For the record, I wear my hair “cropped close” because I am bald.
By a feat of yogic discipline — or sloth; you choose — I managed, until now, to pass by the deaths of Hunter Thompson and Arthur Miller without dusting off my opinions of them for public consumption. I am neither man’s ideal reader, and my experience with Wordsworth and W.E. Henley has shown that it may be wiser to keep my own counsel in such cases. No eloquence can persuade the man who feels a sense of something more deeply interfused that rolls through all things that Wordsworth is a fatuous bore. Detailed analysis leaves the impenetrable head of the Invictus fancier bloodied but unbowed. I confine myself to saying that I simply lack the alpha model to appreciate these gentlemen, and that the people who have it might do better with a different model.
My favorite Hunter Thompson book is Hell’s Angels, his only book whose subject is not Hunter Thompson, which tells you all you need to know. As Cosh, his most interesting eulogist, pointed out, Thompson was one part John the Baptist and one part Jonathan Swift, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” being his Book of Revelations and Voyage to Brobdingnag, respectively. Revelations has its distinguished admirers, D.H. Lawrence for one, but as a computer programmer I object to dumping core, even in Thompson’s fine style, as a literary technique. Cosh thinks Thompson is immortal. I expect to outlive his reputation, provided I lay off the cigarettes.
Arthur Miller was a playwright. He married Marilyn Monroe. He will be read as long as there exist high school teachers charged with imparting the obvious to the oblivious, which is to say, forever.
But I wanted to talk about something else.
Why must people write of someone when he dies of whom they did not think to write while he was alive? Tom Wolfe I can see: while his obituary wasn’t very good, he was a friend of Thompson’s, and he presumably got paid. One would also expect Thompson’s long-time and only conceivable illustrator, Ralph Steadman, to say a few words. But what were the rest of you thinking?
The uncharitable explanation — monkey see, monkey scribble — has as usual a good deal in it. Thompson is a topic, Miller is a topic, and we are perennially starved for topics: such is the vital function of the newspaper. But there is something even more unpleasant at work — a ghoulish, misbegotten sense of duty, as if failing to note their passing means that our own will also go unremarked. Well, it will. Not to worry.
Occasionally the manner of exit is pertinent. Thompson’s, like Thompson, was histrionic; Mark Riebling and I’m sure many others have made the suitable remarks. Arthur Miller, on the other hand, went old, rich, and in his sleep, which didn’t seem to shut anybody up.
Obituaries fall loosely into three categories: encomium, scorn, and measured assessment. Encomium, at best, is too little too late; at worst it is breast-beating aimed at calling attention more to oneself than to the dear departed. (Many of the great fakes of English literature, like Lycidas, are eulogies. Does anybody believe that Milton gave a damn about Edward King?) Scorn is unsportsmanlike, its object no longer being around to answer back.
Measured assessment is worst of all. If you’ve ever flipped through a biographical reference book, say Harvey’s Oxford Guide to English Literature, you know what I mean. I open it at random to Prosper Merimée (1803-1870) and read, “French novelist and dramatist, a member of the court of Napoleon III, was the author of admirable novels and short stories (‘Colomba’, ‘La Vénus d’Ille’, 1841; ‘Carmen’, which inspired Bizet’s opera, 1852), of plays (‘Theâtre de Clara Gazul’, 1825), of ‘La Jacquerie’ (feudal scenes in dialogue form), and of the historical novel, ‘Chronique de Charles IX’ (1829). His well-known ‘Lettres à une Inconnue’ display his ironic and critical temperament. He was a strong supporter of the innocence of ‘Libri the book-thief’ (q.v.).” I find this heart-breaking, down to the last q.v. Poor Merimée! It’s like being buried twice.
Sir Paul Harvey, here, is just doing his job; measured assessment is not the sort of thing that anyone should do for fun. And let’s face it: Hunter Thompson and Arthur Miller had their literary deaths decades ago. You didn’t know them. You read a few of their books and you still can, any time. Do you honestly care that they’re dead? Why should you?