Classic Literary Obituaries, From Virginia Woolf to Marcel Proust
"There is no evidence of foul play."
In case you hadn’t noticed when you tripped over your shoelaces this morning (right after waking up with your healthcare in jeopardy), it’s Friday the 13th, Western culture’s unluckiest of days. I recently learned that Friday the 13th is just another charming function of the patriarchy, but that didn’t stop me from taking advantage of the spooky vibes to look up the death notices of some famous literary figures. Many of the obituaries are flattering, some are reserving judgement (the person writing about Fitzgerald’s death takes a definite “wait and see” approach), some, particularly the older ones, go so deep into detail of the moments of death that I gasped, and some, like Sylvia Plath’s, are essentially nonexistent. So whether you’re contemplating your inevitable death or trying to avoid it by reading articles on the internet on this luckiest of days, I present to you this collection of literary obituaries.
Jane Austen’s obituary in the Salisbury and Winchester Journal, July 28, 1817:
On Friday the 18th inst. died, in this city, Miss Jane Austen, youngest daughter of the late Rev. George Austen, Rector of Steventon, in this county, and the Authoress of Emma, Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility. Her manners were most gentle, her affections ardent, her candor was not to be surpassed, and she lived and died as became a humble Christian. [via]
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s obituary in the Los Angeles Times, 24 December 1940:
Almost as if he were typifying his uncertain and groping generation even in his early death, F. Scott Fitzgerald has passed from a world gripped again by the same kind of war hysteria that first made him famous. The author of “Taps at Reveille” has indeed left a troubled life before his time. His articulateness was that of a turbulent age. By the time he died he still must not have found the answers to the queries that he was asking all his life: Whither youth, whither the nations of the earth?
Fitzgerald had an importance only time will tell whether it was ephemeral because he made himself the voice of youth crying in the wilderness of political and social and moral muddling. The youth he knew was dissolute, but it was also courageous. It was unstable, but it was also questing. It was a phenomenon of the postwar, Turbulent Twenties, a hangover from Versailles. Youth sensed that security had not been secured, but it did not know what to do about it. Neither did Fitzgerald. But he made people think. And that was something.
He was a brilliant, sometimes profound, writer. That his work seemed to lack a definite objective was not his fault, but the fault of the world in which he found himself. He has left us a legacy of pertinent questions which he did not pretend to be able to answer. That was not the smallest part of his greatness. [Read more Fitzgerald obits here]
Emily Dickinson’s obituary in the Springfield Republican, May 18, 1886:
The death of Miss Emily E. Dickinson, daughter of the late Edward Dickinson, at Amherst on Saturday, makes another sad inroad on the small circle so long occupying the old family mansion. It was for a long generation overlooked by death, and one passing in and out there thought of old-fashioned times, when parents and children grew up and passed maturity together, in lives of singular uneventfulness unmarked by sad or joyous crises. Very few in the village, excepting among the older inhabitants, knew Miss Emily personally, although the facts of her seclusion and her intellectual brilliancy were familiar Amherst traditions. There are many houses among all classes into which her treasures of fruit and flowers and ambrosial dishes for the sick and well were constantly sent, that will forever miss those evidences of her unselfish consideration, and mourn afresh that she screened herself from close acquaintance. As she passed on in life, her sensitive nature shrank from much personal contact with the world, and more and more turned to her own large wealth of individual resources for companionship, sitting thenceforth, as some one said of her, “In the light of ‘her own fire.” … [Read more]
Ernest Hemingway’s obituary in the New York Times, July 3, 1961:
Ernest Hemingway was found dead of a shotgun wound in the head at his home here today.
His wife, Mary, said that he had killed himself accidentally while cleaning the weapon.
Mr. Hemingway, whose writings won him a Nobel Prize and a Pulitzer Prize, would have been 62 years old July 21.
Frank Hewitt, the Blaine County Sheriff, said after a preliminary investigation that the death “looks like an accident.” He said, “There is no evidence of foul play.”
The body of the bearded, barrel-chested writer, clad in a robe and pajamas, was found by his wife in the foyer of their modern concrete house.
