at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, then spent years writing semi-autobiographical novels about the Holocaust and its aftermath. The books, remarkable for their lack of sensationalism, languished in obscurity until 2002, when Kertesz became the only Hungarian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Read: A Year in Reading on Kertész. Florence King, 80, was one of the last of a breed that is all but extinct: the misanthropic curmudgeon. In columns for the conservative National Review and several books, most notably Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady, King skewered liberalism, feminism, and anything that smelled remotely of political correctness.  Nobody could possibly agree with all of her opinions, but just about everybody admired her ability to lacerate and enrage, which, after all, is what misanthropic curmudgeons are supposed to do. She once wrote: “Feminists will not be satisfied until every abortion is performed by a gay black doctor under an endangered tree on a reservation for handicapped Indians.”  Wow. Read: A detailed look at King's work and life. W.P. Kinsella, 81, wrote 30 books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, much of it infused with his intertwined love for magic realism and the game of baseball.  His best known book is the novel Shoeless Joe, which was made into the 1989 movie Field of Dreams, in which Kevin Costner plays an Iowa farmer who carves a baseball diamond into his cornfield to attract Shoeless Joe Jackson and the rest of the disgraced Chicago “Black Sox” back from the grave. One viewer dismissed the movie as “Field of Corn,” but it produced a line that lives on: “If you build it, he will come.” Read: A piece on the great writers of baseball. Image Credit: Public Domain Pictures.

What Is It About Baseball? W.P. Kinsella, José Fernández, and the Dust of the 2016 Season

What is it about baseball that leaves writers reaching for myth and allegory? The game is slow, meandering.  It takes its sweet time.  Very often, not a whole lot happens.  Indeed, the corporate types at the game's controls keep scratching their heads for ways to speed things up, move things along: a pitch clock, a time-limit on trips to the mound, and on and on.  But they ignore the eternity at the heart of the game.  In theory, a baseball game could go on forever and ever.  A single at-bat, forever and ever.  Within the right angle of the foul lines, extending from home plate to the outfield fences and into the great wide open beyond, a batted ball can cut across the night sky and land just about anywhere, and if a fleet-footed outfielder is able to channel his inner gecko and scale the wall and chase down that ball to where it might fall softly into his outstretched glove, there is room for that outcome as well. Alas, the game is not bound by time, and hardly at all by space, and isn't that the nut of it?  Isn't that the sweet point of pause and possibility that keeps us coming back for more, and more, and then some? The death last month of W.P. Kinsella, widely regarded as baseball's novelist laureate, offers an opportunity to reflect on how we see our own reflections in the national pastime -- with a tip of the ball cap to writers like Kinsella who continue to encourage us to consider the stories of the game as we consider the game itself. What is it about baseball? The curious magic of Kinsella was that he found room in the wide open spaces of the game to consider that anything was possible -- and, on the strength of that magic, to knit the past to the present, the present to the future.  In Shoeless Joe, he reaches back across the decades to revisit the aborted career of Archibald Wright "Moonlight" Graham, after stumbling across Graham's unlikely one-game stat line in the Baseball Encyclopedia and placing it at the cross-hairs of meaning and moment in a wistful story about a son reconnecting with the memory of his father.  In The Iowa Baseball Confederacy," he imagines an apparently endless game between the 1908 Chicago Cubs and a barnstorming team of amateurs, inviting readers to join him on a head-scratching, heart-pleasing journey that asks us to ponder baseball's everlastingness.  In "The Last Pennant Before Armageddon", he tells the story of a Chicago Cubs manager named Al Tiller, who believes the world will come to a cataclysmic end the moment his Cubbies win the pennant, which in the sure hands of Kinsella (and, his somewhat less certain fictional skipper) they seem inclined to do. How is it that a game built on its very timelessness can offer such a chilling reminder of our own mortality?  When the baseball world mourned the sad, sudden death of the joyfully talented young Cuban pitcher José Fernández, barely a week after Kinsella's passing, there was beneath the mourning a kind of shared sense that our own lives were slipping away from us.  Here was this abundantly gifted kid pitcher, snatched from a career destined for baseball immortality, with a back-story that seemed scripted by saccharine-fueled Hollywood scriptwriters: a Cuban defector who'd grown up dreaming of someday playing major league baseball; who'd only made it to American shores after three unsuccessful attempts; who'd been jailed by Cuban officials after each of those attempts; who'd rescued his own mother from the turbulence of the Atlantic Ocean during his fourth (ultimately, successful) crossing to America; who'd recovered from Tommy John surgery to become one of the game's dominant pitchers; who'd played the game with such abandon and intention that even casual fans were drawn to him, lifted by him, cheered; who'd just announced that his girlfriend was pregnant with the couple's first child.  And yet, back-story or no, triumph or no, unborn baby or no, José Fernández was killed in an as yet unexplained (and, as ever, unfathomable) boating accident off Miami Beach at the age of 24. As the baseball world wept, those of us in on the weeping hugged our children and grandchildren close, honored our parents and grandparents, and looked back with equal parts gladness and sadness at the hopes and dreams we'd carried in our own lives.  Some of us got out our old baseball gloves and tossed the ball around with our kids.  We looked at old baseball cards, scorecards.  We revisited Kinsella's stories.  Because in the short life and tragic death of this young ballplayer there was the stuff of our own lives, our own tragic deaths, and in the moments of silence that filled our ball yards that day and the next there was a kind of safe haven within the boundaries of the game. Baseball can do that, I guess.  It can remind you of everything that once mattered to you, everything that matters still.  It can brush the great promise of tomorrow against the agreeable sting of the past, and the sorrows of today. Kinsella was not alone on the baseball bookshelf.  He'd fallen into line behind the great legacies of writers like Ring Lardner (You Know Me, Al), Bernard Malamud (The Natural), Philip Roth (The Great American Novel), Robert Coover (The Universal Baseball Association, Inc: J. Henry Waugh, Prop.), even Don DeLillo (Underworld), who all seemed to understand the stirring, soaring confluence of miracle and wonder at the heart of the game.  But it was Kinsella's ability to cast the game alongside a swirl of human emotion that will keep us reading his stories for generations, and when I learned of his death it felt to me like a light had gone out on the game itself.  I was not alone in this, of course, and yet I closed my eyes to the news and imagined how a generation of baseball fans -- my generation -- would manage to connect the game to generations to come. Fernández, as well, was not alone.  He now shares space on the game's memorial plaque with too, too many young ballplayers who left this world before their games were finished.  The turn-of-the-century Hall of Famer Ed Delahanty, who plunged to his death in the cascading waters of Niagara Falls.  The Puerto Rican icon Roberto Clemente, killed in a plane crash while on a relief mission to aid earthquake victims in Nicaragua.  The great Yankee catcher and captain Thurman Munson, downed in his own plane, which he had bought and learned to fly so that he might spend more time more easily with his family.  The Cardinals ace Darryl Kile, who succumbed to a heart attack in his hotel room before a game against the Cubs. With the passing of Fernández, another bulb has been burned on the stanchions that light our game, while we are left to find our way just the same. "Praise the name of baseball," Kinsella wrote.  "The word will set captives free. The word will open the eyes of the blind.  The word will raise the dead.  Have you the word of baseball living inside you?  Has the word of baseball become part of you?  Do you live it, play it, digest it, forever?  Let an old man tell you to make the word of baseball your life.  Walk into the world and speak of baseball.  Let the word flow through you like water, so that it may quicken the thirst of your fellow man.” Who but Kinsella could help us find poetry and purpose in a centuries-old game that many people believe has outlived its relevance?  Who could implore us to go the distance and fulfill our destinies, great and small?  Without him, how will we elevate the long march of a baseball season onto the mystical plane where Kinsella asked us to slide along on our own fine film of dust and possibility? Let's be clear, there are baseball novels still to be written.  There are games still to be played.  Somewhere in this country, or in Cuba, or Puerto Rico, or the Dominican Republic, there is an unborn child who will change the game of baseball -- in ways we cannot yet imagine.  In the great white north of Kinsella's Canada, there is a young writer sharpening his or her pen and looking to change how we see the game of baseball -- in ways we can only imagine. But it was Kinsella who tore the cowhide from the game and allowed us to peek at the very real lives it contained.  There was triumph there.  There was disappointment.  There was the thrill of fresh cut grass and the soft fall of lament when the skies opened up and rained down on us.  There were changes in plans.  Because, at bottom, the nature of the game is the nature of ourselves.  It is a living, breathing thing.  It bends and endures...and, it asks us to do the same. And so, as we unwrap October and settle in for the 2016 World Series, let’s pause to feel the loss of one of the game's favorite sons.  Allow yourself a sliver of a moment to chew on the very real possibility of a very real Armageddon, owing to the Cubbies' fine, fine post-season run.  Savor the grace note moments to come in these October games.  You will sit glued to your screens (more than likely into the wee-hours), waiting for some sort of final accounting on the season just ended, looking ahead to the season to come, and to all the seasons to come. Image Credit: Pixabay.

