This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

December 30, 2001 — Gone but not forgotten from the literary world this year . . . .

Lorna Sage . . . One week after winning Britain's prestigious Whitbread Prize for biography of the year for her memoir "Bad Blood," critic and professor Sage, 57, died on January 11 of emphysema and related chest infections.

Auberon Waugh . . . The son of Evelyn Waugh, and author of novels such as "The Foxglove Saga," and memoirs including "Will This Do?", died at his home in Taunton, England, on January 16 after years of heart problems. The 61–year–old "Bron" Waugh was for many years a popular political columnist for The Spectator until he once playfully changed a colleague's byline as it went to print, altering "George Gale" to "Lunchtime O'Gale." He was promptly fired, but rehired as a literary critic, subsequently becoming one of England's most popular, albeit acerbic, commentators. The founder and editor of the journal The Literary Review, he also originated the annual "Bad Sex Award" for embarrassingly bad sex scenes in a given year's novels.

Gregory Corso . . . One of the leading poets of the American Beat movement died on January 17 at his daughter's home in Robbinsdale, Minnesota at age 70 of prostate cancer. As a New York Times obituary noted, Corso was "less political than Allen Ginsberg, less charismatic than Jack Kerouac, but more shocking, at times, than either of them." One of his best poems was an elegy to Kerouac, "Elegiac Feelings American": O and yet when it's asked of you `What happened to him?' / I say, "What happened to America has happened / to him" . . .

Candida Donadio . . . One of the most famous literary agents in New York, Donadio sold Joseph Heller's first novel, "Catch–22," and Philip Roth's "Goodbye Columbus," and also represented Thomas Pynchon, Robert Stone, and Mario Puzo. When she sold Heller's book to Simon & Schuster for $750, it was called "Catch–18." Because of a conflict with Leon Uris' "Mila 18," the title was changed, with Heller choosing Donadio's birthdate — October 22 — for the new number. Donadio, 71, died of cancer at her home in Stonington, Connecticut on January 20.

Frederick B. Adams Jr. . . . The former director of the Morgan Library in Manhattan was also one of the world's most preeminent book collectors, famous for his collections of Thomas Hardy, Robert Frost, Karl Marx and the papers of his cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Morgan, 90, who died on January 7 in Chisseaux, France, began his personal collection with a few works by Hardy, and an edition of "Das Kapital" still in its original wrapper.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh . . . The first woman to fly across the Pacific, the widow of Charles A. Lindbergh was better known for her series of lyrical memoirs, which began in midlife to great and lasting success with "A Gift From the Sea." She died on February 17 at her home in Passumpac, Vermont at age 94 after a series of strokes.

William H. Masters . . . The man who, along with co–author (and the second of his three wives) Virginia E. Johnson "revolutionized the way sex is studied, taught and enjoyed in America," as a New York Times obituary put it, died at age 85 on February 16 in a Tuscon, Arizona hospice of complications from Parkinson's disease. Starting with "Human Sexual Response" in 1966, Masters, a practicing physician, registered Republican and church–going Episcopalian, published a series of controversial books to help patients experiencing sexual problems, but later said, "One of the fun things of this work is to destroy old sacred cows."

A. R. Ammons . . . The author of 30 books of poetry began with "Ommateum," in 1955, which had sold a grand total of 16 copies by 1961. By the time of his final book, "Glare," in 1997, Ammons had won two National Book Awards for poetry, a MacArthur fellowship, and numerous other honors. ". . . anything / anything is poetry," he wrote in "Garbage." Archie Randolph Ammons was 75 when he died of cancer at his home in Ithaca, New York on February 25.

Robert Ludlum . . . One of America's bestselling authors, Ludlum, an actor and producer, was 42 when he turned to writing and published the first of his 21 spy thrillers, "The Scarlatti Inheritance" in 1971. It was an immediate bestseller. Ludlum was 73 when he died in Naples, Florida on March 13 of a heart attack. A Washington Post critic once said of one of his novels, "It's a lousy book. So I stayed up until 3 a.m. to finish it."

Douglas Adams . . . The author of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," one of the biggest–selling books of all time, died of a heart attack while on a treadmill in a gym in Santa Barbara, California, on May 11. He was 49. The British–born Adams also wrote several "Hitchhiker's" sequels, including "So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish," as well as books about "holistic detective" Dirk Gently, and an alternative dictionary, "The Meaning of Liff." In one book, he supplied the answer to "the ultimate question of life, the universe, everything." The answer was 42.

R. K. Narayan . . . The author of hundreds of short stories and 34 novels, Narayan was one of the first Indians writing in English to achieve international recognition. But his first book, "Swami and Friends," was consistently rejected in the west until his admirer Graham Greene helped him find a British publisher. Many of Narayan's books were about life in an invented South Indian village, Malgudi. "Everyone thinks he's a writer with a mission," he once said. "Myself, absolutely not. I write only because I'm interested in a type of character, and I'm amused mostly by the seriousness with which each man takes himself." He died on May 13 in Madras, India at age 94.

Jamake Highwater . . . The author of numerous books on art, dance, music and history, as well as books of fiction and poetry, Highwater knew little about his early life other than that he was born of American Indian parents and put up for adoption at about age 7. He began his career as a music critic before going on to win a Newbery award and numerous prizes for children's and young adult literature. Highwater was believed to be 59 when he died on June 3 of a heart attack in his Los Angeles home.

