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11 Eulogies for Writers Written by Writers

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The best most of us can hope for when we die is that someone we knew in life might still be around to give us a passable eulogy. Not so for the epoch-defining author, whose friends and admirers tend to include other epoch-defining authors. Their eulogies become part of a standard liberal arts education, or else get published in prestigious book sections. The literary eulogy is an ancient art form with its own unique pressures; below, we've provided a grab-bag of belletristic mourning in all its forms, from 19th-century poetry to 21st-century magazine writing.

1. "Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats," by Percy Bysshe Shelley

It takes a particular kind of writerly myopia—plus a shaky, 19th-century-era conception of how tuberculosis works—to believe your friend was murdered by a bad review. Such is the implication of Shelley's "Adonais," written shortly after Keats' death from tuberculosis. In it, Shelley spends two stanzas lambasting the anonymous critic (later revealed to be John Wilson Croker) who savaged Keats' "Endymion," in the process proving himself an able and inventive insult comic: Shelley calls the critic a "deaf and murderous viper," a "noteless blot on a remember'd name," and a "beaten hound." Of course, the elegy does much more than shame a critic; it's a classic, wide-ranging tribute to his friend and sometimes rival.

2. "In Memory of WB Yeats," by WH Auden

Auden's elegy for Yeats is in part responding to Milton's "Lycias." Modern irony can't help but compete with 19th-century-style grief: As critic Edward Mendelson points out in his book Later Auden, Auden subverts the traditional English elegy (in which nature itself would mourn for the departed) by depicting, in plain prose, landscapes wholly unaltered by the poet's death ("Far from his illness/The wolves ran on through evergreen forests...").

His elegy also serves as a preemptive defense of Yeats, one Auden would elaborate on shortly after in "The Public vs. the Late William Butler Yeats." Yeats had strange spiritual views and leanings that some contemporary scholars would dub fascistic, but in Auden's view, the power of his language would exonerate him.

3. William Styron on Lillian Hellman

William Styron is today best-known as the author of Sophie's Choice, a novel about the sexual and artistic awakening of a psychotically horny twenty-something Brooklynite and the Holocaust. For decades, the writer alternately enjoyed and endured a difficult friendship with Lillian Hellman, a screenwriter who attempted to sue Mary McCarthy for libel after Mary said, "[E]very word [Hellman] writes is a lie, including `and' and `the.’" Styron's refusal to support her in that instance lead to a rift in their friendship, and in his eulogy, delivered at a Massachusetts funeral attended by such luminaries as Mike Nichols and Norman Mailer, he made no effort to whitewash that history. Instead, he honors the imperative of their shared profession, mingling the good with the bad in the service of something approaching truth: "I think we had more fights per man and woman contact than probably anyone alive." (Notable that another of that day's speakers, Hiroshima author John Hersey, also made a point to highlight Hellman's rage: "Anger was her essence," he wrote.)

4. "Untitled," Henry Van Dyke on Mark Twain

When Mark Twain turned 67, his longtime friend and advisor Henry Van Dyke read a poem for him at the Metropolitan Club in New York City. Its last line was, "Long life to you, Mark Twain." Just seven years later, he'd be delivering the eulogy at Twain's funeral in New York City. In it, he provides a working definition of quality humor that everyone would be wise to remember: "But the mark of this higher humor is that it does not laugh at the weak, the helpless, the true, the innocent; only at the false, the pretentious, the vain, the hypocritical...we may say without doubt that [Twain] used his gift, not for evil, but for good."

A Times report from that day wrote, "Throughout it was evident that the speaker was making a strong effort to keep down his emotion and control his voice."

5. "Life in His Language," Toni Morrison on James Baldwin

Toni Morrison was close friends with James Baldwin, and when Baldwin died of esophageal cancer in 1987 she penned this highly moving tribute for the New York Times. Written as a second-person letter to Baldwin, the piece describes the "three gifts" Baldwin gave to Morrison (and, by extension, world literature): Language, courage, and the ability to cut anger with tenderness.

There's no question Baldwin profoundly influenced Morrison's work, but what gives the piece its enormous power—and what distinguishes it from, say, Auden's eulogy—is that his influence extended not just to her prose style but to the act of writing itself. Auden wouldn't have had to look too hard to find a literary model, someone 'like him'; not so for Morrison, who from Baldwin learned "the courage of one who could go as a stranger in the village and transform the distances between people into intimacy with the whole world."

