Daily dead pool

New book dissects the New York Times' obituary page

In 1902, Mark Twain devised a contest in which the readers of Harper's Weekly would submit "ante-mortem" obituaries in anticipation of his death. In this way, Twain could get a glimpse of his own posthumous existence. By exploiting his current popularity in order to foresee his future renown, Twain's clever ploy revealed that there are really two considerably different ways of being well-known: contemporaneous celebrity and posthumous fame. The former is associated with modern democracy and mass culture; the latter is associated with traditional society and high culture. The former is measured by the extent of recognition, the latter by the persistence of legend.

As Twain understood, these two strains of notoriety converge in the obituary of the well-known person, which fleetingly captures current celebrity converting into posthumous fame. In the obituary we witness the fragile fetish of the celebrity's flesh withering away from the deathless after-image of the legend's public persona. Thus, in the obituary we enjoy a privileged double vision, an insight into that peculiar point in time where mortality and immortality meet.

John C. Ball and Jill Jonnes have handily exploited this insight in their new study, Fame at Last: Who Was Who According to the New York Times Obituaries. Twain's jest has now become journalistic practice, as the Times keeps some 2,000 obituaries ready for publication, frequently interviewing elderly public figures in anticipation of their deaths. The authors have taken all the obituaries of Americans from the Times over the last six years, entered them into a computerized database, processed and analyzed the resulting information, and produced what they claim to be "a portrait of where America has been and where it's going."

Ball and Jonnes celebrate their portrait's "incredible variety," and certainly their unusual collection of data and anecdotes reveals a fascinating range of character and achievement. We learn about the man who invented kitty litter, the founder of the Women's Professional Surfing Association, the lawyer who hired Woody Harrelson's father to kill a federal judge, an expert on ancient Greek coins, and the man who created Cookie Monster. At the very least, the book should become a standard reference for Trivial Pursuit aficionados.

Fame at Last is as much a study of American professions as American fame. Aside from diversity-minded sections titled "Pioneering Women" and "Outstanding Blacks," the chapters are organized around what the authors conceive to be "our most important occupations." In fact, many of the people listed were only famous to their colleagues. Furthermore, the authors themselves are eminent professionals with Ph.D.s, and their study is a startling example of technical labor and analysis.

Using a staff of students from Johns Hopkins and Loyola universities, Ball and Jonnes organized and analyzed their database by "name, age, headline, sex, race, cause of death, nationality, place of residence, level of education and colleges attended, occupation, political party, and religion," and generated an impressive array of charts and graphs to supplement their text.

From these startlingly simple categories, Ball and Jonnes derive a number of not terribly surprising facts. For instance, an enormous disproportion of those on the database went to Ivy League schools. Most of them are associated with powerful institutions or corporations. Residents of New York City and Washington, D.C., are prominently represented. Perhaps the most revealing, only 17 percent are women. One hopes that, as the authors concede, the book is much more a vision of America's past than of its future.

Loren Glass writes for the Baltimore City Paper, where this piece first appeared.

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