A double-barreled, 12-gauge shotgun lay beside him with one chamber discharged. [Read more]
Charlotte Brontë’s obituary in the Leeds Mercury, April 7, 1855:
“Currer Bell” is dead!The early death of the large family of whom she was the sole survivor, prepared all who knew the circumstances to expect the loss of this gifted creature at any time: but not the less deep will be the grief of society that her genius will yield us nothing more. We have three works from her which will hold their place in the literature of our century; and, but for her frail health, there might have been three times three; for she was under forthy; and her genius was not of an exhaustible kind…. [Read more]
Langston’s Hughes’s obituary in the New York Times, May 23, 1967:
Langston Hughes, the noted writer of novels, stories, poems and plays about Negro life, died last night in Polyclinic Hospital at the age of 65.
Mr. Hughes was sometimes characterized as the “O. Henry of Harlem.” He was an extremely versatile and productive author who was particularly well known for his folksy humor.
In a description of himself written for “Twentieth Century Authors,” a biographical dictionary, Mr. Hughes wrote:
“My chief literary influences have been Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman. My favorite public figures include Jimmy Durante, Marlene Dietrich, Mary McLeod Bethune, Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Marian Anderson and Henry Armstrong.”
“I live in Harlem, New York City,” his autobiographical sketch continued. “I am unmarried. I like ‘Tristan,’ goat’s milk, short novels, lyric poems, heat, simple folk, boats and bullfights; I dislike ‘Aida,’ parsnips, long novels, narrative poems, cold, pretentious folk, buses and bridges.”
It was said that whenever Mr. Hughes had a pencil and paper in his hands, he would scribble poetry. He recalled an anecdote about how he was “discovered” by the poet Vachel Lindsay.
Lindsay was dining at the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington when a busboy summoned his courage and slipped several sheets of paper beside the poet’s plate. Lindsay was obviously annoyed, but he picked up the papers and read a poem titled “The Weary Blues.”
As Lindsay read, his interest grew. He called for the busboy and asked, “Who wrote this?”
“I did,” replied Langston Hughes. [Read more]
James Joyce’s obituary in the New York Times, January 13, 1941:
James Joyce, Irish author whose “Ulysses” was the center of one of the most bitter literary controversies of modern times, died in a hospital here early today despite the efforts of doctors to save him by blood transfusions. He would have been 59 years old Feb. 2.
Joyce underwent an intestinal operation Saturday afternoon at the Schwesternhaus von Rotenkreuz Hospital. For a time he appeared to be recovering. Only yesterday his son reported him to have been cheerful and apparently out of danger.
During the afternoon, however, the writer suffered a sudden relapse and sank rapidly. He died at 2:15 A.M. (8:15 P.M., Eastern standard time).
His wife and son were at the hospital when he died. [Read more]
Virginia Woolf’s obituary in the New York Times, April 3, 1941:
Mrs. Virginia Woolf, novelist and essayist, who has been missing from her home since last Friday, is believed to have been drowned at Rodwell, near Lewes, where she and her husband, Leonard Sidney Woolf, had a country residence.
Mr. Woolf said tonight:
“Mrs. Woolf is presumed to be dead. She went for a walk last Friday, leaving a letter behind, and it is thought she has been drowned. Her body, however, has not been recovered.”
The circumstances surrounding the novelist’s disappearance were not revealed. The authorities at Lewes said they had no report of Mrs. Woolf’s supposed death.
It was reported her hat and cane had been found on the bank of the Ouse River. Mrs. Woolf had been ill for some time. [Read more]
Jack London’s obituary in the New York Times, November 23, 1916:
Jack London, the author, died at his Glen Ellen, Cal., ranch near here at 7:45 o’clock tonight, a victim of uremic poisoning. London was taken ill last night and was found unconscious early today by a servant who went to his room to awaken him.
His sister, Mrs. Eliza Shepard, summoned physicians from this city. It was at first believed that the author was a victim of ptomaine poisoning, but later it developed he was suffering from a servere form of uremia. Dr. J. Wilson Shiels of San Francisco, a close friend of the writer, was summoned during the day.
From the time London was found this morning he did not regain consciousness. About midday he seemed to rally, but later suffered a relapse and sank rapidly until the end came. [Read more]
Oscar Wilde’s obituary in the New York Times, November 30, 1900:
Oscar Wilde died at 3 o’clock this afternoon in the Maison du Perier, Due des Beaux Arts, in the Latin Quarter. It is a small, obscure hotel, at which Wilde had been living for several months under the name of Manmoth.
