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Dying in Character

Memoirs on the End of Life

Jeffrey Berman

Publication Year: 2013

In the past twenty years, an increasing number of authors have written memoirs focusing on the last stage of their lives: Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, for example, in The Wheel of Life, Harold Brodkey in This Wild Darkness, Edward Said in Out of Place, and Tony Judt in The Memory Chalet. In these and other end-of-life memoirs, writers not only confront their own mortality but in most cases struggle to “die in character”—that is, to affirm the values, beliefs, and goals that have characterized their lives. Examining the works cited above, as well as memoirs by Mitch Albom, Roland Barthes, Jean-Dominique Bauby, Art Buchwald, Randy Pausch, David Rieff, Philip Roth, and Morrie Schwartz, Jeffrey Berman’s analysis of this growing genre yields some surprising insights. While the authors have much to say about the loneliness and pain of dying, many also convey joy, fulfillment, and gratitude. Harold Brodkey is willing to die as long as his writings survive. Art Buchwald and Randy Pausch both use the word fun to describe their dying experiences. Dying was not fun for Morrie Schwartz and Tony Judt, but they reveal courage, satisfaction, and fearlessness during the final stage of their lives, when they are nearly paralyzed by their illnesses. It is hard to imagine that these writers could feel so upbeat in their situations, but their memoirs are authentically affirmative. They see death coming, yet they remain stalwart and focused on their writing. Berman concludes that the contemporary end-of-life memoir can thus be understood as a new form of death ritual, “a secular example of the long tradition of ars moriendi, the art of dying.”

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press


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pp. 1-4

Title Page

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pp. 5-5

Copyright Page

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pp. 6-6

Dedication Page, Quotes

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pp. 7-8

Table of Contents

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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-xii

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Introduction: “It Is When Faced with Death That We Turn Most Bookish”

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pp. 1-19

In his memoir Nothing to Be Frightened Of, a witty meditation on how writers confront their own mortality, the contemporary British novelist Julian Barnes quotes an observation by Jules Renard, the late nineteenth-century French novelist, playwright, and philosopher: ...

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1. “I Never Saw or Heard the Car Coming”: My Close Call with Death

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pp. 20-37

I end my book Death in the Classroom with a chapter called “Teacher’s Self-Eulogy,” in which I imagine dying in character— teaching until my eighties, believing, with George Steiner, that there is no more privileged craft than teaching: “To awaken in another...

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2. “Death Itself Is a Wonderful and Positive Experience”: Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and The Wheel of Life

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pp. 38-74

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, known famously and infamously as the “death and dying lady,” was the most influential thanatologist of the second half of the twentieth century. Nearly every researcher in the field still cites her first book, On Death and Dying, published in 1969. The...

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3. “With Autobiography There’s Always Another Text, a Countertext”: Philip Roth and Patrimony

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pp. 75-107

A “father’s death,” Freud contends in the preface to the second edition of The Interpretation of Dreams, is the “most important event, the most poignant loss, of a man’s life” (xxvi). Although most psychoanalysts now believe that a mother’s death has a...

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4. “Death Confers a Certain Beauty on One’s Hours”: Harold Brodkey and This Wild Darkness

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pp. 108-134

Depend upon it, sir,” Dr. Johnson remarked sardonically to Boswell, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Nowhere is this more evident than in Harold Brodkey’s astounding memoir This Wild Darkness, written while he was dying from AIDS. Concentration and clarity...

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5. “I Have Never Been Tempted to Write about My Own Life”: Susan Sontag, David Rieff, and Swimming in a Sea of Death

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pp. 135-167

There is a Jewish saying,” David Rieff observes ruefully in Swimming in a Sea of Death, his 2008 memoir about the death of h is mother, Susan Sontag, “just as it is an obligation to tell someone what is acceptable, it is an obligation not to say what is not...

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6. “Sleeplessness for me is a Cherished State”: Edward W. Said and Out of Place

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pp. 168-193

Like Susan Sontag, Edward W. Said was one of the most influential literary theorists, culture critics, and public intellectuals of his age. Born in West Jerusalem, Palestine, in 1935, he attended prep school in Cairo and visited the United States for the first...

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7. “There Is More Than One Sort of Luck”: Tony Judt and The Memory Chalet

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pp. 194-208

It might be thought the height of poor taste to ascribe good fortune to a healthy man with a young family struck down at the age of sixty by an incurable degenerative disorder from which he must shortly die.” Judt’s sardonic observation in The Memory Chalet cannot...

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8. “I Never Realized Dying Could be so Much Fun”: Art Buchwald and Too Soon to Say Goodbye

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pp. 209-224

Art Buchwald, one of America’s most beloved humorists, wrote three memoirs, including Too Soon to Say Goodbye, which he began while waiting to die in a Washington, D.C., hospice. He entered Washington Home and Hospice in mid-March 2006 after the...

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9. “Learn How to Live, and You’ll Know How to Die”: Morrie Schwartz’s Letting Go and Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie

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pp. 225-239

Nearly everyone has heard of Tuesdays with Morrie, Mitch Albom’s best-selling memoir about his relationship with his form er Brandeis University sociology professor Morrie Schwartz, who succumbed to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis on November...

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10. “I’m Dying and I’m Having Fun”: Randy Pausch and The Last Lecture

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pp. 240-253

Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture never refers to Letting Go or Tuesdays with Morrie, but the stories have much in common. Like Schwartz, Pausch was an academic who disclosed to his students that he was dying. Both believed in the inseparability of life education...

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11. “Now I Cultivate the Art of Simmering Memories” Jean-Dominique Bauby and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

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pp. 254-264

Imagine waking up to discover you are paralyzed from head to toe, unable to walk, talk, eat, drink, swallow, or breathe. Imagine fin ding yourself in this situation without preparation, warning, or explanation. You cannot move your hands, which feel as if they are burning hot or ice cold...

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12. “I Live in My Suffering and That Makes Me Happy”: Roland Barthes and Mourning Diary

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pp. 265-283

Roland Barthes, one of the most influential writers, literary theorists, and semioticians of the late twentieth century, died in 1980 at the age of sixty-four, but he was back in the news in 2010 with the publication of Mourning Diary, written in response to...

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Conclusion: Alive When They Died

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pp. 284-298

Many people believe that we live in a death-denying culture where men and women don’t “die” but “pass away,” where dying and death remain hidden from view, where the terminally ill withdraw silently from life, and where bereavement lasts...

Works Cited

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pp. 299-312


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pp. 313-319

Back Cover

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pp. 336-336

E-ISBN-13: 9781613762158
E-ISBN-10: 1613762151
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558499645
Print-ISBN-10: 1558499644

Page Count: 336
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 859686947
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Dying in Character

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Authors, American -- Biography -- History and criticism.
  • American prose literature -- 20th century -- History and criticism
  • Critically ill -- United States -- Biography -- History and criticism.
  • Terminally ill -- United States -- Biography -- History and criticism.
  • Autobiography.
  • Death in literature.
  • Self in literature.
  • Death -- Psychological aspects.
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