11 Eulogies for Writers Written by Writers
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.