“Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case.” William Saroyan, Pulitzer Prizewinning author
Famous authors, like everybody else, know that one day they will die. Final Chapters tells the fascinating stories of more than one hundred writers’ encounters with deathand their attitudes toward the Grim Reaper: fear, uncertainty, or acceptance.
Francis Bacon wrote, “It is as natural to die as to be born,” while Socrates told the judges who condemned him, “And now we go our ways, I to die and you to live. Which is better is known to God alone.”
Death often came in startling ways for these well-known writers. The playwright Aeschylus was conked by a turtle falling from the sky. Christopher Marlowe was stabbed in a barroom brawl. Molière collapsed while playing the role of a hypochondriac in one of his plays.
Edgar Allan Poe was found semicomatose in someone else’s clothes shortly before he died. Sherwood Anderson was felled by a toothpick in a martini. Did Dylan Thomas really die of eighteen straight whiskeys? And was it a bottle cap or murder that did in Tennessee Williams?
If these authors have lessons for us, the best may be that of Marcus Aurelius: “Death smiles at us all; all we can do is smile back.”
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About the Author
Jim Bernhard is the author of Puns, Puzzles, and Word Play: Fun and Games for Language Lovers; Porcupine, Picayune, & Post: How Newspapers Get Their Names ; and, with his wife, Virginia, Life Is NOT a Dress Rehearsal: 10 Lists to Make Before Your Final Exit. He has an MA in English literature from the University of Birmingham in England, where he was a Marshall Scholar, and a BA from Rice University. Bernhard is also a playwright, lyricist, actor, theatrical manager, and crossword puzzle constructor. He resides in Houston, Texas.
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How Famous Authors Died
By Jim Bernhard
Skyhorse PublishingCopyright © 2015 Jim Bernhard
All rights reserved.
The Classical Age
If plays had been rated in ancient Athens as movies are today, the tragedies of Aeschylus would have earned an "R" for violence, incestuous sex, cannibalism, and gory deaths. You be the judge: In the Oresteia trilogy, lurid details tell of Agamemnon's bloody murder of his own daughter while she is bound and gagged; the subsequent butchery and dismemberment of Agamemnon, along with his paramour, Cassandra, by his vengeful wife, Clytemnestra; more revenge perpetrated by their son, Orestes, who with the help of his sister, Electra, fatally stabs Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus. Oh, and don't forget Aegisthus's father, Thyestes, who murdered his half-brother and slept with the wife of his brother, Atreus — who then got even by killing Thyestes's sons, roasting them, and feeding them to their unwitting father. Thyestes then raped his own daughter, who gave birth to Aegisthus, who killed Atreus. Whew! And that's only three of the ninety or so plays that Aeschylus wrote. It's too bad for slasher fans that only seven of the ninety have been found.
First of the three great tragic Greek playwrights, Aeschylus himself was apparently a very gentle and scholarly fellow, born about 525 BC into a wealthy family in Eleusis, twenty-five miles northwest of Athens. He grew up devoutly religious, believing in the Greek pantheon of gods, who were often cruel and violent. He was initiated into the secret cult of Demeter, known as the Eleusinian Mysteries. With his brother, Aeschylus fought in the battle of Marathon, in which the Greeks defeated the invading Persians under King Darius. His brother died in the battle, but Aeschylus lived to do military duty once again against the Persians, this time led by King Xerxes, at the battle of Salamis ten years later. This battle is memorialized in his play The Persians.
Murder may have been a horror to Aeschylus, but death itself was a natural and sometimes desirable culmination of life. "Death is a gentler fate than tyranny," he wrote in Agamemnon. "There is fame for one who nobly meets his death with honor." In that play the unfortunate Cassandra contemplates her brutal demise with equanimity:
I willingly endure my death,
And warmly greet the gates
Of Hades that open for me.
Grant me, you gods,
A clean blow and an easy fall,
Free from agony!
Let my blood
Flow smoothly from my veins,
So that I may close my eyes
In peaceful death.
