Thursday, January 28, 2010

Deaths: A Fugitive from Fame and A Heated Historian

Such a sad couple of days for the reading world.

As pretty much everyone has heard, we have said adieu to two of our country's Most Valuable Minds: J.D. Salinger, that great chronicler of youth and juvenile angst -- author, of course, of A Catcher in the Rye, Franny and Zoey, and Nine Stories--; and Howard Zinn, professional doubter, histrionic rebel and revisionary, and author of books like A People's History of the United States and La Guardia in Congress to name a few.

With little doubt these passages are sad -- even remarkable for our time. The men were great and their works immeasurably greater. And yet unlike the manifold fatalities in Haiti which loom across news bulletins, these deaths are by no means tragedies. Zinn, we know, was in his eighties, and Salinger in his nineties. Both died naturally of the causes which are supposed to take us and drifted painlessly away.

There a special solace to be taken in this type of death. And it is different than that which we find with other deaths. For one, we cannot -- should not -- grieve them. They died at the right time. There was no drama. Any dreams unfulfilled were probably meant to be left unfulfilled by whoever decides such things. Most importantly, both lived deliberately and plainly, doing the things they believed in, even (especially) when it bewildered and confused the public. And so on.

And so they pass, not as invisibles, or pitiables, or men who stared at pens and blank pieces of paper wishing this or that, but as people who did what they wanted, died when it was right, and couldn't give a damn what you said about it. (You phonies.) As Raymond Carver said shortly before he (himself) died: "art is not self-expression; it's communication." And that's what we've got to remember and celebrate about Salinger and Zinn. Their lives may have been their own, but their art is (and has always been) all ours for the taking.

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