If you come up to me, face to face, and suggest something about me — in the sweetest tone of voice — that I know to be untrue, or something that hurts my feelings, I can respond in several ways. “You were misinformed.” “That just isn’t the case.” “Why would you say something like that?” “I wish you wouldn’t talk that way,” and a dozen others.
If you write something about me that is unkind, offensive, biased, or false, I can respond in the same ways . . . or, if I am furious or wounded, I can hire an attorney to put sharp-edged words on paper to make you stop. “Libel” and “slander” become part of the conversation, as does the all-purpose phrase “legal action.”
But the dead have no such recourse.
Here’s a true story. Two years ago, someone I had never before encountered wrote to me with some anecdotes he thought I would like to print on JAZZ LIVES. One of them concerned a musician I will call Charles Atlas. I knew that Charles occasionally took a drink, but my correspondent told a tale of alcohol making him act foolishly. I will spare you the details.
Reading this tale of a grown man’s stupidity, I felt wounded. Could one of my heroes have behaved like this? But almost immediately that feeling of shock was followed by protectiveness. I wasn’t about to bring shame to Charles, nor was I going to participate in publicizing stories — true or not — that would encourage readers to laugh at him, to think he was less than heroic.
In the 1980s, Joyce Carol Oates coined the term “pathography” for the modern biographical study that emphasizes the subject’s flaws: “dysfunction and disaster, illnesses and pratfalls, failed marriages and failed careers, alcoholism and breakdowns and outrageous conduct.” Although such books — and the gloating self-righteousness the reader is encouraged to indulge in — are fascinating in the same way a tabloid newspaper, seen at the supermarket checkout is — their appeal is essentially repellent.
So that when I read a recent news story that refers to Louis Armstrong as a lower-case “lothario,” I am appalled, not only by the weird archaism, but at the mix of prurience and disrespect. “Hey, that’s LOUIS ARMSTRONG you are talking about, Buster!” I want to say.
Some readers might think that all journalistic exploration is justified. After all, to know the whole person do we not need to know his or her faults? Perhaps. But is it crucial to our understanding of Ben Webster’s music to know that he had a violent side? And if we insist on knowing this, how large a shadow should it cast on his life’s work? Is Ruby Braff’s legendary irascibility more memorable than his music? I think not. If this sounds as if I am a hero-worshipping nineteenth-century biographer, I confess to leaning in that direction. Human beings are complex and not all mysteries are meant to be unraveled.
Privacy counts. Twenty years ago, I would have taken the position that the private life of a public individual was fair game. But I have shifted that position so that when the elderly widow of a famous artist talked about her desire to burn certain private letters, I thought she had the right idea. You can come visit me; I will speak candidly to you, but you cannot follow me into the bathroom.
And privacy is such a fragile concept in this century: type in anyone’s name and Google downwards. The chance of finding that name followed by “hot nude photos” is not small.
If we love and respect someone while he or she is on the planet, should those feelings of affection and reverence cease when the person has made the transition to another existence?
But disrespect and unkindness to the dead are not solely the purview of people who (consciously or not) want to pull down the great figures because they are so imposing, because they make ordinary mortals seem so tiny. The dead can be treated unkindly by those who feel great love for their idols.
People in love with the great artists can also crush and deform them in a choking embrace — an embrace turned off-balance by an ideological notion. Someone who has labored to write a book on Kid MacIntosh must be careful not to distort or invent evidence to make the Kid a victim, perhaps. The distorting impulse is subtle, and it comes out of love, “How could someone like the Kid have been less than a superstar? It must have been his manager / his wife / discrimination / exploitation,” etc. But love can obstruct our clear sight as much as any other emotion. The chronicler who thinks (s)he owns the subject is mistaken. The Kid was there before the book began and will remain long after the book has been remaindered.
We should treat the dead kindly. Someday we all will be dead, and perhaps we will hope for the same posthumous kindness.
May your happiness increase.