Commentary Magazine


The Obituary Book, by Alden Whitman

De Mortuis

The Obituary Book.
by Alden Whitman.
Stein and Day. 284 pp. $7.95.

Progress always dazzles, especially when we suddenly realize that something has improved without having previously been aware of its need for improvement.

This thought has been prompted by Alden Whitman’s selection of his thirty-seven favorite obituaries from the many he has written since 1964 in his capacity as Chief Obituary Writer of the New York Times. Before coming upon Mr. Whitman’s volume—which includes obituaries of men as far apart as Sherman Billingsley and Ho Chi Minh and women as far apart as Alice B. Toklas and Fannie Hurst—I had never, simply to confess it, thought about obituaries at all. Even my meditations on the topic of death itself were deplorably infrequent when judged by the standards set by the wise men of old; what is worse, they were clumsy and oafish. Stimulated by a severe case of heartburn mistaken for a heart attack, I might spend as much as five minutes pondering the existentialist notion that death is not the stranger we meet at the end of the road but rather the terrible highwayman lurking behind some bush along an endless road; or I might occasionally unleash my impoverished sociological imagination and wonder dully about the horizons of morticians and the private lives of gravediggers. But never, to confess it once more, did I ever contemplate obituaries, let alone the people who compose them.

I was, of course, an inveterate if casual reader of obituaries, as most men are. They provided me with useful information, it surely being an embarrassment to refer to the famous or infamous dead in the present tense, and a socially sanctioned form of amusement the roots of which had best remain buried. Moreover, civilization being among other things an arrangement to keep us from seeing the corpses of men, and even of animals, I had little daily contact with death except through the media in general and obituaries in particular. But in my heedless way, I took the latter as I found them, unmindful of their qualities. Although, in short, I have read the obituaries in the New York Times for more than two decades, I never noticed the inauguration, in 1965, of what the dust jacket on Mr. Whitman’s book describes as the “Obituary Revolution.”

Mr. Whitman is both the theoretician and executor of that revolution, its Marx and Lenin rolled into one, as it were. He manifests all the classical traits of the great revolutionary, beginning with the strength of will to identify the old with the bad. Cruel for the sake of kindness, he condemns the obituaries disgracing the Times before his reign—and still afflicting most American papers to this day—for their lack of “flashes of perception” and their “dull writing.” His own dedication to the task of correcting this unfortunate state of affairs has led him to a genuine Weltanschauung, the distillation of which he presents in an introductory chapter and in the brief comments he has affixed to each of the thirty-seven samples of his work. So deep does Mr. Whitman’s thought on the subject run that he even goes so far as to question the very foundations of the obituarist’s endeavor, the granting of what he calls a “memorial in print” to well-known personages only. He understands that practice to be based on the deluded notion that “names make news” and he regrets the fact that “the taxi driver, the construction worker, the housewife and mother, tend to be ignored in death.” All men, it evidently seems to Mr. Whitman, have an inalienable right to equal “post-mortem inches of type.” Since, however, as we learn from Mr. Whitman himself, 146,000 persons die in the world every day, the demands of perfect justice are too severe even for so bulky a journal as the New York Times. What, then, is to be done?

Mr. Whitman refuses to be hobbled by such dilemmas. True revolutionary that he is, he neither abstains from noble dreams, nor permits himself to sink into futile utopian speculations; he does what he can, and what he can do is continue in his efforts to raise the humble obituary to an authentic form of art.

In this effort he is guided by a precise vision of what an obituary should be: “The recital of the main features of a life and the person who led it . . . constructed as a whole and written with grace.” An obituary differs from a biography in that the latter “takes a point of view,” whereas a “good obit should not be a partisan document.” But detachment is not always easy to maintain, as Mr. Whitman at one point forthrightly admits: “I must say that I admired Maurois and I think the obituary shows it.” One might also add that he betrays a certain distaste for the vagaries of Westbrook Pegler’s life and Albert Schweitzer’s “do-good paternalism toward Africans.” Such lapses, however, are hardly characteristic of Mr. Whitman’s work. Much more characteristic is his loyalty to the principle of writing with grace as, for example, when he says of Norman Thomas’s socialism that “It was to Marxism what Muzak is to Mozart.” And this stylistic brilliance operates in the service of Mr. Whitman’s irrepressible urge to explore and extend the possibilities of the art-form in which he works. Mr. Whitman, indeed, does himself a certain injustice when he suggests that he has merely attempted to recite the main features of the lives he recounts. Actually, he has sought to do much more, attempting in almost every case to be equal to the special expertise of his subjects. Thus, when he writes of Martin Buber he fearlessly delves into such “abstruse matters” as the I-Thou relationship; he seizes on the occasion of Albert Luthuli’s death “to say something about South Africa”; and in connection with the death of the ill-fated Alexander Kerensky, he attempts nothing less than “an outline of the Russian Revolution.”

_____________

 

The success of the Revolution—Mr. Whitman’s “Obituary Revolution,” that is—can in no small measure be credited to an innovation he has introduced: “The interview with a small number of likely obituary subjects” in order to “add an extra dimension to the finished obit.—a sense of intimacy with the man or woman whose life is being portrayed.” His skill in securing the consent of the eminent to this delicate project is illustrated by his account of a conversation with Anthony Eden. At first Lord Avon was adamant in his refusal to cooperate but Mr. Whitman, telephoning him,

. . . had the wit to say, “But, sir, this is not an interview for now but for the future.” “Oh,” he replied, brightening, “you mean it’s for when I’m dead.” “Well, that’s the short of it,” I said. “In that case,” he continued, “do come and have tea with me at the House of Lords.”

The imposing list of other distinguished persons who have cooperated includes Harry Truman, Samuel Beckett, Vladimir Nabokov, Henry Miller, Graham Greene, Marc Chagall, Conrad Aiken, and Dean Acheson. Among the “remarkably few” who were churlish enough to refuse he mentions General Montgomery and Edmund Wilson. Presumably Mr. Whitman will not hold this against them when the time comes, as it must, to give them their “send-offs in print.”

And some day, if he keeps up the good work, Mr. Whitman will himself be entitled to an estimable number of “post-mortem inches of type,” and will, moreover, deserve well of the Great Obituarist in the Sky.

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