Aeschylus's own death was nothing he would have written a play about. He met his end unexpectedly in the year 456 BC, at the age of sixty-eight or sixty-nine, in a bizarre mishap while visiting the island of Sicily. According to Pliny the Elder in his Natural History, Aeschylus had been warned by an oracle that he would be killed by a house falling on him; accordingly, he spent as much time as possible in the open, far from any edifices that might collapse. He was taking an ostensibly healthful stroll in the fresh sea air when what was said to be an eagle (more likely a vulture) dropped a turtle on his glistening bald head, which the not-so-eagle-eyed bird mistook for a rock. Bearded vultures, or Lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus), are known to pick up box turtles (Testudo graeca) and drop them from great heights onto large rocks with remarkable accuracy in order to get at the juicy meat and bones inside. The turtle "house" that was dropped on Aeschylus reportedly remained intact, but, alas, the old playwright's head did not.
Aeschylus was buried on the island in a grave that bore an epitaph that he had composed for himself:
"In this tomb in the wheat fields of Gela lies Aeschylus of Athens, son of Euphorion. He fought in the hallowed precincts of Marathon, which can speak of his valor, which is remembered as well by the long-haired Persians."
Aeschylus was survived by two sons, who were also dramatists. One of them, Euphorion, won first prize at the City Dionysia play competition in 431 BC, defeating both Sophocles and Euripides. Even though they didn't win on this occasion, those two were the true heirs of Aeschylus's dramatic legacy.
Waiting eagerly in the wings, Sophocles was about forty years old when Aeschylus died. Born into a wealthy family about 497 BC in Colonus, he was incredibly prolific, turning out more than 125 plays. Like those of Aeschylus, however, most have vanished, and only seven survive — notably Antigone, Oedipus Rex, and Oedipus at Colonus.
Sophocles's first big success came when he was barely thirty — he took first prize at the Dionysia, besting the veteran Aeschylus, who left Athens in a huff shortly thereafter and went to Sicily. Active in Athenian politics, Sophocles served in several civic positions, including city treasurer, general of the army, and priest. Constantly busy, he was known as the "Bee" of Athens. He was married twice and had two sons.
Sophocles held a conventional ancient Greek view of death as a liberation from life's hardships. Antigone tells Creon she would welcome death as a blessing:
I know I must die, even without your edicts.
But if I am to die before my time,
I count that as a gain.
For when one lives as I do,
Surrounded by evils,
What could death bring but gain?
So for me to meet this doom
Is but a trifling grief.
For Sophocles, as for most Greeks, the greatest possible good was to live out one's life without encountering the kind of tragic events that filled his plays. As the chorus at the end of Oedipus Rex observes:
This was Oedipus the Great! Upon him
All the world would gaze with envious eyes.
But now a sea of trouble overwhelms him!
Thus we must wait until the day of death,
Which comes upon us all, and count no man
Among the blest until his journey ends
Without calamity befalling him.
Sophocles basked among the blest until he died at the age of ninety or ninety-one in the winter of 406/5 BC. There are several stories about the cause of death. Most famous is that he died from excessive strain while trying to recite a long sentence from Antigone without pausing to take a breath. Another account says he choked on a mouthful of grapes at an Athenian festival. And some of his admirers maintained that he succumbed to sheer happiness after winning his final victory at the City Dionysia. There is the possibility that he died of plain old senility, since his sons allegedly tried to have him declared incompetent shortly before the end of his life. Sophocles was buried in a family tomb, no longer extant, on the road between Athens and Decelea.
After his death, the comic playwright Phyrnicus, in a play titled The Muses, wrote this eulogy: "Blessed is Sophocles, who had a long life, was a man both happy and talented, and the writer of many good tragedies; and he ended his life well without suffering any misfortune."
Playwrights were adulated like Olympic athletes in ancient Athens, and the next gold medalist was Euripides. He wrote about ninety-five tragedies, and eighteen of them survive — among them Medea, Orestes, Electra, The Trojan Women, Helen of Troy, Iphigenia in Taurus, Andromache, and The Bacchae. From a middleclass merchant family, Euripides was born sometime between 485 and 480 BC on the Greek island of Salamis, about sixteen miles from Athens. He grew up as a skeptic, a humanist who believed, like the philosopher Protagoras, that "man is the measure of all things."