What Jim Harrison Taught Me About Marriage

Jim Harrison was a husband. “I’ve been married for 46 years,” he told me when we met a decade ago in Livingston, Montana’s Owl Bar. He’d learned through our preliminary correspondence -- during which I’d assured him that I’d been a compulsive creative writer since the age of seven and had “given my life to it,” the main criteria by which he decided whether or not to be interviewed by a young aspiring novelist -- that I was newly married. The dream of being married had occupied half of my heart for as long as I could remember; it coexisted there with the equally consuming dream of being a writer. Now Jim said in earnest, exhaling the smoke from his American Spirit and assessing me kindly with his good right eye, “I hope the marriage works out. They tend not to these days.” At 68 years old to my 27, Jim had experienced decades of matrimony in contrast to my eight or so months. Soon, he would become my literary idol as an author of fiction, poetry, essays, and memoir that -- in their contagious vitality, their celebratory and compassionate explorations of the pleasures and pains that come with being alive on this rich earth -- have done more to heal, inspire, and delight me than the work of any other artist. He would also become an authority in my eyes on conjugality and love, as well as a peripheral observer of my own marital and romantic misadventures. “You know, you’re very attractive,” he told me a few times over the course of our interview, perhaps because he was never timid about his appreciation for women either in life or literature, or possibly because he accurately sensed that I did not know. Introverted, diffident, and in some ways naive, there was much I didn’t know, especially about men -- my dad had been completely absent even longer than I’d been compulsively writing. Jim was as dynamic a speaker as he was a writer, and our conversation that day covered kaleidoscopic terrain: xenophobia as the root of the world’s ills, his sighting of Jack Kerouac passed out in a San Francisco bathroom in the early ’50s, Native American cultures, Christianity, and whether or not it was a good idea to strive for poetry in every sentence. “Some people try to do it that way,” he said, ashing his smoke in a manner that conveyed he didn’t think he was one of them. There was only one question he was shy about answering. “Doesn’t your wife get jealous,” I asked, “in response to the way you write so lustily about women? Even if it’s fiction?” I was a jealous new wife who imagined all wives must’ve been similarly wired. Jim was closemouthed. In a few days, though, he sent me a note in which he gently expressed that a marriage is, and should be, a mystery to all but the two in it. He was protective of his longtime bride and their union, and I was impressed. He liked the finished article I'd written about him when it appeared in print and wanted to stay in touch. My then-husband and I had moved from Montana to Los Angeles when Jim mailed me a letter. “The Yellowstone is flooding,” he wrote, “and you’re not here to help.” He said he’d been suffering from health problems and had just come out of the hospital. “It was so awful I should have gone to see you..." he said before declaring me a healer, albeit one with witchy tendencies: "You could have stolen holy water from the usual cathedral and mixed it with shark pee-pee, etc.” He asked me to continue with some research I’d been doing for him on the loup-garou, a mythical French werewolf that had captured his interest, and he closed with a request: “Send a photo...” I complied with a demure, decidedly Victorian headshot, shoulders and neck wholly hidden by a turtleneck, snapped by my spouse among the flowers at the L.A. Arboretum. This likely wasn’t the sort of photo Jim had in mind -- his work is rife with carnal, playful, and sincerely heart-struck celebrations of feminine pulchritude -- and he received it without comment. But at the time I couldn’t imagine that he -- that anybody -- would want something different. Any awareness that I might have been beautiful or desirable was at that time latent, locked away in a box to which I didn’t think I had the key. Not long after that, somebody came along who did appear to carry a key, and the unlocking was both bitter and sweet: sweet because I was enchanted by the potent and persuasive sense of being seen in a novel way, bitter because he was not my husband. Feeling profoundly altered, guilty, confused, and unfit for my marriage, I sent a confessional email to Jim. There was no judgment in his reply, only sympathy. He advised me to “proceed with caution” if I proceeded at all, and wrote that he understood the experience of allowing oneself to be seduced, though he didn’t say explicitly whether it had ever happened to him. Still, I wondered if he felt disappointed. He’d wished me well in my fledgling marriage and now it seemed I was making a real mess of it. A year later, I moved back to Montana by myself and adopted a solemn collie from the shelter who seemed, like me, to be in a quiet-but-constant state of emotional distress. I lived alone in a cheap apartment in downtown Livingston. The affair into which I’d stumbled had ended when I’d been unable to tear myself out of my marriage. My marriage had also ended when I’d confessed the affair and, after the dust settled, couldn’t stay with my husband, though I’d tried. I didn’t know where or with whom I belonged. I felt like a failure. These were dark days, dampened by tears. I was walking my dog one afternoon when I heard Jim call to me from the sunken sunlit patio of the tavern where he sat with a few friends. I stepped down to join them. Always fond of dogs, he fed mine Cheez-Its from the basket on the table. I shakily talked with Jim and his commiserative companions about what had been going on. “It’s harder to write these days,” I told Jim, “without the sense of stability that comes with being married.” He nodded. I got up to leave and ascended the steps from the tavern patio up the sidewalk. Jim followed. We paused. Since I stood on a step and he did not, I was about six inches above him. I bent down and kissed the top of his head. He looked up at me and said my name. “What if you were really this tall?” he asked. I heard the real question tucked beneath his seemingly light and irreverent one. I have never forgotten it. It is my favorite and most treasured of all the things he communicated to me in writing or in person. I must have merely chuckled in reply. Though I understood what he was asking, it didn’t seem quite possible yet that I could be “tall” -- that is, powerful in my aloneness. I could be my own woman, with no husband, no lover, no hovering possible partners: just me. I could let go, at least for a while, of the lifelong dream of forming a permanent union with a man. I could rent my own house on the creek and become a hermitess of sorts, mend my mostly self-inflicted wounds until they closed, work hard to revise the novel I had drafted during easier days, get it published, and see the dream of a lifetime -- which ran parallel to the dream of lasting love -- come true. I wasn’t immediately sure if I could do this, but Jim’s question would echo, and I would do it soon. In the meantime, whenever I felt especially blue I would spend time with Jim’s books, because reading about Brown Dog, Dalva, the farmer’s daughter, France, food, dogs, sex, death, revenge, and birds was medicine for me. He was the real healer, able to transmit his mind’s singularly heartening perception of the world through the medium of his poetry and prose. He was helpful outside the realm of printed pages, too. When a TV personality came to town to film an episode of his show and asked Jim about me, Jim replied firmly, “She’s not for you,” and that was the end of that. In those days, as he must’ve known, my boundaries were so permeable I might have been drawn into a situation that would have only caused me more pain. When word of this exchange got back to me, I was grateful. After that, our lives filled with new diversions; we corresponded and saw each other less. My first book came out. I began to consider love again, my incautious heart now tempered by slightly clearer vision. And I continued writing all the while. As I grew taller, Jim slowed down a bit. Though he was still admirably prolific, he was aging. He had back surgery and shingles. He spent part of each year in Arizona, away from the stingingly cold winters and slushy early springs of Livingston. When he returned, I’d see him around town. From a distance I’d recognize his unmistakable shuffle, his canvas shoes worn like slippers with the heels smashed down, his uncombed shock of white hair, his careless clothes and cane. Always, I felt explosive affection. A quotation of his -- “There’s never an excuse not to do your work” -- is taped above the desk where I’ve finished a second novel and where today I labor over yet another -- one I’ve been working on in a state of vulnerability and insecurity, with a gambler’s blind faith, as I feel my way through its dark woods for the fourth consecutive year. I’m not sure what will become of either of these books, but then that’s no concern of mine. I wasn’t lying when I’d told Jim prior to our first meeting that I’d given my life to writing. And he’s the one I most look up to among all those who’ve given their lives to this weird and lonesome compulsion to tell stories by scratching ciphers onto sheets of tree. I’m still thinking hard about marriage, love, and forming a forever union -- a union of heads and hearts, with abundant heat. Just a couple of weeks before he died this March, I watched a 1993 French documentary about Jim. One short scene struck me as so piercingly beautiful I had to replay it a few times. Middle-aged Jim and his wife are driving down a country road. She is wearing bold dangly earrings. He reaches over from the driver’s seat to push back her hair and examine one of the pretty baubles in the most familiar, proprietary, curious, husbandly way, as if to say, “What is this new thing with which you’ve adorned yourself?” or “I know you -- I know your head, your heart, your body.” Seeing this moment, I swallowed a sob. That small, intimate, seconds-long gesture encapsulated so much: what he cherished, what he guarded, what he held on to for nearly six decades despite inevitable difficulties, and what I want. Jim and his wife had been married 56 years when she died last October. I sent him a card. Friends said the last thing he ever expected was that she would go first. He was the one with the unapologetic appetite for cigarettes, drinks, and rich foods. Six months later, he followed her. I heard the news on Easter Sunday, which seemed fitting; he’d mentioned during our first meeting at the Owl Bar that he’d been an ardent boy preacher and still believed in the resurrection. Of course his own resurrection will be perpetual: every time anybody turns a page of one of his books, there he will be. I went out and bought his latest, The Ancient Minstrel, the title novella of which is an imaginative memoir. Like so much of his other work, it alleviated my sadness, even though my sadness had been over the passing of the minstrel himself. When I got to the very last page of that story I lost my breath. I knew Jim wasn’t writing right to me -- that he’d only thought of me for a fraction of the time that I’ve spent thinking of him -- but that’s how it felt. Our communication had always concerned both writing and relationships. Now, it seemed, he was making his last definitive statement and proffering his final bit of advice on those subjects. They reached me with the same precision that a bird navigates to the end of his flyway with the help of the sun and stars: I feel absolutely vulnerable and realize it’s the best state for a writer whether in the woods or in the studio...Feeling bright-eyed, confident, and arrogant doesn’t do this job...You are far better off being lost in your work and writing over your head...You don’t want to be writing unless you’re giving your life to it. You should make a practice of avoiding all affiliations that might distract you. After fifty-five years of marriage it might occur to you it was the best idea of a lifetime. The sanity of a good marriage will enable you to get your work done. It was a reassuring end to our conversation. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Anita Brookner, Queen of the Damned

Was Anita Brookner a vampire? She died last month at age 87, the author of two dozen novels, from A Start in Life (published in the United States as The Debut) to Strangers. Her author photo remained unchanged over the three decades she was publishing her novels, like a vampire’s might. In it she looks pale, ladylike, alert, carefully coiffed -- hard to pin down in terms of age or date. Her teeth aren't showing, the better to nip the unsuspecting reader. Brookner’s novels are inhabited by middle-class types, solitary and stoic. As some readers have noted, nothing much happens in these books; people go to the shop, they return to their quiet flats, they eat a little, they make tea, they think. Sometimes they visit the hairdresser or a museum. Sometimes someone dies, and there's a quiet funeral. Conversations are economical and frequently unemotional. Sadness puffs around like a gas. But these are men and women holding white-knuckled to the ledge above "the abyss that waits for all of us," as a character puts it in Latecomers. Below the placid surfaces lie exile, adultery, unrequited love, loss, amorphous fear, and dread. Nobody does depression quite so elegantly. Buffeted and baffled by life, her characters' strength is in their stasis. Like one of her white-knuckled heroes, at first look Brookner may seem static as well. Her novels were produced at regular intervals -- slim and attractive, with nary a word out of place. In them all excess is gross, whether verbal or sentimental or gastronomic. In Dolly, the title character inspires repulsion in the narrator, Jane, with her flesh and her open sexual need. Jane watches in half-horrified fascination as Dolly, like several other Brookner creations, runs away with the story, the freak who doesn't fit easily into Jane's tiny, tidy world. Brookner harbored some fondness for her freaks; it's not easy to find what publishers call "comparables" for Brookner, either. When her masterpiece Hotel du Lac, a novel about an Englishwoman recovering in Switzerland from an affair, won the 1984 Booker Prize against 10-1 odds, some puzzlement ensued. Who was this writer, and how should she be categorized? In Look at Me, Frances, a solitary researcher half-hoping for friendship, tells us, "problems of human behaviour still continue to baffle us, but at least in the Library we have them properly filed." The sometimes cursory Frances might file Brookner with early-20th-century novelists. Like the Edwardians, Brookner’s characters are privately concerned with class and sex and money, whether or not they admit it. Their childhoods revolve in their heads. Like E.M. Forster's people, hers are trying to work out how to connect. Like Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Ramsay, they tell life to "stand still here," even as it rushes past them. Like T.S. Eliot, they look hard at time: how to fill it, how to get more of it, how to find their way back to a lost, foggy, genteel era. Like Samuel Beckett's men, they wait. But it’s a mistake to see Brookner as a throwback from an earlier age. Look again, and you'll see the way Brookner quietly muscles Modernist themes beyond their limits. Her characters aren't sure they want to "only connect," or to wait for life to turn up. Like any good vampire, Brookner feeds on her literary antecedents, picking their bones; she uses them to build her own structures, subtly questioning the tropes of the psychological novel of yesteryear. She one-ups Woolf's and James Joyce's stream-of-consciousness, showing us minds at war with their owners: In Look at Me, lonely Frances -- feeling her life paling before that of a powerfully attractive couple -- observes "somewhere, intruding helplessly and to no avail into my consciousness, the anger of the underdog, plotting bloody revolution, plotting revenge." Rather than submerging us inside consciousness à la Mrs. Dalloway or Ulysses, Brookner is always outside her people, just at their backs -- an intruder tuning us into their thoughts at a slight remove, whether in first- or third-person narration. She can see them, but they can't see her. Uneasy but unaware they're being observed, they reveal themselves fully. As the intruder draws near, Brookner's wit reveals itself. She appears to observe her troubled characters from neutral territory, all the while inviting us to see the claustrophobic patterns they've woven of their own lives. Like petit-point embroidery, the details are hypnotic, the product of intensely focused skill. (The physical details shine, too; Brookner was a professor of art history as well as a novelist, and it shows. Her interiors and clothing and features are always finely described.) Brookner’s characters are aesthetes who often turn to museums and galleries for help, though she reminds us in Making Things Better that "art [is] indifferent to whatever requirements [we] might bring to the matter." But Brookner's own highly-wrought art isn't quite indifferent to us. Read closely enough, and you'll feel it watching you, too. If you're not alert, you can miss these elements of Brookner’s work. And if you're not alert, she doesn't want you as a reader. There's a velvet ruthlessness to Brookner: Keep up, she seems to say, while she slips into French for a page, or discusses paintings you feel you ought to know. But the flip side of ruthlessness is trust. She trusts her readers to know what she means. Occasionally we can feel her eyes flick towards us, the same way she looks at her characters: You see, don't you? We end up wanting to please her, a very neat trick on a novelist's part. We on Team Brookner also end up trusting her entirely. You mainline her books one after the other, infected by her intense sensibility before you realize it. You can fall drowsily into her closed worlds and curl up in them. Remain vigilant and you'll recognize her power, though it will still wind up seducing you. Bram Stoker described his Dracula as having "a mighty brain, a leaning beyond compare, and a heart that knew no fear and no remorse.” Brookner’s friend Julian Barnes wrote that she was not at all one of her lonely heroines, despite what male critics have decided: "She was witty, glitteringly intelligent, reserved, and unknowable beyond the point she herself had already decided upon." In her deft hands, Brookner’s characters face oblivion as bravely as they can; our task is face their author just as bravely, baring our necks. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

