We know the names on both sides of these coins: those of the authors being remembered, and those of the writers doing the remembering. And what a list it is: Emerson on Thoreau, Howells on Twain, Cather on Crane, Baldwin on Wright, Bellow on Cheever, and forty-three further pairings, the names amounting to almost a roll call of the American literary pantheon.
The writings collected here are neither obituaries (daily journalism) nor eulogies (formal speeches delivered at the graveside). Instead, they are “commemorative essays”–pieces written shortly after the subject’s death, usually by a friend or a critic, in an effort to capture the personality and define the achievement of the departed. Some are warm and affectionate, others cool and arch. Some argue for a place of literary immortality for the subject; others seek to put the subject in his place. They range in tone from the bereft to the relieved, from the compassionate to the condescending. Each is a riveting read.