Generation Y

All the president’s writers

When E.L. Doctorow died last week in New York at the age of 84, Barack Obama took to Twitter to honor the late author: “E.L. Doctorow was one of America’s greatest novelists. His books taught me much, and he will be missed,” our president graciously tweeted.

It marks the seventh occasion during the Obama presidency that the president has chosen to remark publicly upon the passing of a literary figure, and his first time doing so on Twitter. Previously, Obama issued official statements of mourning for the writers Maya Angelou, Ray Bradbury, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Roger Ebert, and Vaclav Havel—though it should be noted that Ebert and Havel moonlighted, notably in TV and politics, respectively. Obama additionally composed a message of condolence regarding the Nobel laureate Chinua Achebe, which a representative read aloud at a ceremony honoring the Nigerian author.

One of the roles that a president must play is that of spokesperson for the national mood: when something important happens, we expect him to say something, however banal it may necessarily be. But it’s not always easy to determine whether “something important” has happened when a famous entertainer or artist has died, and presidents tend to grieve only sporadically in these situations: Obama, for instance, eulogized Robin Williams and Harold Ramis but not Philip Seymour Hoffman or Mike Nichols.

Six of the seven deceased writers whom Obama has praised can be loosely grouped into two categories: artistic figureheads for whom a lack of state recognition would represent a slap in the face to some large foreign population or minority culture, and writers whose regional or cultural affiliation matches (according to public perception) that of Obama himself, whom certain people still expect to employ his global platform as a liaison between black or Illinoisan culture and the larger world.

The odd man out is Doctorow, who never resided in the Prairie State and never functioned as a torchbearer or exemplar for any particular ethnic group or region. It kind of looks like Obama just happened to enjoy Doctorow’s books, and Twitter—only recently adopted by the president—allowed him to comment quietly upon his passing without any political necessity.

Before Twitter, POTUS’s celebrity eulogy decisions doubtless were politically calculated in some sense (as they still probably are), but even then they seemed at times sufficiently random as to reflect some possibly genuine personal impetus on the part of the president, who may simply have felt moved to speak out as any fan might. It comes as no surprise that, during George W. Bush’s eight-year stint as head of state, he never once issued a first-person statement of grief at the passing of a literary artist, although in 2006 and 2008 the deaths of Naguib Mahfouz and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn—iconic Nobel laureates from countries with whom the U.S. has had uneasy relations—merited tactful, depersonalized messages of condolence sent to Egypt and Russia, respectively.

To be fair, Bush was in an awkward position in this realm, since virtually all belle-lettrists openly loathed him: it would have made no sense to have him mourn Susan Sontag or Norman Mailer.

For me, it’s interesting to try to determine why some literary figures merit state recognition while others don’t. Some fairly angry, rebellious, and uncouth artists have, with time, managed to achieve official sanction as national treasures: Philip Roth, Martin Scorsese, and Jay-Z all come to mind. Even so, it’s clear that the U.S. government does not love all types of art equally.

The language of Obama’s encomiums is revealing. Ray Bradbury “understood that our imaginations could be used as a tool for better understanding, a vehicle for change, and an expression of our most cherished values.” Gabriel Garcia Marquez was “a proud Colombian, a representative and voice for the people of the Americas.” Chinua Achebe “gave voice to perspectives that cultivated understanding and drew our world closer together.”

In each case, the eulogy focuses on the author’s role as the embodiment or distillation of a collective experience; we’re to believe that these writers spoke not only for themselves but for their brothers and sisters and countrymen, at minimum. But not every novel intends to be a national epic, and it could even be argued that literary fiction functions most significantly as a representation of the lonely peculiarities of the individual experience.

The two most important American writers to die on Obama’s watch were, for my money, John Updike and J.D. Salinger, whose most famous protagonists, respectively, were a middle-class suburban adulterer and a bratty, alienated, rich teenager: subjects that did not grandly contribute to the mythology of America or reflect the identity of any of its downtrodden subgroups. (Doctorow, by contrast, wrote broad historical narratives on national themes.) Obama remained silent upon Updike’s and Salinger’s death. He also neglected to honor Gore Vidal, who surely was too controversial on a personal level to earn a presidential endorsement, regardless of his work’s merits.

Over the past half-century, two writers have received more appreciation from the U.S. government than any other: the dime novelist Louis L’Amour and the memoirist Maya Angelou. L’Amour is the only writer ever to receive both the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. Angelou recited a poem at Bill Clinton’s inauguration and inspired a longer-than-usual tribute from Obama upon her death.

L’Amour was a prolific writer of Westerns that reflected the grandeur of the North American landscape and chronicled our Manifest Destiny within the terms of a heroic masculine journey—rather than those of a genocide. Angelou’s feminist memoirs, meanwhile, applied a hopeful narrative to the hardship and violence of African-American life. As the oppressor and the oppressed, they formed a national literature for the United States, or at least as much of one as our government requires: an acknowledgment that non-whites and women have suffered (though they will persevere), and a concurrent insistence that white men didn’t do anything wrong. The “collective experience” that they mutually articulate is, at best, schizophrenic.

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