A Walking Coulda-Been: Remembering Buddy Cianci

When I heard the news that Buddy Cianci -- serial felon, wearer of atrocious toupees, revered and reviled former mayor of Providence, R.I. -- had died on Jan. 28 at the age of 74, my first thought was not about death. It was about my birth as a writer. In May of 1976, a free Providence weekly called Fresh Fruit published my interview with Cianci, then the city’s brash young Republican mayor. Forty years later, I still own a crumbling clip of that interview. Maybe that’s not surprising since that clip is the first piece of writing I ever published, the first time I saw my byline in print. It’s my birth certificate. Writers tend to cherish such things. When I interviewed him, Cianci had been in office for 16 months and I was one month away from my college graduation. More to the point, I was on a caffeine- and amphetamine-fueled binge to finish writing the final chapters of a history of the city of Providence, an independent-study project I’d been working on for two years because I’d become intoxicated by the city’s crazy quilt of ethnic neighborhoods, its fluorescent Mob presence, its post-industrial ruins, its wobbly triple-deckers and Greek Revival gems, its scuzzy waterfront, the milky fogs that spilled in off Narragansett Bay, the overall sense that this was a once-mighty shipping and manufacturing center the best times of which were long past. The place felt forgotten. The Wall Street Journal dismissed Providence as “a smudge beside the fast lane to Cape Cod.” That’s precisely what I loved about the place: it was the un-Boston, with little of the conventional New England charm. And it was a prolific incubator of criminals. Jimmy Breslin might have had Buddy Cianci in mind when he said, “Providence is where the best thieves come from.” What better way to end my elegiac history of this faded old city than by interviewing its optimistic, forward-looking young mayor? For as far back as anyone could remember, politics in Providence had been controlled by a Democratic machine that ran on the grease of patronage -- payoffs, kickbacks, bribes, no-show jobs, rigged contracts and other niceties. Cianci, a political novice, had come out of nowhere to stun the Democratic incumbent, a booze-marinated Irish ward heeler named Joe Doorley. Well, not quite nowhere. Cianci, the city’s first Italian-American mayor, had come up through the attorney general’s anti-corruption task force, where he made a specialty of going after Mob families. Providence was a target-rich environment in those days. After a murder conviction in 1970, Raymond Loreda Salvatore Patriarca, Sr., head of the New England Mob, had relocated his headquarters from Providence’s heavily Italian Federal Hill neighborhood to his cell in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta. Business remained brisk. When I called the mayor’s office to request an interview, Cianci, to my surprise, readily agreed to sit down with a nobody college boy writing for a weekly throwaway. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Then and for the rest of his days, Cianci was a publicity hog, a one-liner machine, a shameless promoter of his city and himself. In the introduction to the Fresh Fruit interview, I adopted the ostentatious first-person plural (hey, I was 23 years old and still operating under the influence of The New Yorker): On a chilly Tuesday afternoon we were ushered into the mayor’s office in City Hall, a plush inner sanctum with a thick red rug on the floor, with blonde woodwork on the walls and chandeliers suspended from the distant ceilings. Through spotless tall windows we could see the scrum of buses, pedestrians and cars on Kennedy Plaza -- an inaudible world that seemed miles away. Buddy Cianci was seated at his spacious desk poring over the Evening Bulletin. He was wearing only two of his suit’s three pieces: the jacket was draped over a coat rack in the corner. He looked puffy, as though the vest was uncomfortably snug. In a hoarse voice he complained about a touch of laryngitis. He motioned us toward gaudy chairs and, sipping ginger ale, launched into an unprompted monologue… Re-reading those words 40 years after they were written, I’m dismayed that I failed to mention Cianci’s most defining physical trait: a toupee so shamelessly synthetic and pelt-like that even he referred to it as “the squirrel.” The most memorable -- and prescient -- thing Cianci said during that rambling interview came when we got onto the subject of the Democratic machine he had defeated: “You know, Lord Acton once said it -- and I always like to repeat my friend Lord Acton: ‘Absolute power corrupts absolutely.’” In due time Cianci’s power would become far more absolute than Joe Doorley’s had ever been. A few months after he granted me an audience in City Hall, Cianci gave an electrifying speech at the Republican national convention. Overnight he became a GOP darling, proof that the party was still relevant in the cities of the Northeast, and there was talk of Cianci as a vice presidential candidate, maybe in a cabinet post, or a senate seat. His potential seemed boundless. Using his charm, energy, and ruthless political skills, Cianci won re-election as mayor in 1978 and again in 1982. I’d left Providence shortly after my college graduation, but I always kept an ear cocked for news about the city, which usually amounted to news about Cianci -- or the latest perp walk by one of his minions. As Cianci’s power grew, the FBI’s interest in corruption inside City Hall grew along with it. During Cianci’s first tenure as mayor, 22 city workers were convicted on corruption charges. But the FBI couldn’t lay a glove on Buddy Cianci. Only Buddy Cianci could do that. In 1983 Cianci got himself involved in a little dustup that would have shocked even world-wise Lord Acton. One night the mayor summoned a wealthy contractor named Raymond DeLeo to his home and, as a city cop and two other men looked on, Cianci accused DeLeo of having an affair with his estranged wife. Cianci then proceeded to spend three hours assaulting DeLeo with a versatile arsenal that included fists, feet, saliva, an ashtray, a lit cigarette and a fireplace log. It was like a game of Clue for Sociopaths: the Mayor did it in the Living Room with the Lit Cigarette and the Fireplace Log. Cianci pleaded no contest to the assault and kidnapping charges and resigned as mayor. He received a five-year suspended sentence and spent the time hosting a popular radio talk show, keeping his name in the air, waiting for his chance. Eligible to run again in 1990, he was re-elected by 317 votes. Only in Providence, I thought, when I heard the news about Cianci’s astonishing comeback. The attitude of voters seemed to be Hey, DeLeo was screwing the guy’s wife. He had it coming. Besides, Buddy was a great mayor. Now Cianci’s power became absolutely absolute. The mayor clearly loved his city, and his city loved him back. He produced a pasta sauce, Mayor’s Own Marinara Sauce, and donated the proceeds to a scholarship fund. He was everywhere, attending Little League games, banquets, business openings. It was said he would attend the opening of an envelope. He became a wise-cracking regular on the “Imus in the Morning” radio show. There was no denying that he was doing a spectacular job of rebuilding the city’s downtown and burnishing its faded image, but he was also turning City Hall into what one judge would call “a criminal enterprise,” a place where envelopes of cash changed hands as people paid bribes to buy city jobs, contracts, reduced tax bills, or city land. Cianci made Joe Doorley and his Democratic lords look like a bunch of schoolboys. Unfortunately, the FBI was still on the case. In 2001 Cianci was indicted by a federal grand jury on racketeering, conspiracy, extortion, witness tampering and mail fraud in the FBI’s so-called Plunder Dome investigation. In June of 2002 Cianci was found guilty on one count of racketeering and acquitted of 11 other corruption charges. While he was awaiting sentencing that summer, I got it into my head that his rollercoaster career would make an interesting magazine article, maybe even a book. So I took an exploratory trip back to Providence, where I witnessed the weekly WaterFire spectacle downtown -- bonfires on the river set to New Age music -- and I was astonished to see that in the past quarter-century downtown had been transformed, almost miraculously, from a ghost town into a vibrant hub of activity. I read newspaper microfilm in the downtown library and roamed the city, compiling a tidy little stack of Cianci’s achievements and misdemeanors, plus a sense that beyond the shiny new downtown, the city hadn’t changed all that much. The industrial ruins were still there, the triple-deckers still wobbled, the public schools were worse than ever. The city struck me as a miniature version of Baltimore: a shiny veneer doing its best to conceal a lot of rot. In September, Cianci was sentenced to five years in prison. At the sentencing, U.S. District Judge Ernest Torres said, “I’m struck by the parallels between this case and the classic story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. There appear to be two very different Buddy Ciancis.” In 2003 a Providence Journal reporter named Mike Stanton published a richly reported book on Cianci, The Prince of Providence, which became a bestseller. My own book project died aborning. After serving his five years at the federal prison in Fort Dix, N.J., Cianci emerged immaculately bald, shorn of the squirrel. “I took my medicine,” he told The New York Times. “I took it like a man.” Then he went back on the radio airwaves, wrote an autobiography called Politics and Pasta, and got busy plotting yet another comeback. For all the many things he did in life, both good and bad, it’s hard not see Buddy Cianci as a gifted politician who missed a shot at greatness. His seemingly boundless early potential never led to much. For all the loyalty he inspired in the citizens of Providence, his peculiar style -- the squirrel, the marinara sauce, the one-liners, the stubborn whiff of corruption -- did not travel well beyond the city limits. He ran for governor of Rhode Island in 1980 and was beaten badly by the incumbent Democrat, J. Joseph Garrahy. Cianci considered a run for U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy’s seat in 2010, but decided against it. Then in 2014, after a bout with cancer, Cianci made one last run for his old job at City Hall. It turned out that even the voters of Providence do not possess a bottomless reservoir of forbearance. In the 2014 mayoral election, Cianci lost to Jorge Elorza, the current mayor, who ordered the flags at City Hall flown at half-staff when the word spread of Cianci’s death. Mike Stanton, the former Providence Journal reporter who wrote the book on Cianci, said the man “embodied the best and worst of American politics.” True, as far as it goes, but I can’t help thinking that American politics is a little bit poorer -- and drabber -- without the fluorescent presence of people like Buddy Cianci, a skillful politician, a man who loved his city, a Jekyll & Hyde figure who forgot the lessons Lord Acton had tried to teach him. We used to have vivid, inspiring, maddening politicians like Huey Long and Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson and Coleman Young and Buddy Cianci. Nowadays, what passes for colorful is that bad dye job called Donald Trump. The obituarist who came closest to the truth about Buddy Cianci was Dan Barry. Writing in The New York Times, Barry called Cianci “a walking coulda-been.” Perfect. Absolutely perfect. Image Credit: LPW.

