Trawling through eBay recently, I came across a folder of sample funeral cards from the early twentieth century. As near as I can tell, salesmen would roam from funeral home to funeral home peddling these to undertakers, who would in turn press them on bereaved families. They were standard thank-you notes, essentially—“The family of _________ will hold in grateful remembrance your Spiritual Bouquet and kind expression of sympathy”—but unattached to any death in particular, their messages were gauche, even funny. That they were framed in advertising copy didn’t help. Imagine: Someone you love dies, and before you can even pick out the announcement cards, you have to read sentences like “Genuine engraving achieves its inherent beauty from a correlation of width and depth which no other process possesses.” As a character in Terry Southern’s The Loved One says: “Death has become a middle-class business. There’s no future in it.” Read More
The enduring mystery of Keats’s last words.
Yet do I sometimes feel a languishment
For skies Italian …
—John Keats, “Happy is England! I Could Be Content,” 1817
Among the dozens of fountains in Rome, the Trevi may be the most famous, but the Barcaccia in the Piazza di Spagna arguably has a lock on the most poignant. Commissioned in 1629, it sits at the foot of the Scalinata, or Spanish Steps, swarmed by hordes of tourists in high season. Boat shaped to commemorate the spot where, in the historic flood of 1598, the Tiber River reached its highest level and improbably deposited a river barque in the square, the Barcaccia now seems a light-hearted way station, an oasis on a hot Latin day.
But nearly two centuries ago, the fountain played a far different role for one particular admirer, a transplant from England who roomed in an apartment above the steps and listened incessantly to the murmurings of its waters. To this visitor, the Barcaccia was a temporary lifeline during a few dark winter months at the turn of 1821, as he coughed and spluttered his way to a tragically early death. That doomed young man, as devotees of English Romantic poetry know, was John Keats, and the apartment where the poet, barely twenty-five, breathed his last from tuberculosis, on February 23, 1821, is now the Keats-Shelley House, a meticulously kept museum and scholarly library founded in 1909. It’s there, in the room where Keats died, that you will find the key to a misapprehension—one could almost say a lie—about his life and death that has been promulgated, literally written in stone, since 1823. Read More
In the second of three excerpts from The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, Thomas Laqueur looks at the necrotopology of the churchyard.
The churchyard was, with few exceptions, a lumpy, untidy place. Gravediggers have always instinctively known this; they dug in ground that had been turned over for centuries. From very near the beginning they intercut, hacked through, turned over, tossed out earlier tenants to make room for new ones, and every few hundred years or so apparently leveled the ground and started again. In centuries-long cycles, the fact that there were dead bodies in the ground was made evident on its surface. The dead are really there. The lumps we can still see today in a few churchyards escaped one last round of recycling when the bodies stopped coming or when a local landscaper decided to leave them be. Read More
- Everyone says television has entered a new golden age, so it follows that books based on television have entered a new golden age, too. In other words, why write a novel when you can write a novelization? “For publishers, tie-in books have become cash cows that offer instant brand recognition and access to huge fan bases for vastly larger media … ‘Sometimes I meet writers who are like, “Why are you doing this?” but I would be betraying who I am if I said I’m never going to do this again because it’s beneath me as an artist … I combat the idea that these can’t be good novels.’ ”
- Breaking: some hooligan has made off with the bronze plaque that hangs on Mark Twain’s grave marker in Elmira, New York. Authorities have ensured that it’s not on eBay.
- Our literary critics have become less egotistical over the decades—have they also lost the touch? “Literary critics have become more subdued, adopting methods with less grand speculation, more empirical study, and more use of statistics or other data. They aim to read, describe, and mine data rather than make ‘interventions’ of world-historical importance.”
- And Vanity Fair has done something of an about-face, too, if you look at its history. “That it has become such a celebratory document of the upper class is one of Vanity Fair’s ironies,” but the early iteration of the magazine, edited by Frank Crowninshield, “sought to break something. Its initial sharpness drove at some kind of point other than the enjoyment of fine food and clothing.”
- Rediscovered credos on typography from a 1964 issue of Print magazine: “Is the typographer a prophet or a propagator of a new faith? Typography should be allowed individuality … [but] the aim of typography must not be expression, least of all self-expression, but perfect communication achieved by skill … Typography is a servant and nothing more.”
The many deaths of Ambrose Bierce.
Ambrose Bierce’s old house in St. Helena, California, surrounded by the vineyards of Napa Valley, is in good repair. Eight stout sequoia trunks flare outward from a fused base in the front yard. An hour and a half drive to the south, in San Francisco, is a short knife-thrust of an alley in North Beach named Ambrose Bierce. It runs behind the old San Francisco Examiner building, where Bierce worked as a columnist for the young William Randolph Hearst.
This year marks the centennial of the presumed death of Bierce, Civil War soldier, journalist, and author of The Devil’s Dictionary, a wickedly witty book of social commentary disguised as definitions. He’s still best known for his fiction: his fastidiously plotted horror tales and the dark, vivid stories—including the often anthologized “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”—that drew from his early war experiences at Chickamauga, Shiloh, and Kennesaw Mountain, where he was wounded. In 1913, at the age of seventy-one, the famous writer saddled up a horse and rode into Mexico, not speaking any Spanish, in order to cover the Mexican Revolutionary War, perhaps to participate in it, perhaps to interview Pancho Villa. As newspaper accounts of his time reported, he disappeared without a trace.
More accurately, there were too many traces to follow and World War I soon broke out, so a thorough search for Bierce was postponed. In his disappearing act—and some thought it was an act meant to cloak his suicide or his removal to a sanitorium—Bierce becomes a bit like one of the ghostly characters in Mexico’s most celebrated novel, Pedro Paramo, which is narrated by a man who doesn’t realize he’s dead. Or like the protagonist in Bierce’s own story “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” who stumbles across his own tombstone. According to witnesses, Bierce died over and over again, all over Mexico. There is even a cenotaph for him in the sleepy mining town of Sierra Mojada, in the Chihuahua Desert. Curiously, although his body doesn’t lie under it, it is the most distinguished marker for any of Bierce’s immediate family. Back in St. Helena, his two sons and his wife are buried in unmarked graves. Read More
The poet and memoirist Primo Levi was buried in Turin in 1987. According to a notice printed in the New York Times shortly after his funeral, “His grave was marked with a simple marble headstone giving his name and the dates of his birth and death.” At some later date, a sequence of six numbers was carved into the stone in the space below his name, the same sequence that had been tattooed on Levi’s left arm upon his arrival at Auschwitz.
I have not been able to discover whether or not Levi himself had left instructions in his will, or had told family members, that the sequence 174517 should be inscribed on his stone. In her biography of Levi, The Double Bond, Carole Angier explains that the six men who lowered Levi’s coffin into the grave were all concentration or death camp survivors, and that among the mourners who followed the body to the cemetery were scores of Holocaust survivors “wearing neck-scarves marked with the names of their camps.” Could the revision of his stone have been the wish of Levi’s “survivors”? However it was, the sequence is the most striking and original part of his epitaph, and, set against even a bare skeleton of Levi’s life story, its use here offers us redeeming fictions. On the marble face of his headstone, the sequence is a kind of postlinguistic, numerical poem. Read More