Cultural Revolutions

Reading Obituaries

Reading obituaries is part of reading the newspaper and can be oddly rewarding.  It’s instructive and even inspiring to read about lives and careers.  Sometimes, we read about strangers, sometimes celebrities, sometimes even people we know—or knew.  The gravity of the occasion requires a formulaic response: Without considering the matter, we all know how an obituary is supposed to be composed.

We must therefore notice when we see an obituary that is not formulaic, and wonder why.  I was saddened to read of the passing of Grady McWhiney, the noted Southern historian and academic who was 77 when he died in Abilene, Texas, on April 18.  His obituary appeared in the New York Times on May 1, and it is upon the obituary and not upon the man and the career that I wish to reflect.  I derive all that I know about the late Grady McWhiney from what was implied in two books of his that I read, and what I recall of a couple of hours I once spent with that humorous, thoughtful, and polite man.

He was a gentleman and a scholar, though that can hardly be derived from the bizarre obituary in the Times.  There we read of “bourbon,” “endless analyses of the Civil War,” “drinking,” and then of “the League of the South, which the Southern Poverty Law Center called a hate group.”  Dr. McWhiney’s “Celtic thesis”...

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