Obits

A number of notable deaths over the past few weeks. Two pop musicians who gave me disco pleasure over the years: Donna Summer, memorialized in the NYT on the 18th; and Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees in the paper on the 21st. And the astounding baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, with a long obit on the 19th (right now I’m listening to his loving recordings of Irish, Welsh, and Scottish folk songs as set by Beethoven). Then, with some linguistic interest, the literary scholar and cultural critic Paul Fussell, in the paper on the 24th.

In this posting: extracts from Bruce Weber’s obit for Fussell, and then pieces of an entertaining story (by Arthur Brisbane, on April 15th) about obituaries in the Times.

Weber on Fussell:

Paul Fussell, the wide-ranging, stingingly opinionated literary scholar and cultural critic whose admiration for Samuel Johnson, Kingsley Amis and the Boy Scout Handbook and his withering scorn for the romanticization of war, the predominance of television and much of American society were dispensed in more than 20 books, died on Wednesday in Medford, Ore.

… From the 1950s into 1970s, Mr. Fussell followed a conventional academic path, teaching and writing on literary topics, specializing in 18th-century British poetry and prose. But his career changed in 1975, when he published “The Great War and Modern Memory,” a monumental study of World War I and how its horrors fostered a disillusioned modernist sensibility.

… The lavish praise and commercial success of “The Great War” transformed Mr. Fussell into a public intellectual, or perhaps more accurately a public curmudgeon; he crabbed, for instance, about Graham Greene’s “inability to master English syntax.” Mr. Fussell brought an erudition, a gift for readable prose, a willingness to offend and, as many critics noted, a whiff of snobbery to subjects like class, clothing, the dumbing down of American culture and the literature of travel.

… At Harvard he developed a disdain for academia akin to what he felt for the military. “From the 1950s on,” he wrote in “Doing Battle,” “my presiding emotion was annoyance, often intensifying to virtually disabling anger.”

Nonetheless, he pursued an academic career, teaching English first at Connecticut College for Women, then at Rutgers University and finally at the University of Pennsylvania. Among his many academic books were “The Rhetorical World of Augustan Humanism: Ethics and Imagery from Swift to Burke” (1965), “Poetic Meter and Poetic Form” (1965; revised, 1979) [this is a really excellent book on poetics — still, I am pleased to see, in print], and “Samuel Johnson and the Life of Writing” (1971).

These were books, he would later recall, that he was “supposed to write.” Then it struck him that he might reach a wider audience by comparing the art and literature created in response to earlier wars with that inspired by World War I. What he discovered was a deep fissure between the romantic views of the past, which saw warfare as a stage for gallantry and heroism, and the disillusionment bred by the shocking slaughter and grim hopelessness of trench warfare, the hallmark of “the great war.”

And then Brisbane (the public editor of the Times) on “Someone Dies. But That Is Only the Beginning.” Read on to savor the tale of Margalit Fox and Madeleine Cosman, near the end:

They pour in by the dozens every day: reports of the dead from near and far. Daniel Slotnik, a news assistant, handles them, including the heartfelt pleas from family members hoping their departed loved one will be elevated to that special form of life after death: an obituary in The New York Times.

Mr. Slotnik alerts the editors, including Bill McDonald, the obituary editor and ultimate arbiter of who will rise and who will not. For those who will not, it is often Mr. Slotnik who gives the family the bad news.

… [One letter-writer complained that space is] given on the obit pages … to the sketchy and the quirky, including … a veterinarian who tried to scam racing with a horse switcheroo and … a lady in Iowa who sculpted cows out of butter.

Indeed, Times obituaries go not to the conventionally virtuous but to the famous, the influential, the offbeat and to others whose lives, through writerly intervention, can be alchemized into newsprint literature.

“Every few days you can find something that is there for pure entertainment,” said Marilyn Johnson, author of “The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries.” “They sweep in something that the readers of obits know is not just the sober Times.”

Or, as Mr. McDonald put it: “Death is just the news peg. It’s the lives that make it interesting.”

… as Margalit Fox, a Times obituary writer for eight years, observed: “In obits, you are dealing with something new every day and a field you often don’t know. More than in many other genres, you are trespassing on somebody else’s turf. A banker, a modern dancer, an underwater cartographer — one has to be willing to trespass and be a quick enough study to pull it off.”

She calls it “terra incognita,” that unknown place she must visit every time an editor drops an assignment on her desk.

“The nature of obituary writing, it is a very intimate act,” she said. “At the beginning of a day you are meeting a stranger whose work you may not know and whom you may not have heard of when your editor comes over with a sheaf of clips from the morgue and an assignment.”

She added: “You really have to take in through inhalation every facet of this stranger’s life. By the time deadline rolls around and you have spent four or five hours in intense communion with this person, if you are lucky and the planets are in the right alignment, you can make an exhalation onto the page, which is not only swift and accurate but also has some of those resonant phrases.”

I had asked her about those phrases, the writerly touches that grace the best obituaries. Ms. Fox told of riding the subway home after handing in an obit on Madeleine P. Cosman, a scholar of medieval and Renaissance studies. An author and academic, Ms. Cosman could fly an airplane, play the piano and shoot a gun, and was a board member of the California Rifle and Pistol Association.

She was also, Ms. Fox thought, “truly a fringe right-wing ideologue.” Yet that thought was missing from the obituary until, on the subway ride home, inspiration struck and Ms. Fox called the office with a new ending.

The article now concluded, after a listing of the survivors, “Ms. Cosman also leaves behind a vast library of illuminated manuscripts and a large collection of handguns.”

… Appreciating a life in the context of its own time is essential. It was [Paul] Vitello [the newest obit writer] who wrote the Iowa butter-cow lady obit. He noted it wasn’t just her quirky story that made Norma Lyon interesting. He saw her as a woman of her time (born in 1929), with an artistic bent but few career paths open. So she became the official sculptor, in butter, of cows — and once, of a diorama of the Last Supper — at the Iowa State Fair.

Then she lived on in the Times obituary archive, where resides a most unusual collection of the powerful and the brilliant and those who were saved by a writer’s touch.

 

One Response to “Obits”

  1. A matter of size « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] (Earlier posting on Fussell — Bruce Weber’s obit — on this blog here.) […]

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