The Death of the Author

A memorial gallery of seven writers who died in 2019: Diana Athill, Russell Baker, Ernest J. Gaines, Clive James, Robert K. Massie, Edmund Morris, and Toni Morrison.

Diana Athill (December 21, 1917–January 23, 2019)

Instead of a Letter: The Detours of Disappointed Love

There are many pleasures to be found in the pages of a memoir: the achievements of the author, if they be splendid; her sophistication, intellect, or humor; the insight that comes from sharing one person’s perspective on a particular time or place. What is more rare, and what one gets from Diana Athill’s Instead of a Letter, is the alternately uncomfortable and exhilarating revelation of another’s experience, in all its day-by-day, year-to-year uncertainty.

Russell Baker (August 14, 1925–January 21, 2019)

Growing Up: A Satirist Comes of Age

In 1979, New York Times reporter and commentator Russell Baker won the Pulitzer Prize for his “Observer” column; three years later he won another for this autobiographical book. As the title suggests, Growing Up focuses on his childhood, Depression-era years spent in Virginia, New Jersey, and Baltimore under the watchful influence of his mother (his alcoholic father died when Baker was five). Lucy Elizabeth was “a formidable woman. Determined to speak her mind, determined to have her way, determined to bend those who opposed her. In that time when I had known her best, my mother had hurled herself at life with chin thrust forward, eyes blazing, and an energy that made her seem always on the run.” She couldn’t stand a quitter and wouldn’t be one, even when her husband’s death meant giving up one of her children to the care of relatives.

Ernest J. Gaines (January 15, 1933–November 5, 2019)

A Lesson Before Dying: The Dignity of Resistance

It is 1940s Louisiana, and the innocent black man named Jefferson who had the bad luck to be in a store when a white shopkeeper was killed has been falsely charged with robbery and murder, convicted, and sentenced to death. We know how events will turn out, just as the characters do, because inevitability is the central reality of the all-too-real fictional world Ernest J. Gaines creates in this spare and moving novel. But it’s not the central truth.

Clive James (October 7, 1939–November 24, 2019)

Cultural Amnesia: An Uncommon Commonplace Book

“Clive James is a brilliant bunch of guys,” a New Yorker wag once aptly wrote. Across several decades, all of them kept very busy producing a body of work — essays, television reviews, memoir, poetry, fiction, songs, wisecracks — that was broad, deep, and smart, exhibiting an unmatched combination of brio and brilliance. James may be the most entertaining intellectual you’ll ever read.

Robert K. Massie (January 5, 1929–December 2, 2019)

Nicholas and Alexandra: The Family Drama of Imperial Russia’s Fall

Robert Massie’s account of the fall of Imperial Russia paints a vast and fascinating historical canvas that is vividly illuminated by the family drama the author sees as its focal point: the hemophilia of Tsarevich Alexis, only son and heir of Nicholas II, last czar of all the Russians. The illness had particular significance for the author, as he reveals in his introduction, because it was shared by his own son. In another book, Massie has described how Nicholas and Alexandra sprang from a bit of research left over from a story on hemophilia he had written for the Saturday Evening Post. “For years,” Massie explained, “I had heard the story of Rasputin and the Tsarevich. But it was only in outline — brief, remote, indistinct, blurred. Historians passed over it quickly, usually in no more than a sentence or two. Somehow to me, both as the father of a hemophiliac and as a product of the rigorous historical discipline I was trained in at Oxford, this treatment seemed inadequate.” Massie began learning as much as he could about “the most famous hemophiliac” and the mysterious holy man who, because he seemed able to control the boy’s bleeding, was entrusted by the czar with greater and greater power — with disastrous effects for the Romanovs and their rule.

Edmund Morris (May 27, 1940–May 24, 2019)

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt: The Pre-Presidential T. R.

Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) was the twenty-sixth president of the United States. He remains our youngest chief executive (he was forty-two when he assumed the office upon the assassination of President McKinley), and he is certainly one of the most fascinating. Naturalist John Burroughs once said of his friend “T. R.” that he was a “many-sided man, and every side was like an electric battery.” In the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, acclaimed biographer Edmund Morris covered the unflaggingly energetic pre-presidential years of this dynamo.

Toni Morrison (February 18, 1931–August 5, 2019)

Beloved: Dearly Departed

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” says a character in William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun, and novelist Toni Morrison, who devoted part of her master’s thesis at Cornell to a study of Faulkner’s work, seems to animate every intuition those words contain in the pages of her fifth novel, Beloved.

Adapted from the book, 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die by James Mustich. Copyright © 2018 by James Mustich. Published by Workman Publishing.

Now: Author, 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die. Then: publisher and chief bookseller, A Common Reader.

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