Euripides's plays use some of the same mythological material as those of Aeschylus, but the action depends more on human psychology than on what the gods decree. Some people thought the philosopher Socrates helped him write them, and like Socrates, Euripides was accused of being an irreverent firebrand. He put into the mouth of Medea words that he probably thought applied to himself:
If you express new ideas among fools, they regard you as a trifling ignoramus. And if you happen to become more famous than the so-called intelligentsia, they will really hate you! That has been my misfortune. Some people think I am clever — and they resent me. Others think I'm stupid — and they scorn me.
Euripides relished his role as an iconoclast, and the prospect of his own death can only have been regarded as an unwelcome interruption of his productive life. True to conventional Greek beliefs, his Medea, learning that she has been abandoned by her husband, Jason, longs for death as an escape:
How I wish a lightning bolt from Heaven
Would split my head in two!
What good is there in life for me?
None! There's nothing but woe!
O let me die and be released
From this horrid existence.
Not so fast, says the Chorus, in what seems to be Euripides's own voice:
O, you reckless one!
Why do you long for that eternal rest
That comes only with death?
There's no need to pray for it!
It will arrive soon enough.
Never accorded as much acclaim as his illustrious predecessors enjoyed, Euripides won Athens's top prize for tragedy only four times, compared with thirteen for Aeschylus and twenty for Sophocles. He was also unlucky at love, and both his wives left him for other men. He became a recluse, making a home for himself in a cave on Salamis. In 408, at the invitation of King Archelaus, he moved to Macedon, and lived there in another cave, happy as a clam, until he died.
How he died is a mystery. Owing to his unsympathetic female characters, like Medea, Phaedra, and Helen, Euripides gained a reputation as a woman-hater, and one legend says a group of angry women did him in. Another story says he was torn apart by wild dogs while walking home from an evening festival. Probably he died in his cave around 406 BC, in his late seventies, of natural causes, exacerbated by the frigid winter weather of Macedon.
Euripides was buried in Macedon near an Athenian settlement in the valley of Arethusa. A memorial inscription reads: "All Greece is the monument of Euripides. The Macedonian earth covers only his bones, for it was there that his life reached its end. His homeland is Athens, the Greece of all Greece. He gave much delight through his muse and is greatly esteemed."
A troublemaker and proud of it, Socrates technically wasn't an author at all, since the only surviving accounts of his ideas were written by his famous pupil Plato. Born in Athens in 469BC, Socrates came from a middle-class family; his father was either a stonemason, sculptor, or woodworker, or maybe all three, and his mother was a midwife. Known around Athens as a philosopher and teacher who delighted in paradoxical questioning that proved embarrassing to the powers-that-be, he married a woman named Xanthippe, who was as argumentative as he was.
When he stood trial at the age of seventy, he was charged with impiety against the religion of the state and of corrupting the minds of young people. Something of a smart aleck, he defended his role as a gadfly by suggesting that his punishment should be a handsome salary and free dinners for the rest of his life. "Not a chance," said his judges, and instead sentenced him to death by drinking hemlock, a highly poisonous, perennial, herbaceous flowering plant native to the Mediterranean region. It disrupts the central nervous system, and even small doses result in muscular paralysis, causing respiratory failure and death.
That fate didn't faze Socrates. His views on death, and the serene manner in which he approached his own end, are well chronicled in several of Plato's dialogues. In the Apology, Socrates observes, "To fear death, gentlemen, is to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know. As far as anyone knows, death may be the greatest of all blessings, yet people fear it as if they knew for certain that it is the greatest of evils."
Socrates was condemned, by a vote of 281 to 220. Plato tells us that as he was taken away to prison, he told his judges: "The hour of departure has arrived, and now we go our separate ways — I to die and you to live. Which is better only God knows."
This account of Socrates's final moments is from Plato's Phaedo:
"In what way shall we bury you?" asked his friend Crito.
"Any way you like," replied Socrates. "But first you have to catch me! Be careful that I do not run away from you. You think the dead body you will soon see is the same Socrates standing here talking. But when I have drunk the poison, I shall leave you all and go to the joys of the blessed. So be of good cheer then, Crito, and remember that you're not burying Socrates, you're only burying my body. Now, we'd better get the poison ready."
