It’s seldom an event anymore, culturally speaking, when a writer dies. The passing of a major figure brings splashy tributes and immediate reckonings of where the writer fits among the greats. It’s gratifying and necessary, but it moves me far less than a last look at a writer who has been shuttled to the margins. Unexpected rewards lie in that direction, voices and sensibilities we’re poorer for having forgotten.
I wasn’t considering that prospect when Leonard Michaels died in May of 2003. His name was firmly in my mind as a writer to investigate further, based on his story “Manikin,” but it was his obituary in The New York Times that provided the final push. Just three years earlier he had published his final story collection, A Girl with a Monkey. His novels and stories were in print at the time of his death, in editions from Mercury House, a small, nonprofit press. More than a decade later, publishers and readers have reckoned with the scale of loss his passing represented: his works rate Classics editions from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
When the novelist Charles Wright died in 2008, I felt a momentary shock in thinking it was the acclaimed poet, who grew up in the small town of Pickwick Dam, Tennessee, not far from where I spent my childhood. Instead the writer in question was a forgotten African-American novelist. Farrar, Straus and Giroux published his work in the 1960s. James Baldwin noted his promise. Ishmael Reed called him, “Richard Pryor on paper.” Wright was witty and irreverent and, if his work is any indication, quite possibly at odds with the entire world. His three slim novels, two of them semi-autobiographical (The Wig is defiantly picaresque) were the work of a writer of uncommon talents. The outlines of his life after he stopped publishing are sketchy. He was an alcoholic and lived with his editor’s family for many years. His editor’s widow speaks of Wright with warmth, puzzlement and a touch of regret. People are beginning to take note of his work again, she says, and it’s a shame he’s not around to enjoy it.
In addition to a last bow for a worthy writer, the notice might bring attention to a vital project. Mary Ward Brown’s death in May of 2013 put her back on readers’ minds a final time. It also brought the enterprising reader in contact with the Deep South Books series from University of Alabama Press. Brown postponed her work for twenty-five years, in favor of farm work and child-rearing. Her first book, Tongues of Flame, was published in her late sixties. It won the PEN/Hemingway award in 1986. She followed that with another story collection and a memoir, but her late start and deliberate work rate prevented her from remaining prominent in readers’ minds.
The internet opens up great vistas in this search. The move to digital content keeps items from one day visible through several more. Also, access to distant papers means a broader pool of notices. The UK Independent reported Andrée Chedid’s death. Her novel The Multiple Child (L’Enfant Multiple) was out of print in the US. That didn’t diminish the lure of its opening lines, which nod to Eugene Atget, or its spare, refined style. More recently, the same paper noted the passing of Nancy Garden, who we should remember for her book Annie on My Mind. Garden’s work provided comfort and sustenance to gay teenagers who faced the same difficulties she had known in searching for a story that spoke to their own concerns and experiences. Garden remembered the difficulty of “growing up as a young lesbian in the ’50s, I looked in vain for books about my people.” Annie on My Mind was often targeted by groups seeking to ban it, but Garden’s contributions didn’t go unnoticed. The American Library Association recognized her lifetime of literary influence with the Margaret Edwards Award in 2003.
There are of course the writers who come as a complete surprise, despite their full careers. Morris Renek died in in 2013. The New York Times’ headline called him “a Novelist of Gift and Determination.” All that was news to me. He was eighty-eight years old, the author of five novels. A bit of digging turned up the critic John Leonard, calling Siam Miami, “a comic, profound and elegantly written novel,” and concluding, “Mr. Renek is a writer.” Those must have been heady days for Renek. A notice of that quality and magnitude might well have been a breakthrough moment, yet the favorable review was no guarantee against reader indifference in a book’s own time, let alone thereafter. Leonard’s judgment was sound, but like all Renek’s work, Siam Miami was out of print at the time of his death. A similar fate befell Newton Thornburg, whose Cutter and Bone earned him praise as “one of the best writers of his generation” in The Guardian when he died in 2011. They await another turn in print, even if that doesn’t bring the type of gradual, sustained acclaim the late John Williams’s novel Stoner enjoyed in recent years.
And on occasion what emerges from reading these notices is powerfully sad. In The New Republic, where Rachel Wetzsteon was Poetry Editor for a brief period before her death, Adam Kirsch noted that she “took on the inheritance of Larkin and Auden.” Wetzsteon committed suicide in late 2009. Kirsch also offers an appraisal of Wetzsteon as her generation’s best love poet, at The Poetry Foundation. “She had been severely depressed in recent months, partly over the breakup of a three-year romance,” according to The New York Times. It’s said that one does not die of love. No doubt that held true for Wetzsteon as well. In her work, though, the reader finds great openness and equally great vulnerability. In the sonnet sequence that opens Home and Away, Wetzsteon writes, “But the great hand that holds us between fingers/cannot hold one poor candle to this new fist/squeezing my heart.” There seemed to be a strange intensity throughout, though it’s dangerously easy to make these judgments in retrospect, to substitute evidence which is speculative at best for the many unknowns which built to the final act of the writer’s life.
There is perhaps something morbid about such a habit, though it touches on the celebratory as well, thanks to the urge to delve into the late writer’s life’s work. Frederick Busch had a full complement of novels on bookstore shelves at the time of his 2006 death. I had always regarded him lightly (who knows how we form these impressions?), but the prospect of an out-of-print treasure, his 1979 novel Rounds, overcame my objections. Let’s be clear: Rounds is not a treasure. It’s out of print for a reason, but it did suggest Busch was capable of more. I tried Harry and Catherine, work Busch created after a decade worth of additional seasoning as a writer and a human being. It’s a book which, the writer Ron Carlson observed, “is about rich, deep intimacy, about the larger loves that people come to in maturity.” He could also have called it warm, subtle and honest without disgracing himself.
It was Frederick Busch who observed that, “Money is a letter from the world to an author about his work.” The literary world is not solely peopled by the greats. The vast majority of writers are fortunate to make a brief mark before fading into obscurity. The writer’s obituary is the summing up, if I may purloin Mr. Maugham’s phrase, a final letter to the world about a writer’s life and work. Without these send-offs, we stand to lose sight of countless writers, their work and the literary odds-and-ends that go with them. Alistair MacLeod’s passing earlier this year brought a memorable portrait of his enduring relationship with his publisher, Douglas Gibson of McClelland & Stewart.
For years Gibson encouraged MacLeod to write a novel, a regimen including periodic phone calls, and the deployment of committed listeners to MacLeod’s readings, to keep track of new developments in the book. He popped up by surprise at a train station once and playfully offered to carry the briefcase containing MacLeod’s only copy of the manuscript that became No Great Mischief. MacLeod declined. It was more than a decade, all told, before he finally turned the manuscript over to Gibson. It was a great success, a justification of both men’s endurance.
Ivan Gold’s death reminded us that his first book arrived with Lionel Trilling’s blessings emblazoned on its cover and the weighty expectations which accompany such praise. He published two novels in the four-plus decades after Trilling’s endorsement. His career stands as a cautionary tale about the perils of early acclaim and the toll alcoholism can take on a writer’s work. These are the raw ingredients that inspire books like John Sutherland’s Lives of the Novelists, where we are reminded that Norman Douglas’s last words were either, “Love, love, love,” or, “Get these fucking nuns away from me;” and David Markson’s Reader’s Block, with its curious, obsessive mix of anecdotes. They are the fabric of the literary life, and an invitation to unforeseen wonders.