By JOHN MARTIN
On May 14 the Center for the Book presented "Great American Portraits," a public program drawing on Phyllis Theroux's just published The Book of Eulogies: A Collection of Memorial Tributes, Poetry, Essays and Letters of Condolences. Part of the center's "Books and Beyond" lecture series, the program epitomized the written word as votive offering.
Drawing from selections by Americans about Americans, the event featured readings by the Rev. Clarence G. Newsome of Howard University; Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.); television commentator Cokie Roberts; former Sen. Eugene McCarthy; Livingston Biddle, the great-great grandson of Thomas Jefferson's contemporary Nicholas Biddle; and actress Brenda Brown-Grooms. Some of the speakers, such as Sen. Kerry, read eulogies they had prepared for departed friends and family. Others, including Mr. Newsome and Ms. Grooms, read tributes from the past, such as Frederick Douglass's eulogy of Abraham Lincoln.
Ms. Theroux, who compiled the book and introduced the readers, said she felt less like an editor and more like a hostess who had just put together a great party. "Books can be fun," she said, drawing a nod of approval from Center for the Book Director John Y. Cole. In compiling the book, which draws on eulogies, letters of condolence and elegiac literature written in the last two centuries, Ms. Theroux said she learned that a great eulogy is always a double portrait, one that reveals as much about the speaker as the subject. Memorable eulogies, she said, share a common thread. "When these people died," Ms. Theroux said, "somebody wrote about them uncommonly well."
Rev. Newsome, dean of the Howard University School of Divinity, commanded the audience's attention as he re-created Frederick Douglass's eulogy of Abraham Lincoln, delivered in 1876 at the dedication of the Freedman's Monument in Washington, D.C. Crafted in the embroidered rhetoric of the 19th century, the address reflects the ambivalent nature of Lincoln's relationship to the black Americans he eventually freed from bondage. Douglas does not varnish the truth about Lincoln's willingness to permit slavery in the South in order to save the Union, but asks his audience to consider Lincoln's achievement in terms of his time and position.
"Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold and indifferent, but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical and determined."
Sen. Kerrey read the previously undelivered eulogy he penned at the death of his friend and fellow Vietnam veteran Lewis B. Puller Jr. Crippled in 1968 at the age of 25, Puller's autobiography and wartime chronicle, Fortunate Son: The Healing of an American Vet, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992. In his eulogy, written after Puller's suicide, Sen. Kerrey candidly and courageously expresses the concern that he, a busy politician, had not personally done enough to save his friend. "Reminding us of this would be a great legacy, Lew," he wrote, "If you snapped us out of this get-somebody-else-to-do-it stupor, that would be a great legacy."
Other readings included a reprise of the eulogy written for Thomas Jefferson by Philadelphia financier Nicholas Biddle, delivered by Biddle's great-great grandson Livingston Biddle in full 18th century regalia. Biddle's address focused on the untoward poverty that descended upon the great statesman and author of the Declaration of Independence in his old age.
Actress Brenda Brown-Grooms assumed the role of Fannie Lee Chaney, mother of slain civil rights worker James Chaney, to read the eulogy she gave for her son, while Frank Mankiewicz, former press secretary to Robert F. Kennedy, read the impromptu address Kennedy delivered to a largely black audience in Indianapolis the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
Former Sen. Eugene McCarthy read the eulogy he wrote for fellow Minnesotan and political rival Hubert H. Humphrey. Mr. McCarthy broke ranks with the Democratic Party and Lyndon Johnson in 1968 in opposition to the Vietnam War. Humphrey, Johnson's vice president and a life-long advocate of civil rights and government social programs, received his party's nomination, but narrowly lost the presidential election to Richard M. Nixon. Humphrey, McCarthy fondly recalled, suffered the political curse of speaking memorably. "In American politics ... one can say rather extreme, even radical things, if one says them in such a way that people don't remember what one said or who said them. In Humphrey's case what was said was remembered, and it was also remembered that he said them."
One of the most moving eulogies was not a eulogy at all, but a poem, "Flesh of My Flesh," written by Barbara Boggs Sigmund before her death in 1990, and read by her sister, well-known Washington commentator Cokie Roberts. Her sister, Roberts said, was one of those people who understood that from the minute you are born, you are dying, and that learning this lesson changes one's approach to life. The dignity and wit with which Sigmund faced her own mortality appears in the verses she consciously directs to those yet unborn:
I write to you, ghostly little loves,
Present only in the loins and longings
Of your ancestors
Not to lecture you That you are dust
And unto dust you will return,
(Though lectures I have heard)
Nor to ask that you should theorize
On spiritual and fleshly love,
(Though theories I do know)
Nor even to tell you that live is good,
(For there are some of you
who think that,
And others who do not)
But simply to let you know,
(Though why I care I do not know)
That just as real as is the drop of sweat
Now running down my side,
In whose existence you will scarce believe,
I was real once,
I was very real.
"Great American Portraits" was so successful, said Dr. Cole, that a similar program will be offered in the near future through the Illinois Center for the Book. That presentation will cover "funeral praise" written by and for Illinoisans, such as Carl Sandburg's eulogy of Abraham Lincoln.
Phyllis Theroux is the author of California and Other States of Grace and Nightlights: Bedtime Stories for Parents in the Dark. She is a magazine columnist, children's book writer and has been a regular essayist on "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer."
Mr. Martin is a copyright examiner in the Copyright Office.