Digging JFK Grave Was His Honor” by Jimmy Breslin
From The World of Jimmy Breslin:
In the 1960s, as the once-proud New York Herald Tribune spiraled into bankruptcy, the brightest light in its pages was an ebullient young columnist named Jimmy Breslin. While ordinary columnists wrote about politics, culture, or the economy, Breslin’s chief topics were the city and Breslin himself. He was chummy with cops, arsonists, and thieves, and told their stories with grace, wit, and lightning-quick prose. Whether covering the five boroughs, Vietnam, or the death of John F. Kennedy, Breslin managed to find great characters wherever he went.
Today, let’s take a look at one of Breslin’s signature pieces, via that underappreciated art form, the obituary.
We’ll examine the passing of the well-known Irish American John F. Kennedy, and how one newspaper column can teach us how to write with loving attention to the everyday person.
Here is “Digging JFK Grave Was His Honor,” by Jimmy Breslin. Breslin himself passed away just last March.
What do you notice?
Here is one book club reaction from Wonderlings member Rick Williams:
I read this beautiful selection while pumping on an exercise bike as I listened to Beethoven’s 5th symphony on my headphones. Words and music can inspire me to a more intense workout. Ironically, even though I’m on a bike that is going no where, the words and music transport me to an imaginary world like a Twilight Zone episode.
Jimmy Breslin contrasts the death of the most powerful man in the world with his gravedigger. Three times, the author mentions the diggers salary of $3.01 per hour.
And twice Clifton Pollard responded that “it was an honor” for him.
While reading this obituary, I saw “John John” salute his father’s coffin. And then Hamlet talking to Ophelia’s gravedigger while looking at the court jesters Yorick’s skull.
It is etiquette to wipe off the fitness machines after using. I’m typically forgetful or superficial at best. But this time, I was amazingly patient and thorough making sure I did not miss a spot. I even took a measure of pride in this lowly job. My favorite part was when Breslin describes how Clifton and Jackie were similar in being quietly conscientious and wanting to do the right thing.
In my imaginary world, Jackie goes out of her way to meet Clifton. She shakes his hand, simply says “thank you” and gives him a memento from the President. Of course the grave digger responds “thank you, it was my honor.” – Rick Williams, Wonderlings member
. . .A Bit About The Author . . .
“Jimmy Breslin was the biggest, the baddest, the brashest, the best columnist in New York City.
And the first to say so, too.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning former Daily News columnist died Sunday at age 88, leaving an unparalleled legacy as an unyielding chronicler of his hometown and an inspiration for a generation of writers, reporters and readers left to mourn his loss and envy his unmatched prose.
Armed with just a pen and pad, Breslin’s one-man beat covered the five borough’s streets, courthouses and barrooms, while inevitably uncovering a story that left the city’s press corps lagging far behind.
He was an unmade bed of a reporter with an unkempt mane of hair, unflinchingly speaking truth to power, exposing corruption and cheering the underdog across four decades.
To call the proudly blue-collar Breslin larger than life was pure understatement.
“It feels like 30 people just left the room,” said Pete Hamill, a Breslin colleague and contemporary, after learning of his death.”¹
“Misery” by Anton Chekhov
“Misery” by Anton Chekhov is a sort of “silent obituary of the heart.” It’s also one of the most highly anthologized and studied short stories from the Russian literary canon.
One question to ponder as you read: how do we grieve?
Let’s follow Iona the sledge driver, as he navigates one winter evening of his life.
“Misery” follows one evening in the life of the sledge man, Iona. Iona’s son recently died. He desperately and unsuccessfully tries to have a talk with the people he meets and tell them of how shattered he is. He ends up talking to his horse.²
Breslin’s Clifton Pollard and the main character of Anton Chekhov’s “Misery” share common ground. Both are the salt of the earth; one a grave digger at Arlington Cemetary, one a sledge driver; both paying last respects to someone dear who was lost.
Yet both forgotten by society; the dead, both beloved sons in different ways. One is a darling of the nation, the other an unknown but beloved son, whose father’s grief is fathomless.
How do you grieve?
Said Shabnam Mirchandani on The Wonderlings Book Club Facebook Page:
I think the language of the deepest grief is silence. The indifference of others and the unabashed lack of empathy for the driver’s loss is unfortunately the way of the world. Isolation usually accompanies grief and traumatic loss. It is so poignant that the mare is the only audience for the driver to vent his sorrow to. I think this experience is integral to the human condition, and when there is poverty, the suffering is made worse by indignity.
I can’t help thinking of certain countries of the world as entities who are experiencing a violent passing of a “civilized’ persona” and are seemingly helpless and voiceless in the face of this (figurative) carnage.The grief of their citizens is filled with helplessness and fury, but does not seem capable of creating a shift toward a more viable system . . .
– Shabnam Mirchandani, The Wonderlings
Thanks to all who read and commented this week on our Facebook Page!
. . .A Bit About The Author . . .
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov January – 15 July 1904)was a Russian playwright and short story writer, who is considered to be among the greatest writers of short fiction in history. His career as a playwright produced four classics and his best short stories are held in high esteem by writers and critics.
Along with Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg, Chekhov is often referred to as one of the three seminal figures in the birth of early modernism in the theatre. Chekhov practiced as a medical doctor throughout most of his literary career.
Chekhov renounced the theatre after the reception of The Seagull in 1896, but the play was revived to acclaim in 1898 by Konstantin Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theatre, which subsequently also produced Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and premiered his last two plays, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. These four works present a challenge to the acting ensemble as well as to audiences, because in place of conventional action Chekhov offers a “theatre of mood” and a “submerged life in the text.”
Chekhov had at first written stories only for financial gain, but as his artistic ambition grew, he made formal innovations which have influenced the evolution of the modern short story. He made no apologies for the difficulties this posed to readers, insisting that the role of an artist was to ask questions, not to answer them.³
², ³ Wikipedia