According to the accounts obtainable Wilde was operated upon six weeks ago for meningitis, caused by an abcess in the ear, which the doctors were unable to locate. He is said to have been unconscious for two days, and before that time to have been received into the Roman Catholic Church. Lord Alfred Douglas was with him when he died.
Le Journal says, however, that it is rumored that Wilde committed suicide.
Wilde will be buried in this city on Monday. [Read more]
Anne Sexton’s obituary in the New York Times, October 6, 1974:
Anne Sexton, the poet who won the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for her volume “Live or Die,” was found dead yesterday inside an idling car, parked in her garage.
“It was either suicide or natural causes,” Lieut. Lawrence Cugini, a police detective, said.
The poet, who was 45 years old, had recently been divorced from her husband, Alfred. Survivors include two daughters, Linda and Joyce. [Read more]
Leo Tolstoy’s obituary in the New York Times, November 20, 1910:
Count Tolstoy died at 6:05 this morning.
The Countess Tolstoy was admitted to the sickroom at 5:50. Tolstoy did not recognize her.
The family assembled in an adjoining room, awaiting the final event.
Tolstoy has suffered several severe attacks of heart failure during the night. During the early morning hours they followed each other in rapid succession, but were quickly relieved. Between the first and second attack the members of the family were admitted to the bedside.
The novelist’s condition after each attack was what the attending physicians called “deceptively encouraging.” The patient slept for a little, seeming to breathe more comfortably than usual. Drs. Thechurovsky and Usoff, nevertheless, in a statement to Tolstoy’s son Michel, held out but slight hope, and did not hesitate to predict a quick end under ordinary mortal circumstances. Tolstoy, they said, was a splendid patient in mind and body, except for his heart.
When one of the heart attacks seized him Tolstoy was alone with his eldest daughter, Tatina. He suddenly clutched her hand and drew her to him. He seemed to be choking, but was able to whisper:
“Now the end has come; that is all.”
Tatina was greatly frightened and tried to free herself so she might run for the doctor, but her father would not release his grasp. She called loudly from where she sat. The physicians came and injected camphor, which had an almost immediate effect in relieving the pressure. Tolstoy soon raised his head and drew himself up to a sitting position. When he had recovered his breath he said:
“There are millions of people and many sufferers in the world. Why are you so anxious about me?” [Read more]
Herman Melville’s obituary in the New York Times, September 29, 1891 (note the misspelling):
Herman Melville died yesterday at his residence, 104 East Twenty-sixth Street, this city, of heart failure, aged seventy-two. He was the author of “Typee,” “Omoo,” “Mobie Dick,” and other seafaring tales, written in earlier years. He leaves a wife and two daughters, Mrs. M. B. Thomas and Miss Melville. [via]
Anais Nin’s obituary in The Washington Post, January 16, 1977:
Anais Nin, a brilliant and innovative author who probed the inner landscapes of the mind in a series of sensitively written diaries she kept up over decades, died late Friday in a los Angeles hospital. She was 73.
Although her surrealist explorations of the subsconscious had often proved too obscure for the general public, she seemed to be gaining acceptance in recent years among the young, and among those who valued her vivid expressions of a woman’s point of view.
The author of works of rare delicacy and fragile beauty, she was also a woman of great determination, who overcame the lack of a publisher in the 1940s by buying a foot-powered press and printing her own work.
In addition to the six volumes of “The Diary of Anais Nin,” the last of which was published last year – by a commercial publisher – she was also known for a series of other works, including several novels. [Read more]
Marcel Proust’s obituary in The Guardian, November 19, 1922:
Marcel Proust, foremost of “young novelists” of France, died yesterday. He was fifty years old and had been in poor health from childhood. It is probable that he was as well known abroad, especially in Holland and England, where Marcel Proust Societies have recently been formed, as in Paris, where his work was enjoyed by a select minority. His style was difficult and obscure, and his intricate, exquisitely delicate meditations and analysis of emotions could never have appealed to the mass of readers. Outwardly and in his habits he was a strange being. Very pale, with burning black eyes, frail and short in stature, he lived like a hermit in his home, which was open to a few privileged friends, amongst precious furniture. Yet by fits and starts he loved to re-enter the fashionable “night-life” of Paris. His apartment was lined throughout with cork in an ineffectual attempt to keep out the uproar of the noisiest city in the world. Most of his best-known work was done after he reached the age of forty-five years. Of all idols and masters of present-day literature in France he is most likely to have won a place which time will not take away. [via]