Every year, I find myself engrossed in the New York Times Magazine's collection of brief epitaphs of Americans, famous and not-so-much, who died during the previous year. But when I pulled the issue from the blue plastic wrapper this morning and thumbed through it, there was a stronger, more personal reaction to one remembrance.
Matt Bai's piece captures Steve Gilliard's life beautifully, and leans on his contribution to a national discussion from his perch in East Harlem. As readers here know, I was a big Gilliard fan - we were acquaintances and occasional correspondents. Steve was generosity personified, generous with links and advice; when I launched newcritics.com in January, he eagerly signed on as an occasional contributor, planning to write about his beloved classic rock. Sadly, those few, short posts came during the early part of his final illness - but they struck me as yet another example of how it was impossible to buttonhole Gilliard. He was an angry progressive with a love for military history, a black guy who dug the Beatles and the Stones, a generous, warm-hearted misanthrope. I think Bai captured the inherent conflicts in Steve's life that made him so interesting:
It was a life both short and loud. What began with a bad cough just after Valentine’s Day became a spiraling infection that ravaged Gilliard’s vulnerable heart and kidneys, and he spent most of his last four months hospitalized. The identities he kept separate for most of his 42 years collided in the days after he died; the few dozen mostly white bloggers who came to Harlem for the funeral saw for the first time the stark urban setting of Gilliard’s childhood, while his parents and relatives groped to understand what kind of work he had been doing at that computer and why scores of people had come so far to see him off. They must have been confused when Gilly’s online pals, sickened by the way some right-wing bloggers were gloating over his death, advised them not to disclose where he was buried, out of fear that someone might deface the site. The grave, like Gilliard himself, is known only to a few.
Please read the whole piece. I was saddened to come upon it this morning over my second cup of coffee, but also thrilled that Steve's prominence in our ongoing discussion was so well-recognized.
UPDATE: Wouldn't you know, seems to be some trouble over Bai's characterization of Steve's live and what some see as his description of a lone black blogger in an overly white blogosphere. Here's Jesse Wendel in the GroupNewsBlog (which succeeded Steve and Jen's blog after he died) and Pachacutec at FDL. Jesse writes:
Matt Bai was also wrong about Steve's life. Gilly didn't lead a lonely life. It was rich and filled day to day with his work, family, friends and sports. From his niece and nephew, his mother and father, to his co-publisher Jen, and the bloggers and friends he hung out with on a regular basis in person and on-line, this was a man who had a full, rich life.
And Pach is particularly tough on Bai: "...he keeps showing up like the guy who never really felt quite cool enough, who tried always to insert himself into the "it" cafeteria table by whatever means necessary." I think that's unfair - Matt Bai did a good thing by recognizing Steve's life in the Times' yearly "lives" issue. Now it's become a tussle over whether Gilliard's circle of blogging friends was multiracial, whether the lefty blogosphere and the Times are paternalistic, or whether some of Steve's mourner had ever been to Harlem before. Come to think of, Steve might be loving that.
UPDATE II: I like how Matt Browner-Hamlin handled this, and agree entirely with this sentiment so let his be the last word here:
Every time I spoke with him, I learned something, be it about military history, electoral successes, or Steve's unerring critique of the mainstream media. I've never met someone who responded faster to emails and I can recall debating with Steve into the wee hours over political strategy. Steve had one of the clearest moral compasses of anyone I've ever met. He was a blogger's blogger - someone who taught me how to write more clearly about what I believe by living the example himself every day.