6. "Flannery O'Connor: A Prose Elegy" by Thomas Merton

Given her work's fixation on Roman Catholicism, it's fitting that one of the most moving eulogies written for Flannery O'Connor was written by Thomas Merton, a Catholic and a Trappist Monk who had long admired her work. First published in Jubilee in November, 1964, the elegy is wholly free of biographical anecdote or recollection; Merton chooses instead to discuss the departed's life exclusively in relation to her work, claiming that when he reads O'Connor he doesn't "think of Hemingway, or Katherine Anne Porter, or Sartre, but rather of someone like Sophocles."

7. "The Common Reader" by Virginia Woolf (on Joseph Conrad)

In the period of frenzied innovation that was modernism, it would seem no occasion was improper to throw shade on a peer's writing style. Joseph Conrad, author of AP lit perennial Heart of Darkness, died in August 1924. Later that same month, Virginia Woolf's eulogy-cum-critique appeared in the Times Literary Supplement. Her piece is intensely admiring, and opens with a beautiful euphemism: "Suddenly, without giving us time to arrange our thoughts or prepare our phrases, our guest has left us." Still, she doesn't resist seriously critiquing his highly refined style's ability to capture the texture of 20th-century life.

8. "Virginia Woolf: Eulogy," by Christopher Isherwood

In middle age, Virginia Woolf was both friend to and publisher of the young Christopher Isherwood—her publishing house, Hogarth, published his first two novels—and when she died in 1941 Isherwood was asked to write a eulogy. He did, and immediately regretted it. In explaining why, he gets at the heart of what makes eulogies so difficult: "An attempt to speak simultaneously as the public eulogist and the private mourner is almost foredoomed to falseness; all the more so when you feel you are addressing strangers who could never really understand or care."

9. "Novelist Shelved," by Norman Mailer (on Norman Mailer)

Perhaps no 20th-century writer was as concerned with their public image as Normal Mailer, and so it makes sense that the Naked and the Dead novelist and New Journalism pioneer would want to eulogize himself. His satirical self-elegy, written twenty-eight years before his actual death, has fun playing around with the Mailer Persona, positing an old-age Mailer being mourned by eleven of his fifteen ex-wives and paying over two million a year in child support and alimony. (Not that far from reality, as an '80s profile by Martin Amis would reveal.) It goes on: "At the memorial service, passages from his favorite literary works, all penned by himself, were read." You get the sense that Mailer is only kind of kidding.

10. "Susan Sontag, Cosmophage," by Wayne Kostenbaum

In critic Wayne Kostenbaum's infectious tribute to Susan Sontag published shortly after her death, form and content are perfectly integrated. He writes of his hero's fondness for fragments, and structures his essay as a series of them; he writes of her seeking "prose forms that would permit maximum drift and detour" and in his essay does nothing but drift and detour, pinging ecstatically from personal anecdote to close analysis to playful speculation on Sontag's sexuality. He writes of how Sontag's restlessness and artistic "cosmophagy" (defined as "the eating of the world") inspired him—and in the process, he inspires his elegy's reader.

11. "Too Much Information," by John Jeremiah Sullivan (on David Foster Wallace)

You could fill an Infinite Jest-length book with only the very good eulogies written after David Foster Wallace's tragic 2008 suicide, not to mention the decent or straight-up bad ones. John Jeremiah Sullivan's is so good it deserves its own volume, a sentence per page, a la This is Water. His elegy, occasioned by the release of Wallace's posthumous The Pale King, peeled away the layers of received wisdom that had begun to cloud Wallace's work in the years following his death, while elucidating the qualities of perception and description that have earned Wallace his obsessive readership.

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Ernest Hemingway’s Guide to Life, In 20 Quotes
Central Press/Getty Images
Central Press/Getty Images

Though he made his living as a writer, Ernest Hemingway was just as famous for his lust for adventure. Whether he was running with the bulls in Pamplona, fishing for marlin in Bimini, throwing back rum cocktails in Havana, or hanging out with his six-toed cats in Key West, the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author never did anything halfway. And he used his adventures as fodder for the unparalleled collection of novels, short stories, and nonfiction books he left behind, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, Death in the Afternoon, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea among them.

On what would be his 119th birthday—he was born in Oak Park, Illinois on July 21, 1899—here are 20 memorable quotes that offer a keen perspective into Hemingway’s way of life.


"I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen."


"The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them."


"I never had to choose a subject—my subject rather chose me."


