The Dead Writer's Society
I rarely notice the obituary section of The New York Times, but this past January, I could not ignore the headlines: J.D. Salinger, Howard Zinn, Abraham Sutzkever, and Louis Auchincloss all died within the span of a week. All of these men were writers who, in recently leaving the world, have left behind on culture a mark that we, unfortunately, cannot fully identify.
I hadn’t even heard of Sutzkever, a famous Yiddish poet, until I had shopped a Jewish Studies class, and it was my Google Reader that led me to Auchincloss, a lawyer and social observer. As a government concentrator at Harvard, I was never exposed to these cultural contributors. As I read about these men, a part of me regretted my failure to recognize their accomplishments while they lived, and a part of me admired and, at the same time, felt sorry for the obituary writer who had to select the most important and interesting moments of each person’s death to memorialize.
These dead men’s great names present somewhat of a burden to the journalist, just as the name “Harvard” might pressure a freshman to study hard and join 17 extracurricular activities (and 23 more email lists). Certainly, each writer’s most famous accomplishments are worth writing about, but what about the fascinating, lesser known ones? What about Zinn’s plays, Salinger’s book that was made into a movie—"Foolish Heart"—and the novel that Auchincloss wrote while still at Yale?
These smaller pieces didn’t left enough of a mark on our culture to become the centerpieces of these men’s obituaries, and it would be strange if figures such as these were commemorated for works no one has heard of. On the other hand, why do so many lines need to be devoted to their great works when they are already so well known? A paragraph would be sufficient to inform the uninitiated, instead of half a page. It might even be an greater honor for these men if our society’s memorializers were to emphasize the lesser-known aspects of their works and lives in their obituaries. Readers might be tempted to learn more about these pieces, and we could reevaluate, as a society, their place in our society. This wouldn’t be revising history; it would be adding to it and, at the same time, enriching our culture. It would be the work of future historians to evaluate what we have done.
We should dig deeper into writers’ books after shoveling the dirt onto their graves, because there’s always more to know. We should search for meaning, turning little details of the tabloid variety into sources for discussions about our society, our values, and ourselves. Furthermore, such bits of journalistic writing should be details written not for the sake of drawing the reader into the story but for the sake of expanding our knowledge.
While I don’t believe that every opinion article ought to attack our thoughts and actions—it’s equally interesting to be prompted to think differently—I do believe that journalists have more work to do when it comes to balancing their role in evaluating society and their role in connecting to it. The problem is that we are part of the problem. We love to comment on newspaper articles with letters to the editor and comments online. Journalists, therefore, have to face the challenge of, on the one hand, responding to our need to connect to their work, and on the other, standing apart from society and criticizing it.
One way to rebalance the journalist’s role as societal critic is to simplify our forms of communication. For example, does an online newspaper really have to have blogs on it? While, on one hand, blogs are a feature that differentiate online newspapers from their print form, the medium of the internet is already significantly different: thanks to links, I can read through much more content online than I could in print. I don’t need tools that merely summarize the paper or serve as as an outlet for user-generated content; for the latter, I can just read blogs, watch YouTube videos, and sometimes even comment on Facebook.
While this solution is only partial, it’s a way to start. We need a figurative Dead Writer’s Society, a place where obituaries and obituary readers do more to identify what we value in our culture. I, for one, am going to read more obituaries. Maybe doing so will help me understand the contribution of other great figures to our culture and society.
Alina Voronov ’10 is a government concentrator in Cabot House.