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Sideways Review: The Dearth of the Eulogy

John Proctor

on selected essays

The Best American Essays 2010

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~3rd in a series

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I should begin this review with a frank admission: I am my family’s designated eulogist. My own obsession with death and the fact that I’m the only one in my family who writes anything but text messages and Facebook updates have thrust this responsibility upon me. Ever since I left home for college, when someone—aunt, uncle, grandparent—dies I prepare a manuscript that I submit to my family and the funeral director. Every time I attempt to write a piece that captures the essence of the person, complete and unfiltered. And every time, without fail, someone says, “You can’t say that at a funeral.” It’s too negative, that’s nobody’s business, and on and on. I can properly sum the comments up in two words: Too honest. So I hone the eulogy, omitting what frequently seem to me the most defining and consequential elements of the deceased’s life until I have a proper eulogy, befitting and respecting the dead.

In his introduction to The Best American Essays 2010, Guest Editor Christopher Hitchens decries the dearth of polemic writing in the essays he read for the volume. Hitchens has never been known to duck verbal fisticuffs; his newest book, Arguably, is full of his characteristic piss ‘n’ vinegar. After reading the 2003-2010 volumes, I’ve found that each attempt at compiling the finest American essays of that year appears to result instead in a representation of that guest editor’s vision of the essay, which can be fairly slippery from volume to volume, considering the wide swathe the essay as a form covers. This volume, like The Best American Essays 2006 edited by Lauren Slater, contains quite a few essays concerning death. But whereas most of Slater’s choices tend toward meditations on grief, many of the 2010 selections seem more concerned with retelling the lives of the deceased. With these criteria and my own background in mind I’d like to present my own polemic, against the eulogy as an essay.

The 2010 volume of the Best American Essays series is perhaps the most uneven volume I’ve yet read. Its highs—“The Murder of Leo Tolstoy,” Elif Batuman’s hilarious and thoughtful mock-murder mystery, and “Gyromancy,” Ron Rindo’s account of his and Van Gogh’s respective experiences with vertigo, for example—rank with the best of the Best American Essays. But at least a handful of essays in this volume left me shaking my head in wonder that they could ever have been considered, much less included, in any Best American Essays volume. Take, for example, two of these, Ian McEwan’s “On John Updike” and Gary Wills’ “Daredevil,” which are essentially one thing, and one thing only—eulogies.

First, the Updike eulogy. Call me a purist, but I don’t see how a British novel writer eulogizing an American novel writer qualifies either as American or as an essay. Mostly a summary of the plots and characters of Updike’s major novels and a defense against anyone who might not consider them sacred, this essay seems to be included in the volume purely on the strength of the names Updike and McEwan.

“Daredevil,” Garry Wills’ eulogy of his close friend William F. Buckley, illustrates the limits of the eulogy as a form even further than McEwan’s. I actually found “Daredevil” had more in common with Steven L. Isenberg’s “Lunching on Olympus,” also in this volume, itself a four-part eulogy of four Twentieth-Century literary icons with whom he had lunch (One visit was with E.M. Forster, which prompts Isenberg to ask, “Can you imagine how I felt—a boy from my circumstances, so American, so unfinished—walking along the backs of the Cambridge colleges with the man who wrote A Passage to India and Howards End on my arm as a silent companion?”). In their awed mythologization, both Isenberg and Wills focus more on unequivocal praise than presenting compelling views of their subjects.

Wills goes even further than Isenberg, attempting to categorize and disprove seemingly every negative thing Buckley’s critics had to say about him, mostly unintentionally confirming them with his insular, good ol’ boy anecdotes of yacht sailing (Buckley was kind enough to fish out a drunken friend who’d fallen off in a stupor one night), limousines (he employed the same Irish Catholic chauffeur for most of his life), and church (which he regularly attended with his Hispanic house servants). And it’s not that I begrudge Wills’ eulogy for being what it is—a statement of affection of one man for his dead friend—but it reinforces the point to which I’ve been coming.

I still think every one of my relatives for whom I’ve written a eulogy was better served by the original. And that’s the problem with the eulogy as a form: In its attempt to put the best face on the deceased, to express the worth of a life, the eulogist limits by design the honesty with which he can address his subject. This notion—that divinity and immortality are only bequeathed to the morally upright—produces a dull essay interesting only to those who want to preserve some sort of “perfect” image of a real person.

I’ll use a couple of other essays from this volume as essayistic counterpoints to the eulogy. Take James Wood’s “A Fine Rage,” for example. Wood combines a thorough engagement with his subject—in this case George Orwell and his rage at the abuse of power—with what I’ll call a “divine humanity,” balancing the literary and historical details of a thoroughly researched figure with a genuinely human empathy for Orwell himself. His concern with Orwell, then, is both humane and critical, whereas a eulogy is merely humane.

But I’m not only talking about critical essays here. The memoir essay could never get away with the myopic singularity that is the eulogist’s stock-in-trade. If memoirists don’t submit themselves and their subjects to intense critical scrutiny, analyzing every motive, the audience won’t accept the reliability of the narrative. Jane Churchon, a registered nurse, drives this point home in “The Dead Book,” an essay about one of the aspects of her job as Nurse Supervisor—to pronounce patients dead. She describes her struggle to retain her own humanity while relaying information that always makes people weep:

I hadn’t expected that I would want to linger with the body. I hadn’t expected that I’d want to comfort the deceased. I hadn’t expected that I’d want to cry. And those impulses have never gone away.

Every writer is culpable in the fundamentally wrong assumption that writing something down or saving it on one’s hard drive or convincing a gatekeeper to publish it means that thing will live forever; the eulogist takes this misplaced assumption a step further in assuming that if only the flattering things are recorded, the divine essence of the subject will be remembered, pure and unsullied by the subject’s humanity.

The role of the essayist is neither to flatter nor to assault, but to try to find and examine the humanity in whatever the subject may be, from as many angles as possible. Our combined flaws and merits—sometimes the same things—are what make us human, not immortals but imperfect beings who sometimes transcend our own flaws; to deny us our flaws is to deny us our humanity.

John Proctor, who can also be found at Numéro Cinq, is reading one volume of The Best American Essays a month for the next two years. He is more obsessed with essays than with death, but not by the widest of margins.

More of John Proctor’s BAE reviews.

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The Best American Essays 2010
Christopher Hitchens, Editor
Robert Atwan, Series Editor
Mariner Books
 
2010


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