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Monday, December 22, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 5/29/2005

The written word is all too easy to throw away

Here today, here tomorrow? Fortunately, the fine writing of today may not disappear the way yesterday's did. A guy died the other day whom you never heard of and whose newspaper work you probably never read. That's a shame, because Jeremiah V. Murphy was a heck of a writer, and his death last week got me to thinking about the good writing that gets remembered and the good writing that doesn't.

There's a lot of good writing in newspapers today; in this one, in the national papers, in little papers across the country. The inescapable fact is that we throw a lot of it in the recycling pile every day, along with the container of cat litter and the empty pickle jars, both of which are consumed in great numbers in our house.

Newspaper writers know that while they think of their work as immortal, in truth it is disposable. The next time you hear a few of them moaning about the Internet, you might remind them that the information revolution is giving new, and maybe eternal, life to the words they type. That won't cheer them up much, but it's one of the (many) reasons we in the print business have to stop being afraid of the future, a future in which information will be even more indispensable and less disposable than ever.

Even so, that doesn't mean anyone will trip over it soon. The novels of Sir Walter Scott are still in print but hardly anyone reads them anymore, which is a shame. I still like Theodore Dreiser but the critics say he's passe. No one has sat down with The Late George Apley by John P. Marquand for years. OK, maybe 10 people have, but it remains one of the great reading experiences in American life. A colleague recently lent me her copy of Lord David Cecil's life of Melbourne, and my guess is that no more than a dozen people have read it in this millennium. That's a great pity. It may be the funniest biography ever written.

All this is meant to show that most writing, even of the famous, accomplished sort, is ephemeral. James Reston was among the greatest columnists of the 20th century. He died a decade ago. He's never quoted anymore, never remembered; I asked a whole roomful of journalism students recently what they knew of James Reston and was greeted by a sea of blank faces. Mary McGrory, another giant of the genre, died 13 months ago; fortunately, Phil Gailey of the St. Petersburg Times, one of her closest friends, is assembling an anthology of her columns, so words like these, written 42 years ago, will never be forgotten:

"Of John Fitzgerald Kennedy's funeral, it can be said, he would have liked it.

"It had that decorum and dash that were in his special style. It was both splendid and spontaneous. It was full of children and princes, of gardeners and governors."

Grantland Rice was perhaps the finest sportswriter of the last century; all that survives is one sentence, frequently bungled in the retelling: "Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again."

The best small-town newspaperman who ever lived may have been William Allen White of the Emporia Gazette. Outside of Kansas, he's only vaguely recalled today, but when you read his eulogy to his little girl, who died in a horse accident, you will know that it - and he - deserve to be remembered forever:

"A rift in the clouds in a gray day threw a shaft of sunlight upon her coffin as her nervous, energetic little body sank to its last sleep. But the soul of her, the glowing, gorgeous fervent soul of her, surely was flaming in eager joy upon some other dawn."

These excerpts prompt a feeling Jerry Murphy wrote about decades ago, and it's no coincidence it's about the craft he mastered: You get that feeling sometimes when you read something that gets deep inside of you and shakes you up, because every word is just right, and you read it a second time and wish you could have written it.

You can't find the Boston Globe column where that appeared. You'd have to go to my own battered files, where I keep old pieces that I am afraid will disappear or die, which are two ways of saying the same thing. I clipped it out as a boy and kept it. I'm glad I did.

This makes me wonder: What beautiful writing has been thrown out? Forgotten forever? Written in longhand to a friend, hidden in a drawer and then thrown out before an estate sale? How much richer is the world now that a historian, rummaging through an Illinois historical archive a decade or so ago, stumbled upon a copy of a letter that Maj. Sullivan Ballou of the Second Regiment, Rhode Island Volunteers, wrote to his wife, Sarah, just before he died in the first Battle of Bull Run in 1861?

"How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.

"But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the garish day and in the darkest night, amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by."

There's no grand lesson in today's column, no little truth struggling to break into your morning, just the sense of sadness that comes with the death of a writer whose words have been forgotten, forgotten, except of course, like whatever scrap of paper you have stuffed in a blotter, or tucked in a drawer, or slid onto a shelf, or placed in a file to be read late at night when the kids are asleep and when the memories move with a slow canter by those who read them.



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