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Not-So-Famous Last Words


With our favorite writers, we are all too unforgiving if their later efforts fall short of the early works that won our love. Flames die, but we don't want to watch. Still, there is something to be gained from a look at an author's final messages to his or her readers.

Lord Tennyson lived to a ripe 83, his last years troubled by religious uncertainty. The day he died, he lay his head down on his copy of Shakespeare's Cymbeline, at Posthumus' speech to Imogen: "Hang there like fruit, my soul/Till the tree die."

Tennyson's own last words had been penned months before, a poem titled "Silent Voices": "When the dumb Hour, cloth'd in black,/Brings the Dreams about my bed,/Call me not so often back,/Silent Voices of the dead,/Toward the lowland ways behind me,/And the sunlight that is gone!/Call me rather, silent Voices,/Forward to the starry track/Glimmering up the heights beyond me/On, and always on!"

William Faulkner's finale The Reivers trod over the well-turned sod of rural Mississippi. It was a tired trip, but the novelist could still make the apt observation. As when this older man tells the young hero of the difference between horse and mule:

"When a horse gets a wrong notion in his head all you got to do is swap him another one for it. ... A mule is different. ... That's why you don't pet a mule like you do a horse: he knows you don't love him: you're just trying to fool him into doing something he already don't aim to do and it insults him."

The boy responds to the lesson, and the mule responds to the boy. "We went on, at a fair clip now, the mule neat and nimble, raising barely half as much dust as a horse would ... there came back to me through the lines not just power, but intelligence, sagacity; not just the capacity but the willingness to choose when necessary between two alternatives and to make the right decision without hesitation."

Faulkner knew men as well as mules -- especially, by this time, old men and what they know now that they didn't know then. This time, the boy/hero has returned from his adventure to face a thrashing:

"I mean, if after all the lying and deceiving and disobeying and conniving I had done, all he could do about it was to whip me, then Father was not good enough for me. And if all that I had done was balanced by no more than that shaving stop then both of us were debased. You see? It was impasse until Grandfather knocked ... 'No,' Father said. 'This is what you would have done to me twenty years ago.' 'Maybe I have more sense now,' Grandfather said."

Though he wrote wonderfully of poignancy and loss, F. Scott Fitzgerald stayed hopeful to the end. He died during the writing of The Last Tycoon, a book which stands on somewhat thin legs but has some strengths -- including, perhaps, Fitzgerald's best-realized protagonist in Monroe Stahr. Here the narrator's first impression of Stahr:

"His dark eyes took me in. ... They were kind, aloof and though they often reasoned with you gently, somewhat superior. It was no fault of theirs if they saw so much. ... But he knew how to shut up, how to draw into the background, how to listen. From where he stood ... he watched the multitudinous practicalities of his world like a proud young shepherd to whom night and day had never mattered. He was born sleepless, without a talent for rest or a desire for it."

Fitzgerald's career is paralleled in many ways by that of John Cheever, perhaps most strikingly in productivity and a shared ability to write better short than long. Cheever died after the publication of the novella Oh What a Paradise It Seems. None will call it near Cheever's best, yet it can call to mind the ability of love to overcome the loneliness of our times. This is the next-to-last paragraph:

"The thought of stars contributed to the power of his feeling. What moved him was a sense of those worlds around us, our knowledge however imperfect of their nature, our sense of their possessing some grain of our past and of our lives to come. It was that most powerful sense of our being alive on this planet. It was that most powerful sense of how singular, in the vastness of creation, is the richness of our opportunity. The sense of that hour was of an exquisite privilege, the great benefice of living here and renewing ourselves with love. What a paradise it seemed!"

The last word on this collection of last words belongs to Williams S. Burroughs, who published a journal titled Last Words. In his July 28, 1997, entry, Burroughs talks of how men are comparatively immortal compared to cats and the loss of favorite felines:

"Imagine -- that is, see, look at -- centuries of that./For what? Or who? And surtout pourquoi?/Why? Yes, no, why not?/Last words of Tim Leary:/'Why not?'" Indeed.


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