Why Now? Episode 11: You Are Dead To Me

Content warning: Because this episode is about obituary writing, it contains discussions of death and self-harm. It may not be appropriate for everyone.

As I confess in this episode, when I open the newspaper in the morning, I turn to the obituaries first. It’s not because I’m getting older, although I am. It isn’t because I’m morbid, fascinated by death, or even worried about my own exit from the planet. It’s because I’m a historian. Obituaries are integral to my work. Is there a collection of letters and memorabilia I want to peek at? Is this a life that should be in whatever book I am writing?

But also, obituaries are a form of historical writing, 1200-to-1500-word narratives that not only illuminate a life but also often illuminate our century. This is why I asked my friend Clay Risen, an obituaries reporter at the New York Times, to come on the show to talk about obituary writing as a historical genre. Clay is a political historian and a prolific writer. In addition to writing about whiskey, he is the author of The Crowded Hour: Teddy Roosevelt, the Rough Riders and the Dawn of the American Century, a New York Times Notable Book of 2019 and a finalist for the Gilder-Lehrman Prize in Military History; A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination (2014), and The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act (2009).

For show notes, go to Political Junkie.

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