R.I.P: Select Literary Obituaries from 2015

Once again in 2015 some of the literary firmament’s brightest stars were extinguished. We lost a pair of Nobel laureates, a pair of former U.S. poets laureate, beloved novelists, prize-winning poets, a tireless human rights activist, a wily agent, a revered teacher, a champion of black writers, a writer of shameless sexcapades, and memoirists who refused to flinch when dissecting their first-hand experiences with addiction, persecution, disease, and the horrors of Jim Crow. Here is a selective compendium of literary obituaries from 2015. Robert Stone The Robert Stone novel that sticks in my mind is Dog Soldiers, winner of the 1975 National Book Award, the story of a Vietnam-to-California heroin smuggling scheme gone horribly wrong. It’s also a singular portrait of how the blissed-out '60s, which Stone experienced first-hand with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, turned into one very bad trip. Stone, who died on Jan. 10 at 77, produced eight big novels, a pair of story collections, and a memoir, books in which danger is everywhere, Americans behave badly either at home or in some far-flung hot spot, and neither God nor any hope of salvation is to be found. Stone was an American rarity: a writer who dared to walk in the footsteps of Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene, and never stumbled. Anne Moody Anne Moody produced just two books in her lifetime, but her debut, the wrenching memoir Coming of Age in Mississippi, is as timely today as it was when it appeared in 1968. Moody, who died on Feb. 5 at 74, told in spare unflinching prose what it was like for the daughter of black sharecroppers to grow up in the Jim Crow deep South, and then to dare to join the civil rights struggle. She worked with various organizations -- the Congress for Racial Equality, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People -- once getting dragged by her hair from a Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in, while watching a fellow protester get bloodied by a brass-knuckle punch. After leaving the movement, she moved to New York City, where she wrote her memoir, then lived quietly for decades working non-writing jobs. Late in life, she acknowledged to an interviewer that writing her memoir had taught her a painful lesson: “I came to see through my writing that no matter how hard we in the movement worked, nothing seemed to change. We were like an angry dog on a leash that had turned on its master. It could bark and howl and snap, and sometimes even bite, but the master was always in control.” Moody’s only other book was a slim collection of short stories for young people called Mr. Death. Philip Levine In 1976 I came upon a book of poems that proved that art can be made from absolutely anything, including a night-shift job at the Chevy Gear & Axle factory in Detroit. The book was peopled with autoworkers, fading boxers, and working stiffs, people who stubbornly refuse to admit defeat in the face of the monstrous forces that belittle them. The book was called Not This Pig, the second volume of poems by a Detroit native named Philip Levine, who died on Feb. 14 at 87. On the back cover, Levine explained that the book is filled with “the people, places, and animals I am not, the ones who live at all costs and come back for more, and who if they bore tattoos -- a gesture they don’t need -- would have them say, ‘Don’t tread on me’ or ‘Once more with feeling’ or ‘No pasarán’ or ‘Not this pig.’” Reading that book was the birth of a passion for Levine’s poetry that endures to this day and shows no signs of flagging. Levine was born in Detroit in 1928 and went to work in a soap factory at 14 -- the first in a long string of factory jobs that could have crushed his body and spirit but instead gave him the raw material for a body of work that would win him high honors, a devoted readership, and a stint as U.S. poet laureate. His great subject was the people who do the brutal manual labor that usually gets ignored, by poets and everyone else. When I wrote an appreciation of Levine four years ago (here), I quoted a 1999 interview in which Levine realized, looking back, that Not This Pig was the book that gave him his voice. “Those were my first good Detroit work poems -- the poems in Not This Pig...,” Levine said. “It’s ironic that while I was a worker in Detroit, which I left when I was 26, my sense was that the thing that’s going to stop me from being a poet is the fact that I’m doing this crummy work...I’m going to fuck up because what am I doing? I’m going to work every day. The irony is, going to work every day became the subject of probably my best poetry. But I couldn’t see that at the time. And it took me another ten years to wake up to it -- that I had a body of experience that nobody else had.” Günther Grass Günther Grass’s life turned out to be an illustration of just how treacherous and slippery the high moral ground can be. After blazing onto the world literary stage with his 1959 masterpiece, The Tin Drum, Grass spent his long and productive career as Germany’s self-anointed conscience, pushing his countrymen to face up to the dark strains of their history, especially the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust. Grass, who died on April 13 at 87, railed against militarism and nuclear proliferation, opposed German unification, denounced the Catholic and Lutheran churches, supported Fidel Castro’s Cuba and Nicaragua’s Sandinista government, and spoke of the “unchecked lust for profit” that drove German companies to sell weaponry to Saddam Hussein. He also found time to be a novelist, playwright, essayist, short story writer, poet, sculptor, and printmaker. In 1999 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. But it was not until 2006, on the eve of the publication of a memoir, Peeling the Onion, that a dark truth emerged. For years Grass had claimed he was a flakhelfer during the war, one of many youths charged with guarding antiaircraft gunneries. But finally he admitted that he had been a member of the elite Waffen-SS, notorious for committing many atrocities. Though Grass was not implicated in any war crimes, the belated revelation caused a furor. “My silence over all these years is one of the reasons I wrote the book,” he explained. “It had to come out in the end.” In the memoir he added, “The brief inscription meant for me reads: ‘I kept silent.’” James Salter James Salter is often pinned with that grimmest of labels, “a writer’s writer.” Even worse, James Wolcott called Salter America’s “most under-rated under-rated writer.” I prefer to remember Salter, who died on June 19 at 90, as a writer of gem-like sentences that added up to a handful of highly accomplished novels and short stories, a man who lived a long and fruitful life and, in the bargain, had no peer when it came to writing about flight. In 1952 Salter flew more than 100 combat missions in an F-86 jet, hunting and fighting MiG-15s in the skies over Korea. His writing about flying -- most notably in his first novel, The Hunters, and in his memoir, Burning the Days -- has won high praise, including this accolade from a fellow military pilot, Will Mackin: “Salter’s writing about flying made me miss flying even while I was still flying.” Salter took a dim view of such praise: “I have said many times I don’t want to be considered one who once flew fighters. That’s not who I am.” So who was James Salter? A writer who put the exact right words in the exact right order to produce books full of beauty and insight and pain -- six novels, two collections of short stories, a book of poetry, essays on food and travel, and a memoir. (Salter also wrote screenplays, including the 1969 Robert Redford movie Downhill Racer. It wasn’t art, Salter acknowledged, but the Hollywood money was wonderful.) Salter was also a writer who craved the broad popularity that never came his way. He explained the craving this way: “You can’t be admitted to the ranks of writers of importance unless you have sales.” Theodore Weesner Like Philip Levine before him, Theodore Weesner, who died on June 25 at 79, turned his indifferent early years into indelible writing. Instead of soul-crushing factory jobs, Weesner had to contend with an alcoholic father and a teenage mother who abandoned him and his older brother when they were toddlers. After living in a foster home and dropping out of high school to join the Army at 17, Weesner went on to attend Michigan State University and earn an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Worskhop. His first novel, The Car Thief, was published in 1972 to critical acclaim, and it has become a cult classic. The novel, which was reissued in 1987 as part of the Vintage Contemporaries series, reads as neither a screed nor a cry for help, but rather as a tender and clear-eyed portrait of a troubled boy, 16-year-old Alex Housman, whose only available means of self-expression is to steal cars. Weesner went on to produce half a dozen other works of fiction, which, like his debut, won critical praise but a modest readership. Late in life, Weesner seemed to come to terms with his fate. In 2007 he told an interviewer, “I get this ‘neglected writer’ a lot...The Car Thief got a lot of awards and praise and was widely reviewed. And (since) then no one has given me a whole lot of credit.” E.L. Doctorow I would not presume to single out the best book by E.L. Doctorow, who died on July 21 at 84. But I’m convinced Ragtime was both his best loved and his most influential book. Published in 1975, it did something unheard-of at the time: it mingled fictional characters with historical figures -- Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford, and many others -- to create a vivid portrait of America on the eve of the First World War, the dying moments of the nation’s heedless exuberance and innocence. The novel was not universally loved. John Updike famously dissed it, and William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker, refused to run a review of it. “I had transgressed in making up words and thoughts that people never said,” Doctorow said years later. “Now it happens almost every day. I think that opened the gates.” Ragtime opened the gates for writers of wildly different temperaments to start inserting historical figures into their novels, either at center stage or in the background. These writers included Joyce Carol Oates (who channeled Marilyn Monroe), Colum McCann (Rudolf Nureyev, Philippe Petit, and Frederick Douglass, among others), James McBride and Russell Banks (John Brown), and Don DeLillo (Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby). For Michael Chabon, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Doctorow’s fiction -- including Loon Lake and World’s Fair, but especially Ragtime -- offered novelists a “magic way out” of the confining box made by the reigning '70s vogues of “dirty realism” and post-modernism. In The Guardian two days after Doctorow’s death, Chabon wrote, “In opening that particular door, Doctorow made a startling discovery: done properly, the incorporation of historical figures into a fictional context did not come off as some kind of smart-ass critique of subjectivity and the fictive nature of history. Done properly it just made the lies you were telling your reader -- with his or her full and willing consent, of course -- sound that much more true. And that small-t truth then became a powerful tool for getting across whatever Truth, subjective or fragmentary though it might be, that you felt you had it in you to express.” Jackie Collins By the time she died on Sept. 19 at 77, Jackie Collins had produced some 30 steamy novels that tended to carry a Hollywood zip code and sold more than half a billion copies. Collins, who was born in London, was refreshingly candid about the shameless commercialism of her fiction. “I never pretended to be a literary writer,” she once said. “I am a school dropout.” Her writing style brought to mind the USA Today columns of Al Neuharth -- short sentences, liberal use of fragments, no words that would send readers to the dictionary. Her books were also loaded with sex, beginning with her debut, The World Is Full of Married Men, from 1968, when, as Collins put it, “no one was writing about sex except Philip Roth.” Perhaps Collins’s keenest insight was to understand that literature, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and so she set about filling it to the brim. And she did her research. While still a teenager, she visited her actress sister Joan in Hollywood, where she met and bedded a hot young actor named Marlon Brando. When an interviewer suggested in 2007 that America had become a great big titillating Jackie Collins novel, she replied, “That’s true. When Clinton had his affair and the Starr report came out, reviewers actually said, ‘This is like a Jackie Collins novel.’ But in my books, the sex is better.”   Grace Lee Boggs The indefatigable social activist and prolific author Grace Lee Boggs died in Detroit on Oct. 5 at the age of 100. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, she was born above her father’s Chinese restaurant in Providence, R.I., and raised in Jackson Heights, Queens. While earning degrees from Barnard and Bryn Mawr, she steeped herself in the writings of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Immanuel Kant, and Karl Marx, then moved to Chicago and started organizing protests against slum housing. Her life changed in 1953, when she relocated to Detroit and married James Boggs, a black autoworker and activist. Together they plunged into the city’s radical politics, protesting racism, sexism, and police brutality. Malcolm X was a frequent visitor in their home. When fires and shootings swept Detroit in the summer of 1967 -- a justified rebellion, not a senseless riot, in the eyes of Boggs and her fellow radicals -- she reached what she described as “a turning point in my life.” She began shunning confrontation in favor of nonviolent strategies, a path she followed for the rest of her days. She founded food cooperatives and community groups to fight crime and to stand up for the elderly, the unemployed, and people fighting utility shutoffs. She planted community gardens. Always, she kept writing. She published her autobiography, Living for Change, in 1998. In her final book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century, published in 2011, the former radical aligned herself with Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. “We are not subversives,” she wrote. “We are struggling to change this country because we love it.” The above list doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive. Here are some other noteworthy literary deaths from 2015, in alphabetical order: John Bayley, 89, was an Oxford don and literary critic whose moving memoir, Elegy for Iris, recounted his life with his wife, the Booker Prize-winning novelist Iris Murdoch, both before and after she was stricken with Alzheimer’s disease. Elegy was published in 1999, shortly before Murdoch died, and two years later it was made into a movie starring Jim Broadbent as Bayley and Judi Dench as the ailing Murdoch. David Carr, 58, was a celebrated New York Times columnist who weathered cancer, alcoholism, and crack cocaine addiction, then wrote about his battles with verve and black humor in his 2008 memoir, The Night of the Gun. Assia Djebar, 78, was an Algerian-born novelist, poet, playwright, and filmmaker who was often mentioned as a Nobel Prize candidate for her unflinching explorations of the plight of women in the male-dominated Arab world. Djebar was also adept at kicking down doors. She was the first Algerian student and the first Muslim woman admitted to France’s elite École Normale Supérieure, and the first writer from North Africa to be elected to the Académie Française. Despite these achievements, she insisted, “I am not a symbol. My only activity consists of writing.” Ivan Doig, 75, produced 16 works of fiction and non-fiction that celebrated his native western Montana, where the Rocky Mountains begin their rise “like a running leap of the land.” Doig, whose affecting final novel, Last Bus to Wisdom, was published posthumously, liked to say he came from “the lariat proletariat, the working-class point of view.” The critic Sven Birkerts called him “a presiding figure in the literature of the American West.” When Charles F. Harris, who died on Dec. 16 at 81, went to work as an editor at Doubleday in the mid-1950s, the work of black writers was a niche market that was treated more like a ghetto by New York publishing houses. Harris helped change that, most notably as chief executive of the nation’s first black university press, Howard University Press, where he published Margaret Walker, Nikki Giovanni, Jean Toomer, Walter Rodney, and many other black writers. Harris also founded Amistad Press, which published critical volumes on Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and Alice Walker, among others. Jack Leggett, 97, was a novelist, biographer, editor, and teacher who was the director of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop from 1970 to 1987. He stocked the nation’s oldest creative writing program with big-name teaching talent, including John Cheever, Gail Godwin, Raymond Carver, Frederick Exley, and Leggett’s eventual successor, Frank Conroy. Students included Jane Smiley, Sandra Cisneros, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Michael Cunningham, and Denis Johnson. During Leggett’s tenure there was a fundamental shift in students’ approach to writing, which he summarized this way after a decade on the job: “In 1970 there were a lot of kids out of the armed forces and the Peace Corps. They were an undisciplined lot. They would say, ‘Don’t tell me about form.’ Now they are very interested in technique. They want to know what novelists have done in the past. And it shows in their work.” When Leggett arrived in Iowa City there were about a dozen creative writing programs in the country. Today, for better or worse, there are more than 200. Colleen McCullough, 77, was a neurophysiological researcher who decided to write novels in her spare time and wound up striking gold with her second book, the international bestseller The Thorn Birds, in 1977. A panoramic tale of McCullough’s native land, it was made into a popular TV mini-series and was often called “the Australian Gone With the Wind.” The Scottish writer William McIlvanney, 79, became known as “the father or Tartan noir” for his novels featuring the Glasgow cop Jack Laidlaw. McIlvanney was also a poet, essayist, teacher, short story writer, TV narrator, and, in the eyes of The Telegraph, “the finest Scottish novelist of his generation.” Sir Terry Pratchett, 66, the knighted British novelist, produced more than 70 immensely popular works of fantasy, including the series known as Discworld. It was a Frisbee-shaped place balanced on the backs of four elephants who stood on the shell of a giant turtle, a place populated by witches and trolls and a ravenous character known as Death. While frequently ignored by serious critics, Pratchett had fans in high places. A.S. Byatt applauded his abundant gifts, not least his ability to write “amazing sentences.” Ruth Rendell, 85, was the British author of more than 60 mystery novels that hit the trifecta: they were intricately plotted, psychologically acute, and immensely popular with readers and critics, selling some 60 million copies worldwide and winning numerous awards on both sides of the Atlantic. Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford was her most durable character and a sort of alter-ego. “I’m not creating a character,” Rendell said, “so much as putting myself as a man on the page.” Along with her friend P.D. James, who died in 2014, Rendell is credited with exploding the confines of the mystery genre. In a 2013 interview, Rendell vowed she would never stop writing. “I’ll do it until I die,” she said. Her final novel, Dark Corners, was published in October, five months after her death. Oliver Sacks, 82, was a neurologist who used his patients’ conditions, from amnesia to Tourette’s syndrome, as starting points for his bestselling books about the human brain and the human condition. He called his books “neurological novels.” More than a million copies are in print. Timothy Seldes, 88, was one of the last of a vanishing breed -- an old-school literary agent and editor who believed that literature should be seen as a vital source of oxygen for the nation’s culture, not as product that needs to be moved. How quaint. He was, in a word, a gentleman, whose devoted clients included Anne Tyler, Jim Lehrer, Annie Dillard, and Nadine Gordimer. William Jay Smith, 97, was a poet, critic, memoirist, translator, and teacher who served as U.S. poet laureate from 1968 to 1970. His poems, both tactile and empirical, embraced rhyme, meter, and other conventions deemed passé by many of his contemporaries. To his credit, Smith ignored them. In “Structure of a Song,” he offered this lovely anatomy of the making of a poem: Its syllables should come As natural and thorough As sunlight over plum Or melon in the furrow, Rise smoother than the hawk Or gray gull ever could; As proud and freely walk As deer in any wood. So lightly should it flow From stone so deep in earth That none could ever know What torment gave it birth. James Tate, 71, was a Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning poet who believed “the challenge is always to find the ultimate in the ordinary.” His 17th book, Dome of the Hidden Pavilion, has come out posthumously, and it’s marked by his trademark surrealism and wordplay, deployed in narrative-driven prose poems that Tate turned to in his later years. He never lost his child’s sense of wonder at the plastic magic of language, its ability to startle. These lines come from his final book: I was sitting on the porch when I watched my neighbor’s kids walk by on their way to school. One of them turned and waved to me. I waved back. That’s when I realized they were zombies. Tomas Tranströmer, 83, was an accomplished pianist, an amateur entomologist, and a trained psychologist who worked with juvenile offenders. He was also a popular and beloved poet, sometimes called “Sweden’s Robert Frost,” whose crystalline, sometimes chilly poems won a Nobel Prize in 2011. C.K. Williams, 78, was a Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning poet who, unlike James Tate, wrote morally charged, politically impassioned poems about such weighty topics as poverty, love, death, war, climate change, and the shootings at Kent State University. Like Tate, Williams moved toward longer ribbony lines that freed him to “talk about things.” Shortly before he died, from multiple myeloma, Williams completed a collection of poems about death and dying. He called it Falling Ill. Rest in peace. Through your words you will all live on.  

