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.
Last year, I published 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die; this year saw the death of several authors whose achievements are celebrated therein. As 2019 draws to its own ending, I’ve gathered the brief essays I dedicated to works by these late writers into a small gallery to commemorate the lives they led and the meaning they left behind.
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.
Written in the author’s mid-forties, it tells a story of childhood in the English countryside, high times at Oxford during the 1930s, bleak times during the war; of adolescent romance imagined into being, carried to the brink of adulthood, then lost with crushing effect. The ensuing sadness shadows Athill’s emerging career at the BBC and in the book world — she was one of the founding members of the distinguished publishing firm André Deutsch — until she learns, through the wisdom of work and words, to conjure something like happiness from the vagaries of love and the verities of time.
Beginning with an evocation of her grandmother’s last days, Athill’s narrative unfolds within the worrying embrace of that matriarch’s memory: “What have I lived for?” the dying woman asks the young Diana. Asking the same question of herself in these pages, the author answers with startling alertness to the equivocations of emotion and intention that shape the weather of our waking hours. Beautifully honest in its self-portrait, Instead of a Letter captures, with paradoxical exactitude, the tentative aura every pilgrim bears on her progress toward maturity.
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.
As much as this is a book about the author growing up, it is also a book about Lucy growing old, and the son frames the bulk of the chapters — vibrantly drawn, good-humored scenes of hard times; adventures with the extended family of aunts and uncles; boyhood and adolescent antics; eventual graduation to college and the military — with affecting portrayals of his aged mother adrift in senility. The clear-eyed honesty of the opening and closing pages does not disguise the enduring love he feels toward the woman he remembers so vividly throughout the book, “a warrior mother fighting to protect her children in a world run by sons-of-bitches.” She was determined that her son Russell would make something of himself, as indeed he did through every stage of his distinguished career as a writer, which reached a culmination of sorts in Growing Up. In his apprenticeship as a newspaper reporter, he learned how to find a story and tell it; in his heyday as a satirist, he perfected the ability to illuminate the private and public vanities of the tumultuous times in which he lived; as a memoirist, he added a new dimension to his already considerable skill set. It’s best called wisdom, and it makes this generous remembrance of things past a delight from start to finish.
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.
Set in a time and place where racial segregation, Jim Crow injustice, political oppression, and poverty promise no future and guarantee little enough present to the black men and women brought to life in its pages, A Lesson Before Dying is told by Grant Wiggins, who has returned to Louisiana to teach at the poor church school on the plantation where he was raised. He has grown unhappy with his decision to come back to this small, familiar world after having left it to attend college, and he dreams of leaving once again, for good. Holding himself aloof from those around him, Wiggins is reluctant to interfere when his aunt and her friend Miss Emma, godmother of the wrongly condemned man, ask him to visit the slow-witted Jefferson as he awaits electrocution. They want him to help Jefferson rediscover some dignity after having been compared to a hog in court by his own attorney during the closing arguments at his trial. “I want the teacher make him know he’s not a hog, he’s a man,” says Miss Emma. “I want him know that ’fore he go to that chair.”
Neither man embraces the idea, and for several visits, Jefferson won’t talk. But, under pressure from the two elderly women and from his girlfriend, Wiggins sticks with it, slowly bridging the gap between himself and Jefferson so that the doomed man learns to confront his inhuman fate by embracing his human one, thereby connecting both men to the wider community in unexpected ways. What’s inevitable proves to be filled with profound surprises, not the least of which is the legacy of learning the student leaves his teacher.
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.
If you want the most satisfying cover-to-cover encounter with his intelligence, pick up the first volume of his autobiography, Unreliable Memoirs, a hilariously funny narrative of his coming-of-age in Australia before setting off to Cambridge. Or try As of This Writing: The Essential Essays 1968–2002, where you will be treated to illuminating encapsulations of disparate writers and subjects you always wanted to know more about, even if they’re completely new to you: One of James’s talents is a gift for offhand instruction that makes learned curiosity infectious.
Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts, on the other hand, is admittedly a bit of a mess. “In the forty years it took me to write this book,” James discloses at the outset, “I only gradually realized that the finished work, if it were going to be true to the pattern of my experience, would have no pattern. It would be organized like the top of my desk, from which the last assistant I hired to sort it out has yet to appear.” The resulting volume is a collection of forty-odd brief essays, each prompted by a sentence, epigram, or passage James has highlighted in the course of his wide reading. To use a coinage from another age, it is at heart a “commonplace book,” a personal journal preserving passages of particular interest; what makes Cultural Amnesia uncommon is the way each quotation James collects leads to a consideration of its import, as well as the circumstances, character, and fate of the person who said or wrote it. Piecing together and embellishing the strands of his reading life, James reveals how they’ve informed both a cerebral consciousness and a moral conscience. “I wanted to write about philosophy, history, politics and the arts all at once, and about what had happened to those things during the course of the multiple catastrophes into whose second principal outburst (World War I was the first) I had been born in 1939,” James explains. His gallery is large enough to include the jazz giant Louis Armstrong and the French political philosopher Raymond Aron, the Roman historian Tacitus, the British miniaturist Beatrix Potter, and such emblems of mid-twentieth-century courage and suffering as Egon Friedell and Heda Margolius Kovály (whose stories are unforgettable). In a perfect example of James’s cultural catholicity, the actor Tony Curtis stands next to Ernst Robert Curtius, scholar of medieval Latin literature.
