The Bravery of Thomas Mallon

He says what needs to be said about the New York Times’ “Portraits of Grief.’

Chatterbox received a certain amount of grief for writing, earlier this month, that the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “Portraits of Grief” were not journalism “any more than the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is journalism.” Now he sees that Thomas Mallon has made a much bolder assault on the “Portraits” in an essay titled “The Mourning Paper” in the Spring 2002 American Scholar. (Regrettably, the essay is not available online.) Mallon has excellent credentials for assessing “Portraits of Grief.” He is a frequent Times contributor and a long-standing admirer of Times obituaries who recently wrote the foreword  to a collection of Times obits by the late, great Robert McG. Thomas Jr. In the American Scholar piece, Mallon observes that where Thomas evoked “lives that had reached some sort of quirky fulfillment,” the “Portraits” homogenize flesh and blood into “smile-button cyborgs.” The process, he argues, is faithful neither to the truth nor to the dignity of the lives lived:

[A]nyone depressed over his weight became a “gentle giant” and every binge drinker was the life of the party. … As the Portraits accumulated over weeks and months, I began performing mental translations, from a sugary base 8 to a real-life base 10. The fifty-four-year-old vegetarian office temp, a bachelor with “strong opinions” who preferred “short-term jobs,” was, I would bet, an absolutely impossible man; but I would prefer to have known him rather than the bland reincarnation forced to share a page with the other murdered souls under headings like “The Joys of Fatherhood” and “Perpetual Motion.” … If Rudolph W. Giuliani had perished in the attacks, as he nearly did, he would be remembered in the Portraits as a rabid Yankees fan who sometimes liked to put on lipstick.

Mallon told Chatterbox that “it’s hard sometimes to write against anything well-intended” and that he braced himself for an outraged reaction. (The American Scholar has a small but highly engaged readership.) But the piece, which came out in May, has generated no reader response at all that Mallon is aware of. Chatterbox interprets this not as shocked silence but as a reluctance by the public to acknowledge what is so obviously true about the “Portraits.”