The Color of Loss: On the Passing of Sir Terry Pratchett

On March 12, a tweet from his official Twitter account announced that Sir Terry Pratchett, a fantasy author whose books have sold more than 75 million copies in over 37 languages, had passed away. Since he was diagnosed with posterior cortical atrophy, a rare form of Alzheimer's in 2007, fans knew that Pratchett’s days were numbered. Still, his death came as a shock to many; his demise so hard to accept that people even petitioned Death to bring him back. I was among those signing the petition. I discovered Terry Pratchett just after I moved to Edinburgh for graduate school. I found his novels while browsing through one of the many secondhand bookstores that populate Edinburgh’s cobbled streets and narrow alleys. It was Guards! Guards! -- the eighth of Pratchett’s novels that takes place in the Discworld, and the first that concerns the city’s watch -- that caught my attention. In bold font, the back cover promised me that after reading the book I would never view dragons the same way again. For £1.25, I thought that was a pretty good deal, and purchased it. Two hours later, I had finished the book. When you read Terry Pratchett’s novels, you disappear into a different world. This is the Discworld a flat earth that sits on the back of four giant elephants who in turn stand on the back of a giant turtle that swims through space. This world is populated with not only humans but witches, wizards, trolls, dwarfs, gnomes, golems, werewolves, and vampires. There is never a dull moment in Discworld; from dragons attacking to wars brewing between continents to Death being fired from his job, plots abound. Even the founding of the local newspaper and bank generate enough excitement to merit their own books. Despite its dangers though, Discworld is mostly a hilarious place, as evidenced in lines such as, “They felt, in fact, tremendously bucked-up, which was how Lady Ramkin would almost certainly have put it and which was definitely several letters of the alphabet away from how they normally felt.”[1] Underneath the hilarity, the excitement, and the adventure lies the deep dark secret of Pratchett’s books -- they are actually quite serious. Guards! Guards!, for example, opens on the captain of the city watch, Samuel Vimes, lying "drunker" in a street gutter. Vimes, we later learn, has a slight problem with alcohol. Issues that subsequently come up in the book besides alcoholism include racism, sexism, immigration, war, growing up, religious fundamentalism, death, faith, ethnic identity, nationalism, and what it is, fundamentally, that makes us human (or troll or dwarf). Browse through any of Pratchett’s books, and you are more than likely to trip over a piece of insight similar to this one offered up by the dragon in Guards! Guards!: “We were supposed to be cruel, cunning, heartless and terrible,” he says. “But this much I can tell you, you ape...we never burned and tortured and ripped one another apart and called it morality.” These moments are no less potent for being buried under countless layers of humor and fantasy; if anything, they are more so. Pratchett’s books take you away from the world, yes, but only to give you a better perspective on it. In his ability to do this, Pratchett joins a rare class of writers -- those who can shed light on the world around us, and our place in it. In many ways though, he, and other fantasy writers, have not and will never be fully recognized for this. Though Pratchett has won a multitude of awards, and has even been knighted, most of his honors were fantasy or sci-fi specific. He did not receive his first mainstream literary award -- the Carnegie Medal for best children’s book -- until 2001, well after he was already a bestselling author with dozens of books under his belt. Pratchett himself commented on this problem. At the awards dinner for the Carnegie Medal he said, “I'm especially pleased because [The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents] isn't just fantasy but funny fantasy, too. It's nice to see humour taken seriously.” Another famed fantasy writer, Neil Gaiman, Pratchett’s friend and one-time co-author[2] noted once that there was an anger that fueled Pratchett's writing, and commented that it was partly, “anger at pompous critics, and at those who think serious is the opposite of funny.” To classify Pratchett -- or any author -- in this way is to deny his genius. Just because a book takes place in another world -- one with wizards and witches and trolls and dwarfs -- doesn’t mean it can’t also provide insight into our own. The fact that a book might interest children doesn't mean it isn’t also crammed full of wisdom for adults. And just because a book makes us laugh, that doesn’t automatically mean it can’t also make us think. I will always be grateful to Terry Pratchett for gifting me and countless others with more entertainment than anyone rightly deserves. His books enlighten, critique, amuse, and inspire. They are well-imagined, well-crafted, and, above all, exceptionally well-written. As we watch memorial after memorial crop up to Terry Pratchett -- obituaries, articles, posts plastered over social media -- we should remember him for all that he was. Not just one of the greatest fantasy writers of this generation, but one of its greatest writers.   [1] These lines though, are nothing compared to Pratchett’s footnotes, which will leave you disturbing everyone’s commute when you sporadically laugh out loud in the subway [2] If you have not yet read Good Omens put down this article and do so now. Image Credit: Wikipedia.

