Saturday, December 17, 2005


Dead Literature

This week's TLS has an interesting article on a new Times of London collection, Great Lives: A Century in Obituaries. Obituaries, as written in Britain, are a genuine literary genre, one whose subtleties have still largely evaded American obit writers. One of the great merits of a well-written British obituary is that you needn't know or care about the deceased or their profession: it is meant to stand on its own as a compelling piece of writing.

The TLS gives a fascinating glimpse into the origins of the genre:

In Britain, it seems to have been the Gentleman's Magazine which first developed the genre, particularly under the Editorship of John Nichols in the last two decades of the eighteenth century. Thereafter, other publishers tried to launch regular collections of obituaries. The Annual Necrology published one volume for 1797-8, then stopped. The Annual Biography and Obituary ran for ten years between 1817 and 1826. It offered brief biographies of the moderately famous and long entries for "Celebrated Persons" (Napoleon got 220 pages). Another short-lived venture, Charles R. Dodd's The Annual Biography, resulted in only one volume, covering deaths for 1842. It too combined long memoirs of "Distinguished or Remarkable Persons" with short notes on "Persons of Less Importance."

Ah, the British.

Curiously enough, after I coined the word "necrologue" for an article on posthumous travelogues in this month's Believer, I discovered the OED word had a brief existence a couple centuries ago as an early term for "obituary." This would have been right around when the genre was being invented; I suppose the word for it hadn't even been nailed down just yet.

There is at least one worthy US addition to the genre: Thomas McG Thomas's 52 McGs. And the TLS article doesn't mention the immensely satisfying obituary collections issued over the years by the Daily Telegraph: it probably goes without saying that my favorite volume is Volume 1: Eccentrics...

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