"Never go on trips with anyone you do not love."

Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. [1], Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons


"Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know."


"There's no one thing that is true. They're all true."


"The only thing that could spoil a day was people. People were always the limiters of happiness, except for the very few that were as good as spring itself."


"There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."


"Never mistake motion for action."


"I wake up in the morning and my mind starts making sentences, and I have to get rid of them fast—talk them or write them down."

Photograph by Mary Hemingway, in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons


"I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I'm awake, you know?"


"The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places."


"All things truly wicked start from innocence."


"If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water."


"Courage is grace under pressure."


"A man's got to take a lot of punishment to write a really funny book."

By Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. - JFK Library, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons


"Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut."


"About morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after."


"For a true writer, each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed."


"There is no lonelier man in death, except the suicide, than that man who has lived many years with a good wife and then outlived her. If two people love each other there can be no happy end to it."

Marvel Entertainment
10 Facts About Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian
Marvel Entertainment
Marvel Entertainment

Nearly every sword-wielding fantasy hero from the 20th century owes a tip of their horned helmet to Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. Set in the fictional Hyborian Age, after the destruction of Atlantis but before our general recorded history, Conan's stories have depicted him as everything from a cunning thief to a noble king and all types of scoundrel in between. But beneath that blood-soaked sword and shield is a character that struck a nerve with generations of fantasy fans, spawning adaptations in comics, video games, movies, TV shows, and cartoons in the eight decades since he first appeared in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales. So thank Crom, because here are 10 facts about Conan the Barbarian.


Conan wasn’t the only barbarian on Robert E. Howard’s resume. In 1929, the writer created Kull the Conqueror, a more “introspective” brand of savage that gained enough interest to eventually find his way onto the big screen in 1997. The two characters share more than just a common creator and a general disdain for shirts, though: the first Conan story to get published, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” was actually a rewrite of an earlier rejected Kull tale titled “By This Axe I Rule!” For this new take on the plot, Howard introduced supernatural elements and more action. The end result was more suited to what Weird Tales wanted, and it became the foundation for future Conan tales.


A few months before Conan made his debut in Weird Tales, Howard wrote a story called "People of the Dark" for Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror about a man named John O’Brien who seemed to relive his past life as a brutish, black-haired warrior named … Conan of the reavers. Reave is a word from Old English meaning to raid or plunder, which is obviously in the same ballpark as barbarian. And in the story, there is also a reference to Crom, the fictional god of the Hyborian age that later became a staple of the Conan mythology. This isn't the barbarian as we know him, and it's certainly not an official Conan tale, but the early ideas were there.


Howard was meticulous in his world-building for Conan, which was highlighted by his 8600-word history on the Hyborian Age the character lived in. But the one area the creator had no interest in was linearity. Conan’s first story depicted him already as a king; subsequent stories, though, would shift back and forth, chronicling his early days as both a thief and a youthful adventurer.

There’s good reason for that, as Howard himself once explained: “In writing these yarns I've always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me. That's why they skip about so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.”


For fans of the pulp magazines of the early 20th century, one of the only names bigger than Robert E. Howard was H.P. Lovecraft. The two weren’t competitors, though—rather, they were close friends and correspondents. They’d often mail each other drafts of their stories, discuss the themes of their work, and generally talk shop. And as Lovecraft’s own mythology was growing, it seems like their work began to bleed together.

In “The Phoenix on the Sword,” Howard made reference to “vast shadowy outlines of the Nameless Old Ones,” which could be seen as a reference to the ancient, godlike “Old Ones” from the Lovecraft mythos. In the book The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, editor Patrice Louinet even wrote that Howard’s earlier draft for the story name-dropped Lovecraft’s actual Old Ones, most notably Cthulhu.

In Lovecraft’s “The Shadow of Time,” he describes a character named Crom-Ya as a “Cimmerian chieftain,” which is a reference to Conan's homeland and god. These examples just scratch the surface of names, places, and concepts that the duo’s work share. Whether you want to read it all as a fun homage or an early attempt at a shared universe is up to you.


Howard was only 30 when he died, so there aren’t as many completed Conan stories out in the world as you’d imagine—and there are even less that were finished and officially printed. Despite that, the character’s popularity has only grown since the 1930s, and publishers looked for a way to print more of Howard’s Conan decades after his death. Over the years, writers and editors have gone back into Howard’s manuscripts for unfinished tales to doctor up and rewrite for publication, like "The Snout in the Dark," which was a fragment that was reworked by writers Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp. There were also times when Howard’s non-Conan drafts were repurposed as Conan stories by publishers, including all of the stories in 1955's Tales of Conan collection from Gnome Press.