My Neighbor, the Poet Laureate

It was pelting rain in Brooklyn and I was out with my son, then about four, headed to the grocery store. Directly across the street, I saw a lanky elderly man, his iron-gray hair matted with rain, on the top step of his stoop, banging on the front door of his brownstone and shouting up at the third-floor window to be let in. It was the poet Philip Levine. I had seen him around the neighborhood for years, and may have even waved to him the way one does to familiar-looking strangers, but now I recognized him because just a couple weeks before his picture had been in the paper when he was appointed the nation’s Poet Laureate. “I can’t believe it, I locked myself out,” he explained when I crossed the street and asked what was wrong. “Well, at least come down here,” I said. “You can stand under my umbrella.” When I read over the weekend that Levine had died, at age 87, I thought of that rainy September afternoon in Brooklyn. A couple months later, on assignment for Poets & Writers Magazine, I would climb the stairs to the third-floor apartment Levine shared with his wife, Frances, and listen to his stories of growing up poor and full of rage in Depression-era Detroit. From the window of his study, I could see into the window of my own apartment across the street, but it was an altogether different Brooklyn on Philip Levine’s side of the street. He talked about starting work at age 14, about working factory jobs at Chevrolet and Cadillac, and how “intoxicating” it had been to discover the war poetry of Wilfred Owen when he had been a young man facing the possibility of fighting in a war. The anger that filled him in his early years was of no use to him as a writer, he told me. “It was a huge hindrance because it meant I couldn’t write anything worth a damn about that work life,” he said. “I couldn’t get that disinterestedness that’s often required. I couldn’t get Wordsworth’s tranquility. It took me until I was about 35 before I really wrote a poem that was about work.” What changed him, he said, was a dream he’d had about a friend from his working days in Detroit named Eugene. In the dream, Eugene had called from L.A. hoping to be invited up to Fresno, where Levine taught at the state university, but Levine hadn’t invited Eugene to his home. “I woke up and was furious with myself,” he said. “How could I possibly not invite Eugene to my house? This was terrible. I was turning my back on my whole growing up.” That morning, he settled into bed with a pad of paper and wrote without stopping for a week, beginning a run of poems about working-class America that would earn him two National Book Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, and an appointment as the nation’s Poet Laureate from 2011 to 2012. But that interview was still several months in the future, and on this rainy September afternoon, Levine was merely a soaked 83-year-old neighbor who had locked himself out of his house. Huddled under my umbrella, I told him that by chance I’d met his son Mark through friends in upstate New York, and that Mark and I had had an unintentionally hilarious discussion in which it had gradually developed that his father, the famous poet Philip Levine, lived part of the year in a brownstone directly across the street from ours in Brooklyn Heights. Then I said: “And now you’re the Poet Laureate.” He looked at me, startled, as if he were Clark Kent and I had somehow guessed his secret identity. Then he threw back his head and laughed. “That’s right, I am,” he said. “I’m the Poet Laureate of the United States.” Previously: A Year in Reading: Philip Levine Photo: US Department of Labor

