The writing lives

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Some wonderful writers and literary lights died during 2012. Here’s an LA Times slide show about 13 notable authors lost during the past year.

In this entry, I’ve put together a list of writers whose work meant something to me or whose work I think had an  important impact on our culture. These are U.S. writers. I had to limit the list somehow. A lot of talent passed to the other side last year…

No doubt you heard the news when Maurice Sendak, Nora Ephron, and Ray Bradbury died. Along with Sendak, another children’s book icon passed last year, Jan Berenstain, the co-author of the Berenstein Bears series. When my son was little, we  read and re-read Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” and “In the Night Kitchen,”  but we also read some of the Berenstain Bears books so many times that my very young son–perhaps two or three years old–knew them by heart and objected indignantly if I tried to skip even a word or two.

Two other important children’s book writers died in 2012: Jean Craighead George, who won the Newbery Medal for Julie of the Woods; and, Jean Merrill, who wrote The Pushcart War.

 

Portrait of Gore Vidal by Juan Fernando Bastos (via Wikipedia).

Gore Vidal and Helen Gurley Brown also died last year. Their most productive years overlapped partially, though they had seemingly very different public voices during the 1960s and into the ’70s. But they shared a willingness to speak about sexual attitudes and behaviors that had been taboo: in Vidal’s case, about homosexuality (or, as he preferred, pansexuality, which he suggested better described a broader, though generally repressed, palette of sexual interests); and, in Brown’s case, about women’s sexual drives and, well, power, breaking lose from the rigid expectations of the 1950s.

I have a bit of personal history that connects me to Gore Vidal. He was a client of my mother’s back in the ’50s and ’60s when my mother ran a public stenography business in the Great Northern Hotel, adjacent to Carnegie Hall. (For those of you under the age of 40 or 50, you may have to dig to find out about this business which pre-dated electric typewriters and word processors.) She was literate and a careful writer (actually, ruthless when it came to correcting my grammar and spelling), and often copy-edited the early drafts of works by writers like Vidal.

 

I had an opportunity to meet poet and performance artist Jayne Cortez, who also died in 2012. She was one of our

Poet and improv/jazz performer Jayne Cortez.

earliest guests on Readers & Writers. This would have been about 15 years ago. Because she presented her poetry in an improvisational jazz context, she requested that I find her an adept piano player who could follow her twists and turns and the rhythm of her words. I was sure this requirement was going to be a deal-breaker…until someone at the Crane School turned me on to Don Washington, who took a seat at the piano and took off with Jayne on a brilliant improvisational evening. (In recent years, you may have heard Don featured on the Blue Note; or, you may have found his music on your own.)

Other poets lost last year: beat voice Dick McBride; wry voice Reed Whittemore; Jamaican-born Pulitzer-winning Louis Simpson; and the sometimes ferocious, always fearless Adrienne Rich.

There were  journalists: Pulitzer-winning journalist and photographer Malcolm Browne whose 1963 photograph of the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk became one of the iconic images of the Vietnam war era; award-winning reporter Marie Colvin who was killed last year covering the siege of Homs in Syria; Terry Glover, editor of Ebony magazine; Pulitzer-winning public affairs columnist (Washington Post) William Raspberry; and, Edwin Q. White, who headed up the AP Saigon bureau during the Vietnam war years (1965-75).

There were critics, who helped us understand the literature, art and dance of our time: film critic Andrew Sarris, credited with the “auteur” theory of criticism; Judith Crist, another film critic, who wrote for the NY Herald Tribune, New York magazine, and TV Guide; Pulitzer-winning dance critic Alan M. Kriegsman (the first to win a Pulitzer for dance criticism, for his Washington Post columns).

We lost science fiction writers Harry Harrison, and K.D. Wentworth, known for her sci fi and fantasy short stories.

Playwrights Mark O’Donnell (Hairspray and Cry-Baby) and Larry L. King (Best Little Whorehouse in Texas) died in 2012.

Southern fiction writer Ellen Douglas (born Josephine Ayres Haxton), who was a National Book Award finalist for her novel Apostles of Light, died last year, as did mathematician, civil rights activist and prolific (57 books) author Irving Adler (who also wrote under the name Robert Irving).

Barney Rosset

Finally, I’d like to note the passing of Barney Rosset, writer, editor, free speech activist. He was the former owner of Grove Press and editor of The Evergreen Review. Perhaps most importantly, he led a successful campaign to publish uncensored versions of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (which I remember my father buying and hiding from me when I was 12 or 13). An overview of Rosset’s life and a sampling of Everygreen covers that give you a feel for Rosset’s place on our national literary landscape, check out this link to the Salon.com obituary.

 

 

I’d love to hear from you about how any of these authors–or others lost last year–were important to you. Favorite books from them? Personal connections or meetings? Did I miss anyone?