By Nigel Hamilton
Katie Roiphe had put together a book – a prosopography – of dyings in our time: The Violet Hour.
The title is taken from T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, denoting the setting of the sun and the approaching end of day: “the evening hour that strives / Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea.”
Ms. Roiphe, whose last book was a group biography of eccentric Bloomsbury marriages, Uncommon Arrangements (2007), now follows the last days of a group of book writers: Susan Sontag, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak, and Sigmund Freud. According to today’s Wall Street Journal the book is sadder than its predecessor, which charted the pursuit of love. In the new one, the reviewer tells us, Ms. Roiphe is more willing to offer judgment, a Final Judgment, on her charges – from Sontag’s furious denial she was mortal, despite her third bout of cancer, to John Updike’s rejection of the children of his first marriage.
Perhaps naturally, such books carry the whiff of plagiarism about them: the squeezing of many biographies written by other authors into a clever project. Doubtless those originating biographers will, in a sense, feel robbed – for what more haunting / elegiac /dramatic /symbolic scene is there to narrate in a biography than the record of a real life’s end?
Symbolic, because it is where we are all going, one day; elegiac, because it completes the tapestry the author has woven, from beginning to the final thread and border.
Yet by calling attention to that climactic moment in each chosen individual’s life, Ms. Roiphe has surely every right to compare them – just as, by implication and by analogy, Samuel Johnson did in his Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets. The question how we will face our impending end is one that grows larger and more urgent as we age. Reading about how others have managed their exit – or mismanaged it – is very much part of what Dr. Johnson saw as the great virtue of modern biography: its willingness to record “the mistakes and miscarriages, escapes and expedients” of a chosen life – and its lessons, inherent and overt, for us.
Ms. Roiphe has chosen the lives – or, rather, the deaths – of a select group of significant modern writers, Feud included. But a similar book might well be undertaken of the deaths of military figures, of presidents, of scientists, or religious men and women.
What makes the deaths of writers especially fascinating, surely, is that almost every writer I can think of has written, in his or her own work, about the death of others, real or fictional. And these chosen writers, in Ms. Roiphe’s telling, must now confront their own demise, before the biographical lens.
I have not yet read The Violet Hour, but I shall be interested to see whether, alongside her larger comparison of the way her authors faced death, she has been able to compare each author’s artistic version of death in his or her own work, and his or her own actual manner-of-death.
For example, Dylan Thomas’s most famous and haunting poem is his Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night – with its call to wise men, good men, grave men, and finally his own father, not to go silently but to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Dylan Thomas’s own dying, two years later, was certainly full of rage – but it was rage against himself, and how he had, instead of continuing to write wonderful poetry, had become at age 39 but a drunken celebrity, a performer of his own past work, “peddling and bawling to adolescents the romantic agonies of the dead,” as he himself put it.
The task of a biographer of writers is, among other things, to make the comparison, however sad, between “the romantic agonies” of artistic work and the realities of life – and death. Not to belittle the poet, or to disparage great work, but to help ensure that in our admiration of art we do not go overboard and create emperors without clothes.
The biographer’s job in our society, to put it another way, is to tether myth to reality, via honesty and human empathy.
Whether Ms. Roiphe has been too harsh on her clients I do not yet know: but I applaud her courage in pursuing what seems to me to be one of the chief justifications of our own art.
First President, Biographers International Organization (BIO)
Honorary President, La Société de Biographie
McCormack Graduate School
 Daniel Akst, “Facing Up to Death,” review of The Violet Hour by Katie Roiphe, Wall Street Journal, March 5-6, 2016