Those Who Left Us: Select Literary Obituaries from 2014

In 2014 we lost some great writers -- two Nobel laureates, prize-winning poets and playwrights, a beloved memoirist/poet, an unrivalled nature writer, satirists, historical novelists, crime novelists, biographers, critics, and authors of books for children and young adults. Here is a selective compendium: Amiri Baraka Incendiary poet and playwright -- or old man playing with matches? Champion of the disenfranchised -- or racist, anti-Semitic homophobe? There was never a consensus on the merits of the prolific writer who was born Leroy Jones, began publishing as LeRoi Jones, changed his name to Amiri Baraka, and died on Jan. 9 in his hometown of Newark, N.J., at 79. Regardless of what he called himself, the man was always going against the grain. Born into Newark’s black middle class, he dropped out of prestigious Howard University, then got a dishonorable discharge from the U.S. Air Force before melting into the bohemian hothouse of 1950s Greenwich Village. There he married a white woman named Hettie Cohen, who helped him found a literary magazine that published his work and that of many Beat notables. As his career took off -- his poetry was gaining notice, his play Dutchman won an Obie Award, and he wrote perceptively about black music -- he became increasingly radicalized. He shed his white wife and moved to Harlem, where he helped found the Black Arts Movement. The murder of Malcolm X in 1965 and Baraka’s savage beating by white cops during the 1967 Newark riot -- which he called a rebellion -- completed his radicalization. The transformation, in some eyes, did not improve his writing. The poet and critic Kenneth Rexroth lamented that when the gifted Jones became the angry Baraka, he also became “a professional Race Man of the most irresponsible sort.” That dart resonated a year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when Baraka, then poet laureate of New Jersey, gave a public reading of his poem “Somebody Blew Up America.” It read, in part: Who knew the World Trade Center Was gonna get bombed Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers To stay home that day Why did Sharon stay away? The poem’s anti-Semitic overtones led the New Jersey General Assembly to abolish the poet laureate’s post. Baraka fought the move in court, without success. Six months after Baraka’s death, his son Ras was elected mayor of Newark. Peter Matthiessen Peter Matthiessen could make just about anything interesting to readers. A restless naturalist who devoted himself to preserving the planet’s vanishing wilderness, Matthiessen produced more than 30 works of fiction and non-fiction on such subjects as Peruvian tribesmen, Long Island fishermen, Caribbean turtle hunters, the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, Florida cane planters, a safari in Tanzania, migrant farmworkers, and Native Americans. His human subjects were joined by a menagerie of white sharks, snow leopards, shore birds, and other exotic species. Matthiessen, who died on April 5 at 86, is the only writer ever to win National Book Awards for both fiction and non-fiction. His resumé was nearly ridiculous. A son of privilege -- which made him uneasy -- Matthiessen grew up in an apartment on New York’s Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park. He attended Hotchkiss, Yale, and the Sorbonne. In 1953 he co-founded The Paris Review, though it wasn’t until years later that it came out that the magazine was Matthiessen’s cover for his brief career as an operative for the C.I.A. He befriended a who’s Who of American letters, including William Styron, George Plimpton, and E.L. Doctorow. He became a commercial fisherman and a Zen priest. Matthiessen’s last novel, In Paradise, was published three days after his death. He was a connoisseur of the world’s most unforgiving terrain right up to the end: the novel tells the story of a group of people who come together for a meditation retreat on the grounds of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. Sue Townsend Too bad America hasn’t produce a satirist to skewer Ronald Reagan and the depredations he visited on America in the 1980s. England was blessed with Sue Townsend, a self-educated high school dropout whose fictional teenage misfit, Adrian Mole, got millions of readers to laugh at the highly Reaganesque bill of goods Margaret Thatcher sold to Great Britain during the 1980s. Adrian Mole may have grown up in a chronically underemployed working-class family and he may have attended shabby, underfunded schools, but he learned to love royal weddings. In adulthood, he fell victim to predatory lenders and wound up living in a converted pigsty -- a nifty metaphor for the fallout of Thatcher’s merciless policies. Townsend, who died on April 10 at 68, shared Adrian’s grim upbringing and his ambivalent view of the Iron Lady. “Sometimes I think Mrs. Thatcher is a nice kind sort of woman,” he tells his diary in 1984’s The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole. “The next day I see her on television and she frightens me rigid. She has got eyes like a psychotic killer, but a voice like a gentle person. It is a bit confusing.” Gabriel Garcia Marquez Few writers are as deeply loved by readers as Gabriel Garcia Marquez. His 1982 Nobel Prize for Literature, though deserved, was almost beside the point. He had already earned a writer’s most treasured honor: the devotion of millions of readers around the world. Like many of those readers, I came to his work through One Hundred Years of Solitude, a masterpiece of magical realism that I started reading on a fall day in 1974 and read straight through in two sleepless, nearly foodless, intoxicating days. The book changed my life, opened me to new worlds and new ways of seeing. As astonishing as it was -- those all-night rains of yellow blossoms, those swamps of lilies oozing blood -- I think Love in the Time of Cholera was an even better book. It teemed with fleshed-out characters and their potent emotions. It was less reliant on stylistic pyrotechnics and whimsy. It was earthier, meatier than its more famous predecessor. It showed us that love grows more solid the closer it comes to death. Other readers will have good reasons for preferring one or more of the other 15 books by the amazing Marquez, who died on April 17 at 87, having achieved the thing all writers yearn for, whether they admit it or not: immortality. Maya Angelou Thirty-two years after Robert Frost recited “The Gift Outright” at John F. Kennedy’s presidential inauguration in 1961, Maya Angelou read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s inauguration. Those events stand as twin pinnacles in the power and prestige of American poetry. But Angelou, who died on May 28 at 86, will probably be even more vividly remembered for her searing 1969 memoir about growing up in the Jim Crow South, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, one of the six volumes that recount the story of her remarkable life. After growing up mostly in Stamps, Ark., a small town brimming with “dust and hate and narrowness,” she traveled the world working as a dancer, calypso singer, streetcar conductor, prostitute, actress, magazine editor, college professor, and civil rights activist, associating with nobodies and with such notables as James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Oprah Winfrey, and at least two U.S. presidents. Her poetry was more coolly received by critics than her memoirs, but her influence was undeniable. In 2011 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. And on the day she died, President Barack Obama remarked, “She inspired my own mother to name my sister Maya.” Thomas Berger “Don’t try to fool an Indian who has seen a lot of white men.” So advises 111-year-old Jack Crabb, the unforgettable narrator of one of the greatest novels written by an American, Little Big Man. Its author, Thomas Berger, who died on July 13 at 89, will be long remembered for that astonishment of a novel, though too few readers realize that he produced two dozen others, as well as a sprinkling of stories and plays. In addition to the myths of the American West that he dissected so deftly in Little Big Man, Berger’s other great subject was the mores of the American middle class, whose deep-rooted paranoia he satirized wickedly in such novels as Neighbors (made into a 1981 movie starring John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd), The Feud, The Houseguest, and Best Friends. In these novels, routine social encounters have a way of morphing into comic horrors. A disciple of Franz Kafka, Berger’s range was vast. He wrote horror, pulp detective stories, science fiction, utopian fiction; he mined Greek tragedy, the survival saga, and the Camelot myth; he wrote about invisibility and time travel; his literary alter ego, Carl Reinhart, who appeared in several novels, was described as “representative of the unrepresented.” Once highly sociable, Berger in his later years became a recluse in a league with J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon. Even his publisher and literary agent didn’t know how to get in touch with him. In a rare interview in 1980, Berger posed a rhetorical question: “Why does one write?” He answered, “I suspect that I am trying to save my own soul, but that’s nobody else’s business.” Nadine Gordimer Nadime Gordimer cast a wide net in trying to capture the iniquity and human cost of apartheid in her native South Africa. She crossed lines of race, class, religion, and gender, bringing to life the cinderblock mazes of the black townships, the poolside barbecues of white society, the terror visited on those who resisted society’s rigid divisions. She brought to life Indian Muslims and mixed-race characters. Her Booker Prize-winning 1974 novel, The Conservationist, had a white male protagonist. Gordimer, who died at age 90 on July 13 (the same day as Thomas Berger), wrote two dozen works of fiction, personal and political essays, and literary criticism over the course of a 60-year career. Some critics saw her personal struggle for liberation from her possessive mother as a mirror of her characters’ struggle against apartheid. Though she insisted she was not political by nature, she became engaged in the struggle -- joining the banned African National Congress, passing messages, hiding friends from the police, driving people to the border -- and she used many of these events in her fiction. The authorities were not pleased, and they banned three of her books, including one of her best known, Burger’s Daughter. On Feb. 11, 1990, after 26 years in captivity, Nelson Mandela walked out of Victor Verster Prison into the sun-washed streets of suburban Cape Town. The first person Mandela asked to see was Nadine Gordimer. A year later, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Mark Strand Mark Strand set out to be an artist. But while studying under the great colorist Josef Albers at Yale, Strand discovered poetry and embarked on a long and fruitful career that included a stint as U.S. poet laureate, a Pulitzer Prize, a Bollingen Prize for Poetry, and the publication of his selected poems last year. Strand, who died on Nov. 29 at age 80, was too dark for some tastes, but he insisted that his poems were “evenly lit.” In the 1980s, after a decade and a half of publishing poems shadowed by death and dissolution, Strand became dissatisfied with the autobiographical vein of his work, and he stopped writing poetry. He turned to writing children’s books and short stories, books on the painters Edward Hopper and William Bailey, and a collection of critical essays. Late in life, he made collages with paper he had made by hand. Eventually he returned to writing a more expansive kind of poetry. In a Paris Review interview in 1998, the year before he won the Pulitzer Prize for Blizzard of One, Strand mused about death: “It’s inevitable. I feel myself inching towards it. So there it is in my poems. And sometimes people will think of me as a kind of gloomy guy. But I don’t think of myself as gloomy at all. I say ha ha to death all the time in my poems.” Here’s one such ha ha, moment from the poem “The Remains,” in Strand’s 1970 collection, Darker: I open the family album and look at myself as a boy. What good does it do? The hours have done their job. I say my own name. I say goodbye. The words follow each other downwind. I love my wife but send her away. My parents rise out of their thrones into the milky rooms of clouds. How can I sing? Time tells me what I am. I change and I am the same. I empty myself of my life and my life remains. Kent Haruf Kent Haruf (rhymes with sheriff) staked out his patch of literary ground and never stopped working and reworking it. Like William Faulkner (Yoknapatawpha County), Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Macondo), Flannery O’Connor (rural Georgia), and Patrick Modiano (Paris during the Nazi Occupation), Haruf, who died on Nov. 30 at 71, became possessed by his chosen place. He called it Holt, a fictional small town on the high plains of eastern Colorado, a place of “pointless cruelty and simple decency,” where he set all of his fiction, including his 1999 breakthrough, Plainsong, and Our Souls at Night, which will be published posthumously in May. Single-mindedness can lead to repetitiveness, and some critics noted that Haruf didn’t outdo himself with each new book; rather, he redid himself. One critic went so far as to compare Haruf’s prose to Pottery Barn furniture, with its “aged patina” and “rustic lines.” But Haruf’s many fans embraced the moral clarity of life in Holt -- the town’s esteem for honest work, its belief in innocence as a virtue -- and they saw the place as a refuge from the snark and irony and equivocation that fester beyond the rim of the high plains. This list doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive, but there were a number of other literary deaths in 2014 that are worth mentioning. In alphabetical order they are: Norman Bridwell, creator of the Clifford children’s books; James MacGregor Burns, an award-winning political biographer and student of the art of leadership; Mary Cheever, the long-suffering wife of John Cheever, who published a book of her poems in 1980, two years before her husband’s death; P.N. Furbank, a British critic and scholar best known for his biography of E.M. Forster; Mavis Gallant, a master of the short story whose great subject was rootlessness; Doris Pilkington Garimara, an Australian Aborigine whose book about the government’s brutal campaign to eradicate the native population, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, became the basis of the 2002 movie Rabbit-Proof Fence; Dermot Healy, the Irish novelist, poet, and memoirist regarded by many as a modern master in the mold of Flann O’Brien and Samuel Beckett; P.D. James, who became known as “The Queen of Crime” for her layered mysteries starring the dashing detective Adam Dalgliesh; Galway Kinnell, who won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for lyrical poems written to be understood, as he put it, without the help of a graduate degree; Alistair MacLeod, a Canadian writer whose lofty reputation was built on his single novel, No Great Mischief, and two collections of stories; the far more prolific Walter Dean Myers, who wrote more than 100 books, including best-selling children’s books centered on the lives of disenfranchised black kids; Alastair Reid, the peripatetic poet, New Yorker writer, and translator; Rene Ricard, an eighth-grade dropout, brilliant self-taught poet and art critic, painter, and movie actor, who Andy Warhol called “the George Sanders of the Lower East Side”; Louise Shivers, a late-blooming Southern writer who produced just two novellas but won rapturous praise and comparisons to Flannery O’Connor. Through your words you will all live on. Drawings by Bill Morris