Chances are, the image of Conan you have in your head right now owes a lot to artist Frank Frazetta: His version of the famous barbarian—complete with rippling muscles, pulsating veins, and copious amounts of sword swinging—would come to define the character for generations. But the look that people most associate with Conan didn’t come about until the character’s stories were reprinted decades after Robert E. Howard’s death.

“In 1966, Lancer Books published new paperbacks of Robert E. Howard's Conan series and hired my grandfather to do the cover art,” Sara Frazetta, Frazetta's granddaughter owner and operator of Frazetta Girls, tells Mental Floss. You could argue that Frazetta’s powerful covers were what drew most people to Conan during the '60s and '70s, and in recent years the collector’s market seems to validate that opinion. In 2012, the original painting for his Lancer version of Conan the Conqueror sold at auction for $1,000,000. Later, his Conan the Destroyer went for $1.5 million.

Still, despite all of Frazetta’s accomplishments, his granddaughter said there was one thing he always wanted: “His only regret was that he wished Robert E. Howard was alive so he could have seen what he did with his character.”


The cover to Marvel's Conan the Barbarian #21
Marvel Entertainment

Conan’s origins as a pulp magazine hero made him a natural fit for the medium’s logical evolution: the comic book. And in 1970, the character got his first high-profile comic launch when Marvel’s Conan The Barbarian hit shelves, courtesy of writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith.

Though now it’s hailed as one of the company’s highlights from the ‘70s, the book was nearly canceled after a mere seven issues. The problem is that while the debut issue sold well, each of the next six dropped in sales, leading Marvel’s then editor-in-chief, Stan Lee, to pull the book from production after the seventh issue hit stands.

Thomas pled his case, and Lee agreed to give Conan one last shot. But this time instead of the book coming out every month, it would be every two months. The plan worked, and soon sales were again on the rise and the book would stay in publication until 1993, again as a monthly. This success gave way to the Savage Sword of Conan, an oversized black-and-white spinoff magazine from Marvel that was aimed at adult audiences. It, too, was met with immense success, lasting from 1974 to 1995.


John Milius’s 1982 Conan movie is a classic of the sword and sorcery genre, but its original script from Oliver Stone didn’t resemble the final product at all. In fact, it barely resembled anything related to Conan. Stone’s Conan would have been set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, where the barbarian would do battle against a host of mutant pigs, insects, and hyenas. Not only that, but it would have also been just one part of a 12-film saga that would be modeled on the release schedule of the James Bond series.

The original producers were set to move ahead with Stone’s script with Stone co-directing alongside an up-and-coming special effects expert named Ridley Scott, but they were turned down by all of their prospects. With no co-director and a movie that would likely be too ambitious to ever actually get finished, they sold the rights to producer Dino De Laurentiis, who helped bring in Milius.


When President Barack Obama sent out a mass email in 2015 to the members of Organizing for Action, he was looking to get people to offer up stories about how they got involved within their community—their origin stories, if you will. In this mass email, the former Commander-in-Chief detailed his own origin, with a shout out to a certain barbarian:

“I grew up loving comic books. Back in the day, I was pretty into Conan the Barbarian and Spiderman.

Anyone who reads comics can tell you, every main character has an origin story—the fateful and usually unexpected sequence of events that made them who they are.”

This bit of trivia was first made public in 2008 in a Daily Telegraph article on 50 facts about the president. That led to Devil’s Due Publishing immortalizing the POTUS in the 2009 comic series Barack the Barbarian, which had him decked out in his signature loincloth doing battle against everyone from Sarah Palin to Dick Cheney.


The father of 20th century fantasy may always be J.R.R. Tolkien, but Howard is a close second in many fans' eyes. Though Tolkien’s work has found its way into more scholarly literary circles, Howard’s can sometimes get categorized as low-brow. Quality recognizes quality, however, and during a conversation with Tolkien, writer L. Sprague de Camp—who himself edited and touched-up numerous Conan stories—said The Lord of the Rings author admitted that he “rather liked” Howard’s Conan stories during a conversation with him. He didn’t expand upon it, nor was de Camp sure which Conan tale he actually read (though it was likely “Shadows in the Moonlight”), but the seal of approval from Tolkien himself goes a long way toward validation.


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