The whole enterprise is an impassioned and — by dint of James’s glorious style — engaging defense of the reading life: “somewhere within the total field of human knowledge,” he writes, “humanism still beckons to us as our best reason for having minds at all.” This massive, sprawling, quirky exploration of one man’s humanistic vocation leaves us not only with a remarkable reading list, but with a thinking list as well. In its idiosyncratic way, it’s a book you can’t put down, and will never exhaust.
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.
Yet it is not just Massie’s personal connection to his subject, or his sensitive attention to the Romanovs’ intimate concerns, or even his rich portrayal of Rasputin’s sinister influence that makes Nicholas and Alexandra such a memorable and enduring volume. The material the author marshals is rich enough in politics, personalities, and intrigue to provide the plots of any number of Russian novels, a shelf of studies of royal dynasties and military alliances, and at least one storybook romance (that between the title characters). Massie’s mastery in ordering this enormous trove — the astuteness of his historical emphases, his deft characterizations, the felicity of his prose — all combine to shape a single massive and absorbing narrative. As it unfolds, the familial dilemma becomes the kernel of an astonishing chronicle of history, religion, and revolution, one that encompasses both the twilight of Imperial Russia and the martyrdom of Nicholas, Alexandra, and their five children. Still, despite the scale and spectacle of the book’s subject, it is the human qualities of this doomed family — faith and love, courage and dignity in the face of a horrific fate — that in the end move readers most.
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.
It’s quite a story. At various times in the course of Morris’s nine-hundred-plus pages, Roosevelt reveals his remarkable talents as writer, rancher, soldier, and politician — to say nothing of his claim to the title of “fastest handshaker in history.” Consider these highlights:
• While studying at Columbia Law School, T. R. wrote the still authoritative Naval War of 1812, which was published in 1882.
• Sickly and asthmatic as a boy, Roosevelt later devoted himself to what he called the “strenuous life.” As a hunter and outdoorsman, he spent some time as a rancher in the Badlands of Montana, to which he moved to escape his grief after the tragically early death of his first wife in 1884.
• In 1898, T. R. resigned as assistant secretary of the navy to form, and eventually lead, the Rough Riders cavalry regiment. Their famous charges up Cuba’s Kettle and San Juan Hills during the Spanish-American War made T. R. a national hero.
• Elected governor of New York in 1898, Roosevelt became William McKinley’s vice-presidential running mate in the 1900 election, assuming the position of chief executive himself in September 1901 after McKinley’s death. (It was in that same month, incidentally, that Roosevelt apparently first used his famous slogan “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”)
Morris makes the most of his rich material, orchestrating vast stores of incident and information into an engaging narrative that is a joy to read. He makes the force of T. R.’s larger-than-life presence felt in each of the varied contexts Roosevelt so vigorously dominated, illuminating the complicated character behind the trademark caricature — pince-nez, heavy mustache, dazzlingly big teeth — that history has handed down as his enduring image. Along the way, Morris also draws a detailed portrait of the age.
This enormous yet briskly compelling book is the first volume of Morris’s T. R. trilogy. Theodore Rex, covering Roosevelt’s presidency, appeared in 2001; it was followed nine years later by Colonel Roosevelt, which details its subject’s post–White House career. Each is written with the same verve and intelligence that make The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt such a delight.
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.
Set in post–Civil War Ohio, but crisscrossing time and space in an intricate series of flashbacks and shifting perspectives, Beloved tells the story of Sethe, a runaway slave raising the children she led out of Kentucky. She is tormented by what she has escaped and haunted by what she cannot: the memory of the infant daughter for whom Sethe chose doom rather than slavery. A ghost story in which the author reveals the spirit at the heart of her tale in her first sentences, the book’s suspense is built not on surprise as much as upon the particularity of the unfolding grief that drives Sethe and her extended circle of family and old friends to the brink of madness. Infusing her realistic narrative with supernatural power and presence in the apparition who gives the book its name, Morrison conjures emotional truths more powerful than a strict naturalism ever has access to. This is a novel about love, loss, regret, horror, the high price of freedom and the illusions it buys, and, perhaps most of all, the eternal human need, despite the sorrowful and unfulfilled promises of past and present, for “some kind of tomorrow.”
Upon its publication, the critic John Leonard wrote that, without Beloved, “our imagination of the nation’s self has a hole in it big enough to die from.” Yet it does not diminish the novel’s native eloquence to suggest that in its pages Morrison ponders, and makes palpable in an American way, themes that reach all the way back to Greek tragedy. “This is not a story to pass on,” we read on the last page of Beloved. But such stories can’t help themselves from being told eventually: That, in fact, is the most human truth of all, and readers far into the future will be grateful that Morrison, writing those words as she drew Sethe’s tale to a close, had proved them wrong.