This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

December 23, 2002 — Technically, these writers died this year. Their work, of course, lives on . . .

Camilo Jose Cela . . . The Spanish novelist, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1989, died from heart disease on January 18 in a Madrid hospital. He was 85. Cela fought for Franco in the Spanish Civil War, but later fought Franco in his books, one of which, "The Family of Pascual Duarte," was subsequently banned for many years in Spain. Nonetheless, it was, according to a BBC report, "the most popular work of cition in Spanish since Miquel Cervantes's masterpiece, 'Don Quixote.'"

Thomas Flanagan . . . The Irish author of historical novels about his mother country, such as "The Year of the French," died of a heart attack in his home in Berkeley, California on March 21. "It is not the romantic, rather sentimental Ireland of many Irish-Americans that I love," he once said, "but the actual Ireland, a complex, profound, historical society, woven of many strands, some bright and some dark."

R.V. Cassill . . . Fiction writer, editor and writing teacher Ronald Verlin Cassill died in a Providence, Rhode Island hospital on March 25 at age 82. Acclaimed first as a ficition writer, Cassill was famed in later years as editor the widely-used textbook, "The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction." "Writing is a way of coming to terms with the world and with oneself," Cassill says in a textbook he wrote called "On Writing." "The whole spirit of writing is to overcome narrowness and fear by giving order, measure, and significance to the flux of experience constantly dinning into our lives."

Stephen Jay Gould . . . The evolutionary theorist and Harvard University professor who made his science, as well as himself, famous through a vast output of accessible magazine articles and books, died of cancer in his Soho apartment on May 20, in a bed he'd had brought into his library, and as his final book, "I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History," was being shipped to bookstores. He was 60. The winner of innumerable awards, and the subject of heated debate over his theories, Gould had been battling cancer for over 20 years. He explained, "When I'm writing, it's the only time I don't feel pain."

Mildred Wirt Benson, a.k.a. Carolyn Keene . . . The author who wrote 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew mysteries died May 28 after taking ill while at work on her weekly column in the newsroom of the Toledo Blade newspaper. She was 96. Although she once said, "I'm so sick of Nancy Drew I could vomit," an assistant told the Washington Post that Benson constantly heard from "women in their fifties, sixties, who would write, 'You are what changed my mind and made me believe I could be more than a housewife.'"

June Jordan . . . The author and editor of 20 books of poetry died on June 14 at her home in Berkeley, California at age 65, from breast cancer. Born in Harlem and inspired by the Black Arts movement of the sixties, Jordan was also a champion of the disenfranchised and believed poetry could be a tool for social and political betterment. To wit, she also founded the Poetry for the People project at the University of California at Berkeley, where she taught. As a New York Times obituary noted, the porgram "trains undergraduates to take poetry to community groups as a form of political empowerment."

Timothy Findley . . . Called "one of Canada's most treasured and beloved writers" in his Toronto Globe & Mail obituary, Findley, died in France on June 20 at the age of 71 from contiuing complications resultling from a pelvic fracture and congestive heart failure. Findley was the author of "The Last of the Crazy People," "Famous Last Words," and numerous other books and plays.

William F. Dufty . . . The ghostwriter of numerous books, including "Lady Sings the Blues," the supposed autobiography of Billie Holiday, Dufty had a varied career as a writer, including a stint as head speechwriter for Hubert Humphrey, and as author, under his own byline, of the mega-selling nutrition book "Sugar Blues." He was also married to film star Gloria Swanson. He died of cancer on June 28 at his home in Birmingham, Michigan, at age 86.

Mark McGarrity, a.k.a. Bartholomew Gill . . . The author of the popular mysteries featuring Irish detective Peter McGarr, such as "Death of a Joyce Scholar," was killed in a fall on July 10 while apparently trying to climb into his apartment through a window because he had forgotten his keys. McGarrity was 58. McGarrity, who attended Trinity College in Dublin, said of the McGarr series, "One of the things they gave me is a chance to go back to Ireland time and again for material."

Kenneth Koch . . . The poet who, along with John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara and James Schuyler, was one of the founding fathers of the New York School of poetry, died on July 6 at his home in Manhattan. It was the end of a long battle against leukemia for Koch, who was 77. "There is no way to use enough life," he wrote in one of his final poems, "Not by excess can you do it/ Nor by sparely imagining."

Chaim Potok . . . The author and ordained rabbi whose books about Hasidic life, such as "The Chosen," became hugely popular bestsellers, died on July 23 at his home in Merion, Pennsylvania after a long bout with brain cancer. He was 73. Cynthia Ozick said of him that he created "an American stream that really didn't exist before. He wrote directly from the interior of the Jewish theological experience, rather than from the social experience."

Max Reinhardt . . . Originally from Austria, Reinhardt developed such a love of British literature while a student in London that he moved there and turned his import-export business into the Bodley Head publishing house, where his first author was George Bernard Shaw, and a young Graham Greene was his editorial director. Reinhardt died in London on November 19 at age 86.

Harriet Doerr . . . "I found I'm quite happy working on a sentence for an hour or more, searching for the right phrase, the right word," said Doerr. "I compare it to the work of a stone cutter -- chipping away at the raw material until it's just right, or as right as you can get it." She was 73 before she had "chipped away" her first book, "Stones for Ibarra, and it went on to win the American Book Award. She published two more -- another novel and a memoir -- before her death on Novemeber 26 at age 92, and as her New York Times obituary noted, "Her critics generally agreed that she improved with age."

Dee Brown . . .His "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," which has sold some 5 million copies to date, helped open the doors to a less Eurocentric view of the conquering of the American West and was perhaps the first bestseller telling the Indians point of view. Brown died on December 12 at age 94 at his home in Little Rock, Arkansas. He once explained that while writing "Bury My Heart," he imagined himself as a Native American. "I'm a very, very old Indian, and I'm remembering the past," he said. "And I'm looking toward the Atlantic Ocean."

Last Week’s Column: KINSLEY FOR PRESIDENTAll right, so Michael Kinsley didn't read all the books he was supposed to read when he was judging the National Book Award. But who reads anymore anyway?


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