Eudora Welty . . . Revered as one of America's greatest fiction writers, particularly for her sharply–etched, fiercely intelligent and witty short stories, Welty was 92 when she died on July 24 in Jackson, Mississippi, in the home that she had lived in since high school. Welty won nearly every American literary award, and was even inducted into the French Legion of Honor. She once said that what distinguishes fiction "from the raw material, and what distinguishes it from journalism, is that inherent is the possibility of a shared act of the imagination between its writer and its reader. There is absolutely everything in great fiction but a clear answer."

Jorge Amado . . . The author of "Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands" was one of the most widely translated writers in the world, and known in his native Brazil, where soccer is the national pasttime, as the Pele of the written word. As a New York Times obituary noted, Amado's 34 books "abound with picaresque characters of universal appeal: street–corner philosophers in tattered coats, slum–dwelling samba dancers, orators of dazzling extravagance, foul–mouthed anarchist cobblers and poets whose writings rarely go beyond signing bar room tabs." He was 88 when he died on August 6 in Salvador, Brazil, of heart and lung failure.

Robert S. Jones . . . The author of two novels himself, Jones was perhaps best known as one of New York's most respected editors, including among his writers Oscar Hijuelos, Amistad Maupin and Russell Banks. After 16 years at HarperCollins, he had just been named editor–in–chief of the company four months before he died of cancer at age 47 on August 13.

Peter Maas . . . Before "The Godfather," there was "The Valachi Papers," Maas' 1968 bestseller, which was based on interviews with a member of the Genovese crime family and was perhaps the first book to describe the inner workings of the Mafia. Although turned down by 20 houses, it went on to sell millions, as did subsequent Maas true–crime thrillers, such as "Serpico." Many also became hit movies — except the film of "Valchi," which starred Charles Bronson, and which Maas called "one of the worst films ever made." He was 72 when he died in Manhattan of an undisclosed cause on August 24.

Dorothy Dunnett . . . More properly known as Dorothy, Lady Dunnett, the prolific Scottish historical novelist had a large and dedicated following for her meticulously researched series of books set in the Renaissance. Particularly notable was her six volume "The Lymond Chronicles" and eight volume "The House of Niccolo," which were highlighted by what one New York Times review called her "painter's eye for gorgeous detail" and a "vocabulary that sometimes outstrips the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary." Dunnett was 78 when she died in Edinburgh on November 9 from pancreatic cancer.

Ken Kesey . . . Equally famous for his immensely popular novel "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and for leading a band called "The Merry Pranksters" on a round–the–country trip aboard a psychedelically–painted bus called "Further," Kesey was for many an icon of 1960s America. He seemed to be speaking about both his writing and the Prankster effort when he told Publishers Weekly after the first bus trip, "The sense of communication in this country has damn near atrophied. But we found as we went along it got easier to make contact with people. If people could just understand it is possible to be different without being a threat." He was 66 when he died on November 11 in Eugene, Oregon, of complications from surgery for liver cancer.

William Jovanovich . . . He started at Harcourt, Brace as a salesman but was president of the company seven years later, a position he held for 36 years, during which time the company became known as Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich. Jovanovich maintained a fierce independence that was often derided but just as often proved prescient. He refused to join the American Publishers' Association, expanded the company's interests into other areas with the purchase of the Sea World theme parks, and even moved company headquarters to Orlando, Florida. His fiercest fight to protect independence, however, may have cost him the company — when British publisher Robert Maxwell tried to take over HBJ in 1987, Jovanovich borrowed nearly $3 billion to stave him off. It worked, but left HBJ mired in debt, and Jovanovich resigned three years later. He was 81 when he died on December 4 of a heart attack at his home in San Diego.

Agha Shahid Ali . . . Just one month after his last book of poems, "Rooms Are Never Finished," was nominated for a National Book Award, Ali died of a brain tumor on December 8 at his home in Amherst, Massachusetts. He was 52 years old. Born in Kashmir but a long–time resident of America, where he taught at Amherst College, Ali was, according to Indian critic Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr., "one of the finest English poets from India. There was a visible craftsmanship in his verse. And he used that control of the language to express his deeply felt experiences about Kashmir, his home. But Shahid's poetry was not obscure or esoteric. A general reader could relate to the experience and the emotion in the poems. He will continue to be read."

W.G. Sebald . . . Although he came to writing fairly late — in his forties — Winfried Georg Sebald had a devoted following that had grown rapidly with the most recent English translation of one of his books, "Austerlitz." His dense, dream–like prose traced the affects of the Holocaust on the contemporary world, and Sebald declined to categorize his work as either fiction or memoir. Regardless, it was highly intellectual even as it was densely sensual — its own genre, as many critics decided. "One of the most mysteriously sublime of contemporary European writers," as James Wood noted. Sebald was 57 when he died on December 10 in a car crash in England, near the University of East Anglia, where he taught literatur for 31 years.

Last Week’s Column: MOBY'S TOP TEN BOOKS OF 2001 While it seemed like a year when people were talking more about writers than their books, it was actually a great year for all kinds of reading.


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