Barry Hannah and I

I still remember with hallucinatory precision reading Barry Hannah’s Ray while laying out on my futon in my graduate school hovel in Charlottesville, Virginia. I was a southern transplant having moved from the north to the south when I was ten. I had a love/hate relationship with the place. None of the then popular southern writers moved me much—Lee Smith, Clyde Edgerton, Jill McCorkle—all romanticized the South and its characters. Hannah, on the other hand, hadn’t gotten the memo about the folksy-soft-glow south; instead he drove full throttle into the taboos of the messed up region, taking on the Jesus-obsessed nuts, the macho lunatics still hurting from the loss of the Civil War, the racial friction, and the lush almost mystical landscape. Ray, the main character of the book of the same name, was familiar to me. He was a drunken doctor, a poet, an adulterer, a bigot, a deeply charming and unconventional man. The sentences in the book inspired me, reminding me of another hero, Jane Bowles. From the first few words you could not tell where the rest of the sentence might careen. “So I ordered a double Vodka to hose down my conscience” and “I invent cheerfulness from my heart, the biggest engine.” I quickly read more: the masterful Geronimo Rex about a factory owner’s son and his friendship with an African American marching-band leader and the mind-blowing stories in Airships. Ray, though, remained my favorite. Thoughout graduate school I dove continuously into its pages. Hannah was direct about the erotic sphere, a subject I was also trying to take on. “She was a violent delight. For about an hour we went into the beautiful nowhere together.” He was also honest about the derailing effects of that desire. “Ray, the filthy call of random sex is a killer. It kills all you know of the benevolent order of your new life.” The high low jam-up, the economy of language and the eccentric, incandescent phrasing: “To live and delight in healing, flying, fucking. Here are the men and women.” It all convinced me that if the power ever went off I could use the book to electrify my entire house. Flash forward eight years, my novel Suicide Blonde had recently come out and while it was getting good reviews, The New Yorker had not liked it. I tried to let that sink in. The New Yorker, the magazine I’d read since I was a teenager, willing myself into its pages on a weekly basis. The New Yorker, that Mount Olympus of the Literary World, had in its pages a cartoon caricature of me! The article, which was also a send up of my charismatic publisher, Morgan Entrekin, critiqued something I’d also been worried about, my novels grim fixation on sex. At first I cried and then spent days roaming around my apartment, pulling books off the shelf, only to convince myself that everything I read was better then anything I’d ever compose. My phone rang into this atmosphere of despondency and a voice, friendly and southern, asked for me. Barry introduced himself. “I wanted to call and say you wrote an honest book.” He went on to tell me that The New Yorker article had made him angry. “You should be proud of yourself,” he said, “you told the truth.” My heart was beating so loudly in my ears, I could only say, Thank you. Thank you so much. After that I was like his dog. I wrote to him expressing my adoration for his writing and telling him about myself, that I was a minister’s daughter and a new mother. He wrote to me asking for a “marginally southern story” for the then new magazine Oxford American. “As you know the south is a wide tremendous nation with big fingers in NYC.” As we corresponded I heard about his daily life, his love of tennis. “Trying to get back to my career as a minor tennis hero.” He had a weekly game with a graduate student. “He’s young but I’m old and crafty. I have to win points fast because of my awful Marlboro habit.” In one letter he asked for payment for an essay he’d written for an anthology Rick Moody and I were editing. “I want to start around the square soon with my roll of 100’s spread around to impress certain women who have been ignoring me. Starting with my wife, who’s studying French at night and does not light up like a candle when I enter the room.” When I complained about the business of writing he concurred. “Don’t feel alone. It’s the times, the viciously commercial times—very hard on writers of all sorts.” Barry entreated me to get “living tissue on the page.” He told me voice was about “finding your own past, your people and the conditions you’ve observed close to you, valuable.” He explained how first person was not about interior intellectual exposition, but a point of view where “you could be more interested in the fool.” Finally, whenever I complained about the difficulty of our profession, he’d remind me that we’d given ourselves to writing without any promises. That there was something “thrilling about risking your whole self for something with no guarantee.” His letters weren’t always strictly supportive. When I sent him the manuscript for my third book, Jesus Saves, he was honest about his reservations. He liked the mood of the book, the tone and the voice, but “there were many rough patches of prose.” He went on to say, “I do not speak from smug superiority in any way—I’m not above anything myself. I am capable still of huge blunders.” He asked to see a smoother version and, thanks to his honesty, I was able to made the book better. In 1998 Barry called me again, this time to offer me the Grisham Fellowship at the University of Mississippi. The day I arrived with my three-year-old daughter, Abbie, at the lovely sprawling house the college provided across the street from William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak, Barry drove up in his pickup truck with four stray dogs yapping in the back. In person, he was a round-faced, handsome, and deeply charming man. Our meetings around town thrilled me. Once as I walked into Ajax, a restaurant on the square, for lunch, Barry, who was sitting at a table eating an oyster po’boy and reading the new Phillip Roth novel, yelled out “Steinke! It’s a literary scene. It only takes two of us in Mississippi.” We met for lunch regularly, though it was the chance encounters I remember most. Once I was carrying a Hendrix CD I’d just bought from the local record store, when I ran into Barry. “Hendrix,” he said, “its like the blues with a helicopter in it.” I also learned the local lore about him. Though sober for years, stories about his drinking days were a staple of Oxford’s oral tradition. How, wearing only a speedo and dark glasses, he’d spend his Saturdays spread out on a lawn chair in his back yard drinking from a tray of martinis and blasting the Stones on his tape player. After each drink was done, he’d throw the glass, shattering it against the trashcan. One story had him, during a drunken night, knocking on doors with the excuse that he was diabetic and needed a ham sandwich for his blood sugar, from second story Square balconies he’d hook passerby’s hats with a fishing line, and then there was the legendary speech he gave at the SPCA on the importance of unifying the cat people and the dog people. Before I left to go back to Brooklyn, Barry took me to lunch at City Grocery on the downtown square one last time. He was going to give a lecture at the Bennington Summer Workshop about “Oxford Writers.” He dressed up for the lunch in a white sport coat and read off questions he’d written about my novels in a little notebook. I floated up, filled with absolute joy. One of his observations about the theme of motherlessness in my books, remains for me, the most valuable thing ever said about my work. That lunch was the last time I saw Barry in full and vibrant health. When I went down for a party for him in 2000, he looked thin and pale. His Lymphoma, first diagnosed in 1999, had worsened. “I’ve fallen behind the pack,” he told me. In 2002 though, he’d gained enough strength to come to the New School in New York City, where I taught, to read from his new novel, Yonder Stands Your Orphan. The room was packed with New School and Columbia graduate students as well as the local literati: Wells Tower, Ben Marcus, Amy Hemple, and Barry’s old editor Gordon Lish, who during the questions and answers yelled out repeatedly, I Love You Barry! After the reading, though, Barry had what he later called “an attack of a bad envious low key god on my person,” and checked himself into an uptown hospital. By the time I got to his room the next day, flowers in hand, he’d broken out of the place and flown back to Mississippi. Later that year while visiting Oxford, I tried to see Barry, who was again in the hospital. The nurse told me he was too sick for visitors. A few weeks later, back in Brooklyn, I got a letter. He called me an angel for “attempting to visit my corpse when I was so desperately ill.” He went on to tell me that Christ had appeared to him. This was not as surprising as it sounds. We’d both come from religious backgrounds and had, at times, been able to share the more mystical details of our spiritual life. Christ was “both in my room and immortal as promised. This world is a beautiful thing to me now, friend,” he wrote, “and I want it to be for you too.” Image: Joey Lauren Adams When I heard he’d died in the spring of 2010, just a few days before the Festival of the Book meant to celebrate him, I flew down to Mississippi immediately. The event became a sort of extended wake, with panels of his high school friends and former students. There were many Grisham Fellows, myself included, that spoke of Barry’s generosity of spirit, his wit, his kick-ass phrasing. Lisa and Richard Howorth, owners of the local bookstore Square Books, and close friends of Barry’s, had a reception after the memorial service. We carried tea lights down to the nearby cemetery, stopping at William Faulkner’s tombstone to place a bumper sticker on the granite that read I’d Rather Be Reading Airships. We stood under a white tent beside the fresh mound of dirt covered with flowers. People told stories; Lisa said how Barry had called her a “closeted nice person,” another how in a faculty meeting after a professor had given details of his new literary theory class, Barry suggested the class be called “The End of Joy.” A former student told how if Barry felt your workshop story wasn’t up to snuff he’d sometimes skip over it entirely. “For God’s sake,” he’d say, “try and do better next time.” I was too sad and thrilled to speak. My hero was dead, a writer who accomplished with Ray, along with his other books, what I still hoped to do, presenting the messed up and lovely world in raw and nimble prose, never flinching from the ugly, acknowledging joy, being honest about the tug toward God. “I think of rising in the Phantom at dawn and the dawn intense—orange, yellow, violet, blue-black—the day very present because it could be the day of your death.” We mourners finally laid our candles among the flowers. The high wizard of language was dead. A man who had transformed his brokenness, rage, and grief into stories as moving and powerful, to me, as those in the Old Testament, a man who’d offered me kindness, creative instruction, and in his own way, spiritual advice. I remembered what he’d written at the end of the letter where he’d told me he’d seen Christ, words that I copied and keep on an index card in my wallet. “Your prose gets more elegant. Please maintain this my dear. It’s the only way out of the present trash except Christ himself. I know this.”

Communicating Her Truth: Remembering Maya Angelou

A few weeks ago, I listened to Maya Angelou’s 1987 appearance on Desert Island Discs. The host was Michael Parkinson, a great interviewer who struggled rather sadly to connect with this particular castaway. The low point of the conversation is almost certainly this: "You described yourself as six foot, black and female. I want to ask you a question. It might sound silly, but it’s a serious question. Have you ever wished you were six foot, white and male?" Of course, most of us will experience an involuntary constriction of the chest when a privileged white man says to a member of any other demographic “but wouldn’t you like to me more like me?” Unsurprisingly, Angelou laughed, said no, and gave a charming, obfuscatory answer that precluded further discussion of the subject. But while Parkinson should have known better, it is daunting to write about Maya Angelou from a cultural remove. Since her death on Wednesday, I have struggled to communicate anything beyond the fact that I loved her and am terribly sorry that she’s gone. Even that feels like appropriation. And yet, I’ve listened to Angelou read Letters to My Daughter -- the best way to enjoy her work -- and I take her at her word when she says the following: “I gave birth to one child, a son, but I have thousands of daughters. You are Black and White, Jewish and Muslim, Asian, Spanish speaking, Native Americans and Aleut. You are fat and thin and pretty and plain, gay and straight, educated and unlettered, and I am speaking to you all.” This week’s torrent of grief hasn’t been for a public figure, it’s been much more personal than that. We are grieving a friend, a sister, a mother. Since the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1969, Angelou has used her own life as a channel for universally valuable truths about racism, poverty, gender, violence, relationships, rape, family, motherhood, loss, equality, hope. When I first read Angelou’s description of being raped, it was about 10:30 on a Sunday night and I was travelling home on the Tube. I knew it was going to happen and I tried to brace myself, but who could prepare for the frank, vivid brutality of the attack that left the seven year old feeling “like an old biscuit, dirty and inedible.” As soon as I began reading the chapter, I wished I hadn’t, wished I had more time to prepare, to read and feel that pain alone. My house in North London was about a 10 minute walk from the Tube station and I called my partner and spoke to her the whole way -- too frightened to face the darkness of the street or the world on my own. Yet that is how pain works in Maya Angelou’s writing -- indiscriminately elbowing its way into perfectly ordinary, contented experience. On the day she was raped (which is how she always described it, although obituaries have largely referred to “sexual abuse”), the young Angelou was about to go out to the library, where she spent most Saturday afternoons. The pain of segregation became clear when she and her brother attended the movies and were forced to sit on a dangerous, dirty balcony. And that memory resurfaced many years later when she stood to speak at a high-profile ceremony attended by the “most glamorous actors and actresses of the day,” leaving her incapable of delivering her prepared remarks and prompting a rumour that she had blanked out due to drugs. And days after she returned to the U.S. from Ghana to work with Malcolm X, buoyed with hope for black Americans, he was shot and killed. Although Angelou is celebrated for her resilience, and rightly so, her repeated traumas were devastating in their impact. They were, in her words, “times when my life has been ripped apart, when my feet forget their purpose and my tongue is no longer familiar with the inside of my mouth.” Still, she shared many of those traumas and, as countless publications have noted this week, her memoirs will almost certainly be her greatest legacy. By consciously writing non-fiction, Angelou stripped us of any possible shield or shred of wool. We can’t escape the pain in her work. When reading fiction, even fiction we know to be largely autobiographical, we have an emergency exit from pain, retreating into the childhood assurance that “it’s only make believe.” That said, some critics have questioned whether Maya Angelou’s memoirs are strictly truthful. They feature the tropes of literary fiction, there are discrepancies between the different texts, the dialogue is too extensive and too stylish to be entirely accurate, and major “characters” come out smelling suspiciously like roses. Angelou’s mother and frequent muse, Vivan Baxter, is portrayed as a beautiful, strong, caring person, despite the fact that she dispatched her children, three and five, to live with their grandmother and all but disappeared from their lives for many years. Bearing all that in mind, can we still categorize Angelou’s works as autobiographies? Should they still be treated as honest insights into the life and experience of black American women? The obvious response is that when it comes to memoir -- or indeed any form of biography -- there are no clear lines between fact and fiction. This is the kind of ambivalent answer I frequently gave as a hungover university student who hadn’t read the book being discussed, but in this case, I actually believe it’s correct. Writing and editing the story of a life inevitably involves emphasis, embellishment, narrative-creation, exclusion of important detail. The auto-biographer, purely by virtue of her extreme investment in the subject, can never be a reliable narrator. The most we can expect is that she will honestly communicate her truth. Surely that kind of honest communication comprised Angelou’s life work? Like many writers from oppressed communities, Angelou was consciously "speaking in the first-person singular talking about the first-person plural.” She was telling the story of black America through her own experience, to provide insight to other black Americans, but also as an act of communication with other groups, including white people. Angelou’s truth, for much of her life, was embedded in an unthinkably racist society. Of course she didn’t fixate on their flaws and of course she drew out their strengths. White people lied about black people, perpetuating stereotypes and practises that continue to tear at American society today. The prevailing narrative was pitched dramatically against her community, so she pushed in the other direction. What’s more, as well as showing us pain that in fiction would be unbearable, by having the courage to write memoir, Angelou also shared hope that in fiction would be implausible. It’s worth noting, I think, that although they now seem like figures from a distant past, both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were contemporaries of Angelou’s; Malcolm X was three years older and Dr. King a year younger. The violent brevity of their lives -- among many other black men and women -- may distort our understanding of how much has changed in 80 to 90 years. Although extreme and insidious racism survives, within the natural lifespan of Angelou’s generation, black Americans have dramatically forced back the tide of prejudice. Her hope may have appeared implausible, but she was right to hope. The caged bird sings with a fearful trill of things unknown but longed for still and his tune is heard on the distant hill for the caged bird sings of freedom. Image Credit: Wikipedia