Thursday, January 15, 2015

`He Had a Way with Words'

On the day I finished writing an obituary for a chemical engineer who died shortly before Christmas, two friends, neither of whom knows the other, sent me obituaries they thought I would enjoy. Obits should always be taken seriously by their writers because they are read seriously by survivors. Often, the only public notice of a life, not to mention a death, is an obit. The first piece I wrote on my first day as a newspaper reporter almost forty years ago was an obituary for a farmer whose surname was Miller. From the start, I was taught to emphasize concision and scrupulous accuracy. That leaves little room for bathos or sentimental retrofitting of nonexistent virtue. 

Ian Jackson, an antiquarian book dealer in Berkeley, Calif., and a longtime reader of Anecdotal Evidence, sent me the obituary he wrote for the English polymath Eric Korn and published in the Winter 2014 issue of The Book Collector (not available online). Korn was a childhood friend of Dr. Oliver Sacks, who writes about him in Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (2001). Jackson quotes Sacks: 

“`We were much of the same age,’ wrote Sacks, `and would both be taken to Brondesbury Park to play by our nannies.’ They attended St Paul’s School, where Jonathan Miller was soon added to the equation: `He and Jonathan and I formed an inseparable trio, bound not only by personal but by family bonds. Our fathers, thirty years earlier, had all been medical students together, and our families remained close.’ It was a delightful and apposite combination, worthy of a nursery rhyme: corn, sacks and miller.” 

Jackson’s obit is no hagiography. He makes it clear Korn could be difficult and often exceeded the more genteel bounds of eccentricity. But he must have been autodidactically brilliant in a way almost extinct in this Age of Ph.D.’s: 

“Like many persons of scientific bent and humanistic inclinations, Korn was not a man of letters but a man of languages. For all the Kipling, Chesterton, Eliot and Browning he had memorized, literature remained for him essentially a wonderful game, a form of parallel play with words, not that such an approach (in the hands of Queneau or Perec or Joyce) cannot embody literary dimensions. Korn was not above showing off in several tongues, but it was the words that he savoured.” 

Another friend sent another sort of obituary, this one for Celene McInerney Siedlecki and published in the Chicago Sun-Times. Siedlecki was the matriarch of a mortuary dynasty, Thomas McInerney’s Sons Funeral Home, established in 1873 in Chicago’s Canaryville neighborhood. The writer, Maureen O'Donnell, works in a reference to Mike Royko’s Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago (1971) and a roll call of neighborhood names worthy of Studs Lonigan: 

“At one point, a representative of a conglomerate pitched to Rosemarie Barry the possibility of buying the family funeral home. But he didn’t grasp that McInerney’s is an establishment where amateur genealogists come to study logs that go back 141 years. He didn’t understand tight-knit Canaryville is where birth names permanently succumb to nicknames with long-ago neighborhood narratives, like Sailor, Muscles, Slugs, Chickie, Mixie and Ducky.” 

The obit I wrote this week is more strictly bare-bones factual, though I’m pleased that one of the professor’s friends, himself a retired chemical engineer, comes up with the best line: “Students liked him and he had a way with words.”

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