Crito said, "It's early. We can wait a little while."
Socrates answered, "I do not think that I would gain anything by waiting. I would only seem ridiculous to myself for trying to squeeze out a few more minutes from a life that is already forfeit. So please, get the poison."
The jailer came with the poison, and Socrates said, "You're experienced in these matters. What am I supposed to do?"
The man answered: "Just walk about until your legs are heavy, and then lie down, and the poison will do the rest."
"I understand," Socrates said. "Now I ask the gods to give me a prosperous journey from this to the other world."
Then he cheerfully drank all the poison. His friends began to weep. "What are you doing?" said Socrates. "Please just be quiet — a man should be allowed to die in peace."
He walked about until he said his legs began to fail, and then he lay on his back. The jailer pressed his foot hard, and asked him if he could feel; and he said, "No, nothing. When the poison reaches my heart, that will be the end." In a while he began to grow cold about the groin. Suddenly he turned to Crito and reminded him to offer a rooster to Aesclepius, the god of healing, in thanks for delivering him from a painful life.
"Of course," said Crito. "Anything else?"
But Socrates did not answer, and they noted that his eyes were fixed.
Such was the end of our friend, who was the wisest and best and most just man of his time.
Plato's real name was Aristocles, which in Greek means "highest glory." He was a hefty lad whose wrestling coach gave him the nickname Plato, meaning "broad-shouldered." It must have suited him better than his real name, since that's how he has been known ever since.
Born in 428 BC in Athens to a politically connected family, Plato did a stint in the army, and then, as a civilian, he became a devoted follower of Socrates. In 387 he founded a school in Athens that he called the Academy. Among his prize pupils was Aristotle, who studied there for twenty years, beginning in 367. A prolific writer, Plato left a number of dialogues and epistles, including the Apology, Crito, The Republic, Phaedo, the Symposium, the Parmenides, the Sophist, and The Laws. He is the principal chronicler of the life of Socrates and the main source of his mentor's teachings.
Plato was not bashful in expressing views on a number of political, artistic, and metaphysical subjects — including death. In the Symposium, he recounts the legendary Greek warrior Achilles's heroic death, seemingly with approval:
Achilles was quite aware that he might avoid death and return home, and live to a good old age, if he abstained from slaying Hector. Nevertheless he gave his life to revenge his friend, and dared to die. For this the gods honored him and sent him to the Islands of the Blest. These are my reasons for affirming that Love is the noblest and mightiest of the gods, and the chief author of virtue in life, and of happiness after death.
Plato likely believed that the eternal human soul is in a constant cycle, trapped in a human body, and then escaping the body at death to return to the "realm of the forms," then back to a human body, and so on ad infinitum. In Timaeus, he paints a picture of a pleasant natural death (as opposed to the pain of a violent one). Plato writes:
In a natural death the soul flies away with joy. For that which takes place according to nature is pleasant, but that which is contrary to nature is painful. And thus death, if caused by disease or produced by wounds, is painful and violent; but that sort of death which comes with old age and fulfills the debt of nature is the easiest of deaths, and is accompanied with pleasure rather than with pain.
Plato's death, in 347 BC at the age of eighty-one, was of the pleasant variety. In his treatise on old age, the Roman poet Cicero characterizes Plato's final years as "a tranquil and serene evening of a life spent in peaceful, blameless, enlightened pursuits." According to a popular account, a Thracian girl played the flute for Plato on the evening of his death. Untrained as a musician, the girl didn't get the tempo right, so Plato began to conduct the piece as she played. He then drifted peacefully into death, music ringing in his ears. Another tale says he dropped dead at a wedding feast — presumably while having a jolly time.
Never married, Plato willed the Academy to his sister's son, Speusippus, and it survived as an institution of learning for nearly a thousand years.
Excerpted from Final Chapters by Jim Bernhard. Copyright © 2015 Jim Bernhard. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsLast Words First: An Introduction,
The Classical Age,
The Middle Ages,
The Romantic Era,
The Victorian Era,
The Modern Era,
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