obituary

Maya Angelou 1928 - 2014

Maya Angelou was a memoirist, poet, and activist, but more significantly, she was a keen, measured public voice of a kind that is increasingly rare in this ever widening, ever more shallow puddle that is early 21st century American culture. That she became the iconic figure and social force she was is all the more remarkable when one thinks of the place and time from which she rose.

Tom Clancy (1947 – 2013)

Cover Art: Executive OrdersTo say that Tom Clancy was a creature of his times is not a put-down. It is a sovereign fact that he capitalized in a big way on the resurgence in capital P-style patriotism of the Reagan years, as well as the long-hoped-for healing of the nation’s wounds inflicted by the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal and the rise of the Rust Belt where our Industrial Might once stood. But that zeitgeist booster rocket he rode to vast fame and still vaster fortune would not have mattered one bit were Clancy not a first rate novelist—a master of the military thriller, a genre that if he did not invent, he made his own so thoroughly that he might as well have.

Clancy passed away Tuesday of undisclosed causes at the age of 66. To say he was an industry unto himself is not hyperbole. Seventeen of his novels sat atop the New York Times Best Seller List and one hundred million copies of his books are currently in print, but perhaps most culturally significant is that many of the movie adaptations of his books were not only wildly profitable, they were watchable as well (which probably had as much to do with Clancy's signature tight plotting, complex conflicts and memorable characters as anything the film makers did).

Seamus Heaney (1939 - 2013)

cover art: Electric Light by Seamus HeaneyThe Nobel laureate, Seamus Heaney, had the great good fortune to be born in a place that values poetry in a way that most Americans cannot imagine. He was an honest-to-goodness celebrity in his native Ireland, not perhaps on a Bieberian scale, but solidly, unostentatiously famous nonetheless. Right around the time he accepted the Nobel laurels, he became something beyond the poet and teacher he started out to be. He became a sage, a go-to quote-maker on the Big Questions of the day, and I think to some extent he relished those extracurricular roles. I know he was awfully good at them.

It's always tempting to see a softening in the work when someone in any profession has reached that level of success, and perhaps the poems became bigger, more aware of their place in his country's sociopolitical discourse, and his own legacy, but they were still masterful. For me, there will always be something in his early work when all that talent was balling up into a fist and he was finding new ways to say what had to be said, when he hadn't quite become the master (though so much better, more naturally gifted than anyone working at the time). Those are the poems I suspect I'll return to most.

Carlos Fuentes 1928 - 2012

Cover Art: The Buried Mirror by Carlos Fuentes

Carlos Fuentes who passed away last week at the age of 83 left behind a multifaceted legacy that most writers can only dream of. Up until the very day he died, he was an active, larger-than-life presence in the literary, political, social and intellectual life of his native México, and one imagines his influence will still be felt long after the memory of him as a flesh and blood human being is gone.

He was lionized in his own country, but his influence on the literary environment in this one should not be underestimated. It was Fuentes, along with Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Julio Cortázar, who, sometime around 1975, shouldered their way up to that big table in the back of Elaine’s and demanded to be seated.

Florence Parry Heide (1919 - 2011)

Cover Art: The Shrinking of TreehornChildren’s author, Florence Parry Heide, passed away on October 24 at the age of 92. The author of over one hundred books for children and teens, she is perhaps best known for The Shrinking of Treehorn and its sequels, all illustrated by Edward Gorey.

Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011)

She was born in England to American parents and was an international star by the time she was a teenager.

She entranced people all over the world with her beauty – especially with those incredible violet eyes.  Yet she never really thought of herself as a great beauty and said that Ava Gardner truly deserved that title.

Patricia Neal (1926-2010)

On August 8, Patricia Neal passed away. She was an outstanding actress, nominated for two Academy Awards, winning one of them for Best Actress in the Paul Newman movie Hud. I first remember hearing of her when she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in The Subject was Roses.

Lena Horne (1917-2010)

When it comes to certain celebrated people, we find ourselves mulling over appropriate adjectives to describe them.

Exceptional. Courageous. Talented. Strong. Unique. Beautiful.

All of these words can be used to describe Lena Horne. We lost her last week. She was 92 years old.

Lynn Redgrave (1943-2010)

Lynn Redgrave passed away this week. A member of an influential acting family, she was intelligent, talented, beautiful, and inspirational. She came to the attention of most Americans back in 1966 when she played the title character in Georgy Girl. Long before Bridget Jones there was Georgy. Redgrave received an Oscar nomination for the role and won the Golden Globe for it.

Lucille Clifton 1936-2010

Cover Art: Wild Blessings: The Poetry of Lucille Clifton by Hilary HolladayLucille Clifton wrote as close to the bone as a poet can. She cut away much punctuation, all ornament and everything else that was superfluous to the task at hand. Her poems often had the rhythm of speech, but it was speech as one wishes speech could be. 

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