Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A Bit Too Soon?

It's a fairly familiar conundrum. A famous, and generally liked, figure dies, and of course the obituaries and tributes flow, often sanding the rough parts and presenting a generally positive, if not hagiographic, picture of the dearly departed. We are seeing it now with David Halberstam. And in general, why not? After all, when the ledger sheet is added up, there will be a lot more checks in Halberstam's good column than in his bad. He was a vital, vibrant, active writer who left a legacy most reporters and historians would envy.

So I found something a bit untoward in this Jack Shafer rip job of Halberstam. But why? Surely we need to consider the good and the bad and debunk mytholigizing of even the most fundamentally praiseworthy figures? After all, people are buried with their warts intact, aren't they? Halberstam was a fine reporter who reached rarified air among American writers. But in the midst of the celebration maybe there is something wise, even brave, of tackling the hagiography as it is being written. Halberstam was, after all, not flawless. He was a much better journalist than he was a historian (his book The Children, on the Nashville Movement and the civil rights era surrounding it, was execrably bad, which makes one wonder whether other among his work was as sloppy; His prose could be flatulent; His productivity sometimes meant that some of his work seemed half considered; Shafer makes a compelling, if for the moment unseemly, case for his well-known ego, and so forth).

I had been thinking these issues for days while not even wanting to. A good, even great, man had just died tragically and it seems to me that there is a proper time to mourn, or at least to honor. Unless we are dealing with a person who, on balance, is more bad than good when considered in history's harsh light, isn't it fundamentally ok to provide a grace period of uncritical, even fawning, assessment? After all, Halberstam was an often graceful writer with a great deal of curiosity and the capacity to get inside of a story. His work on Vietnam will probably long stand the test of time and he surely elevated the art of writing thoughtfully, seriously, and intelligently about sports. He was an honest writer but a fair one. He loved to work, which fueled his productivity. His missteps were never a function of meannness or gratuitousness -- his book was a mess, but there is no doubting Halberstam's seriousness and commitment to civil rights and his profound respect for the movement's activists -- and oftentimes his level of commitment lead to his finest work.

There is time for thorough criticism of even the noblest of men. But maybe that time has not arrived just yet. RIP David Halberstam.

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