Seven Essayists We Wish Were Here Today
Last week David Carr passed away, leaving behind a legacy of journalism and reporting. Along with Carr, we’ve listed six essayists whose vision and writing informed our lives and guided our thoughts. Their work encouraged us to live with more knowledge, curiosity, and integrity, and their voices are sorely missed in our contemporary moment.
David Carr (1956 – 2015) – A recent New York Times article discusses Carr’s energy and enthusiasm for students, describing him as a “a supreme talent scout” and natural teacher. On the evening he died he moderated a panel on the film Citizenfour, a nod to his interests in pop culture and politics, which he also tackled in his weekly column “The Media Equation.” The Times‘ publisher and chairman Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. said, “David Carr was one of the most gifted journalists who has ever worked at The New York Times.” As many have expressed in recent days, his voice will be missed.
Maya Angelou (1928 – 2014) – Maya Angelou was a civil rights activist, director, playwright, actress, poet, author, teacher, and essayist. Her contributions span almost every aspect of the arts, and served as an inspiration to women and African Americans throughout her storied career. Her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” was read at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration, making her the first poet to do so since Robert Frost for John F. Kennedy in 1961. The much-awarded Angelou was a talent and artist of the highest regard.
Adrienne Rich (1929 – 2012) – The Poetry Foundation calls Rich “one of America’s foremost public intellectuals.” Her poems and essays are highly political, and often explore issues of identity and sexuality. The Guardian writes that as a feminist her work helped move “the oppression of women and lesbians to the forefront of poetic discourse.” She declined the National Medal of Arts in 1997 in response to a House of Representatives vote to end the National Endowment for the Arts. Her bravery and voice paved the way for progressive thinking for years to come.
David Rakoff (1964 – 2012) – Rakoff’s writing has appeared in GQ, The New York Times Magazine, Details, Salon, Slate, Vogue, and Wired, and many others. He was also a contributor for This American Life, working closely with Ira Glass and David Sedaris to produce true stories about real people. The author of three bestselling essay collections, his writing is punctuated by sarcasm and humor and is often autobiographical. He wrote openly about LGBT issues, and is an advocate well known for his wit and candor.
Christopher Hitchens (1949 – 2011) – Hitchens was a prolific writer and critic, with over thirty books including five collections of essays. A divisive figure, Hitchens loved to debate, with views that were as controversial as they were public. His opinions about politics, religion, and literature were well known, as was his support for the Iraq war, and criticism of public figures (Mother Teresa included). In 2009 Forbes listed Hitchens as “25 most influential liberals in the U.S. media” stating also that Hitchens would “likely be aghast to find himself on this list.” Hitchens pushed our culture to examine itself honestly, to value the debate, and live with an open mind.
Susan Sontag (1933 – 2004) – If the recent documentary Regarding Susan Sontag is any indication, Sontag is a cultural icon. The New York Review of Books called her “one of the most influential critics of her generation.” She wrote extensively about culture and art, exploring film, photography, fiction, and nonfiction throughout her storied career. As President of the American PEN Center she advocated for freedom of expression and the advancement of literature, constantly pushing herself and her readers to think about the world critically. Her awards include a MacArthur Genius Fellowship, a National Book Award, the Malaparte Prize, and many others.