Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The Art of Obits + Harold Cruse, RIP

I have long been fascinated by obituaries; I usually don't conclude a reading of either a print or online newspaper without having glanced at the obituary page or section. And I do mean obituaries, rather than death notices, which are usually very brief and say almost nothing beyond listing information on the funeral, surviving relatives, and so on. Although this is a macabre enthusiasm, I love to read about the lives people have led, especially lives very different from my own, whatever the quotient of joy or tragedy, and I find that the best obituaries are really bonsaized biographies or potted histories that reveal not only something about the people they're memorializing, but about the world they lived in.

I even considered at one time of pursuing obituary-writing as a side-profession, though I had no idea of how you went about it; I wasn't sure if one applied specifically to a given news bureau's obituary division or section, or whether all the reporters or writers on staff tried their hands (pens, keys) at it, or when some famous outside person is asked to pen something appropriate and summary. I subsequently read a few online and published articles on how different newspapers prepare obituaries, and I did scan Porter Shreve's novel on this topic as well, so now I have a better sense of the process, but questions remain.

One is, when do ertain major papers or news bureaus (like the AP, Reuters or AFP), at the behest of the editor of the obituary or another bureau, decide toprepare the obituaries of the famous (but not always moribund) people? Is it after the first burst of fame or notoriety? Or at the sign of a major health crisis? And is it true that in some cases the editors will request that these famous people indicate whom the staff might contact for updates, information, and so on? This strikes me as even more creepy (though also flattering)--will the obit prep become prophetic? Take the case of Susan Sontag, for example: the Times may have begun writing her obituary well before her first serious bout with cancer in 1973 or 1974; but certainly after it they had some draft text in place to epitaphize her. (And even then, it became clear the "newspaper of record" didn't know exactly how to write her epitaph or what was appropriate and what excessive, as it edited down one of the most mesmerizing descriptions of a creative person I've ever read to much more inert prose in a later edition, and left out the fact that her longtime lover was--her lover!) Here, in fact, is Margalit Fox's amazing passage that someone edited down:

Over four decades, public response to Ms. Sontag remained irreconcilably divided. She was described, variously, as explosive, anticlimactic, original, trendy, iconoclastic, captivating, hollow, rhapsodic, naïve, sophisticated, approachable, abrasive, aloof, attention-seeking, charming, condescending, populist, puritanical, sybaritic, sincere, posturing, ascetic, voluptuary, right-wing, left-wing, mannered, formidable, brilliant, profound, superficial, ardent, bloodless, dogmatic, challenging, ambivalent, accessible, lofty, erudite, lucid, inscrutable, solipsistic, intellectual, visceral, reasoned, pretentious, portentous, maddening, lyrical, abstract, narrative, acerbic, opportunistic, chilly, effusive, careerist, sober, gimmicky, relevant, passé, facile, illogical, ambivalent, polemical, didactic, tenacious, slippery, celebratory, banal, untenable, doctrinaire, ecstatic, melancholic, humorous, humorless, deadpan, rhapsodic, aloof, glib, cantankerous and clever. No one ever called her dull.
Also, what do obituary writers decide to focus on, or omit (beyond the required date and place of birth, occupation, surviving relatives, etc.), and why? Are there things they're required to leave out, along the lines of "not speaking ill of the dead?" What do the emphasized facts (or in some cases, lies) and those silences mean? Who are they geared towards, and how (much) do these contribute, especially in the cases of obituaries of notable public figures (or even unknowns) in major publications or the leading newswire services, to shaping popular, public perceptions of the deceased persons? In the case of Johnnie Cochran's LA Times obit, the author focused a great deal on Cochran's pre-O.J. civil rights legal practice in Los Angeles, which was the city of his upbringing, and mentioned the fact that he was the first black law clerk in the city attorney's office, a significant historical achievement, yet did not broach the Bruce trial. It also gave far more information about his personal life, though it drew somewhat of a veil over large portions of it. The NY Times cited far less about this earlier work and naturally focused extensively on his New York highlights. There was no mention of his being the first black law clerk or one of the first black assistant city attorneys, though it probably would have noted this about the person holding a similar distinction in New York. Or maybe not.

Related to this is the language and forms that obituary writers (and the editors who scrutinize) employ. I've studied them closely for tips on narrative concision, and have always said I would assign a fictional obituary as an exercise in one of my creative writing classes, but haven't done so--yet. It's obvious what the plot and climax are, and outside of fiction works, truth must be central (verifiable truth, no less)--so characterization, tone, voice, structure and narrative weight, pacing, and the process of narration become key. There are certain linguistic formulas or phrases that crop up in smaller papers, such as "baptized into the Hope of Christ's Resurrection" or "received the Sacrament of the Holy Mother Church" (both used for Roman Catholics), as well as structural formulas. In fact, the obituaries in smaller papers are utterly formulaic; my local paper, the Jersey Journal, usually has a page or two of obituaries that follow the formula "Services for X, age, [where, when, etc.]--X died [where], X was born [where], X worked [job, where, how long], X has the following survivors [names, order=spouse, children, parents, siblings, grandchildren, great grandchildren, friends]." If there's a divergence from this pattern, I immediately take note. I used to read the black-owned newspapers in St. Louis (one of which is owned by a distant relative) when I was growing up, and I found their obituaries to be fairly formulaic too, but always full of extraordinary details; they often were like little history lessons, on the early post-slavery era, the Great Migration, and so on. But even larger papers like the Chicago Tribune or Boston Globe follow formulas of this sort for all except designated prominent people. At times these obits read like microfictions or short-shorts, though of course they're about real people who've died. They are, in effect, gravemarkers--so we return to the macabre--yet they're also, at a certain level mnemonics. I can recall details in some obituaries that I may never forget, and it is these shorthands, like details in works of fiction, that keep the deceased alive.

And what about the people who've died? What would they think about some of these write ups? Some, of course, would be furious, while others, like Sontag, I think, might have been quite charmed at the NY Times's exuberant, elliptical initial piece, though I can only imagine she'd have been annoyed by ex-NY Times Book Review editor-in-chief Charles McGrath's subsequent, inexact, inept attempt at a memento mori.
Speaking of the deceased, Harold Cruse, the African-American studies pioneer and intellectual pathblazer who wrote The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, a trenchant, often brilliant and infuriating critique of black intellectual life and agency, and Plural but Equal: A Critical Study of Blacks and Minorities and America's Plural Society, as well as other important works, just passed. I first read this book while an undergraduate, and found it both appealing in its scorching analysis of black intellectuals' dependence upon European models and their pro-integrationist stance, particularly at a critical moment during the Civil Rights era, and also deeply troubling in its problematization of what seemed to me to be every option other than a separatist nationalist approach, which I knew even then would have little place for my cosmopolitan affinities and liberal ideological leanings. I also found his racial essentialism troubling too. I did, however, take to heart his emphasis on the creation of self-defining black cultural identities (vis-à-vis America in general), on striving for autonomy (in all forms), and on economic and social solidarity, and his concept of the "triple front" (political, cultural, and economic) as a means of measuring the success of black political and revolutionary movements. Some of his criticisms, such as of cultural appropriation, have lost some, but not all, of their salience. Ironically, though he co-created the Black Arts Repertory Theater/School in Harlem with Amiri Baraka to foster black creativity and agency, Cruse ended up in a majoritarian institution, the University of Michigan; his own career trajectory has become the standard for many--and one might say most--black American intellectuals, and it remains a point of contention, especially given the indifference and disdain, on every level, with which such institutions treat the issues and concerns of black people. Cruse created a crucial and necessary space for contemplating and enacting resistance.

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