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`Last Lecture’ Author Joins Those Who Wrote With End in Sight

July 25, 2008

CHICAGO _ The best writers’ retreat of all may be a place where nobody really wants to go: the valley of the shadow of death.

That is where many memorable and popular works have been created, as their authors come to terms with their imminent demise. Randy Pausch, who died Friday at 47, is the latest in a line of writers whose words burn with a special intensity, whose observations glow with an irrefutable poignancy, because they are written with the certain knowledge that death hovers near.

Pausch’s “The Last Lecture” (Hyperion), co-written with Jeffrey Zaslow and published in April, is based on a public talk Pausch delivered in September 2007 at Carnegie Mellon University, where he taught computer science. Pausch had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, and the lecture, he said, was intended for his three young children. “But if others are finding value in it,” he added on his blog, “that is wonderful.”

Just as his speech _ recorded and viewed thousands of times on YouTube and other web venues _ caught fire, the book was an instant sensation. Filled with insights and homilies about retaining a sense of optimism and childlike wonder, but never maudlin, “The Last Lecture” still holds the No. 1 spot on many non-fiction bestseller lists.

Before Pausch, there were other writers whose works achieved a solemn grace and unassailable dignity from their authors’ impending death. British dramatist Dennis Potter, author of the acclaimed work “The Singing Detective,” who died in 1994 from cancer, announced in his final months that he was working frantically to finish two scripts before he passed away: “My only regret,” he said during a BBC interview, “is if I die four pages too soon.”

Many writers and artists pass away close to the release date of a major work. Actor Heath Ledger died from an accidental overdose of prescription medication in January, after filming his role as the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” now in theaters. But Ledger presumably did not know his life soon would end. What gives “The Last Lecture” its extraordinary radiance is that Pausch most definitely did know _ and because he knew and wrote anyway, he touched millions.

So did Cornelius Ryan. The Irish-born author of historical and military fiction such as the “The Longest Day” (1959) and “A Bridge Too Far” (1974), died from cancer as he struggled to finish the latter. He succumbed two months after publication. In “A Private Battle,” a 1979 memoir that includes his diary entries, his wife, Kathryn Morgan Ryan, detailed his fervent desire to write “The End” on his dramatic fictional version of an ill-conceived assault during World War II. He often refused medication that would have eased his pain, she revealed, because he wanted to keep his mind clear to write.

Perhaps the best-known example of a writer whose work is imbued with the author’s knowledge of his oncoming death is President Ulysses S. Grant. His “Memoirs,” still praised for its modesty and clarity, was written while Grant sat on the front porch of his home, bundled up against the chill induced by his throat cancer. Financially broken, his family in dire straits, Grant yearned to finish the work before he died. Critic Edmund Wilson offered this portrait of the doomed, scribbling general:

“Humiliated, bankrupt and voiceless, on the very threshold of death, sleeping at night sitting up in a chair as if he were still on the field and could not risk losing touch with developments, he relived his old campaigns.”

Grant’s “Memoirs” was completed just days before his death on July 23, 1885. Its publication was a huge success, earning almost half a million dollars for Grant’s needy family.

Author Carol Shields, the Chicago-area native whose 1993 novel “The Stone Diaries” won a Pulitzer Prize, lived in Canada most of her adult life. But learning that she was dying of cancer, she returned to Chicago in April 2003 to research a final novel, “Segue” _ a novel she was not able to finish before her death, which came four months later: “I feel when I write,” Shields told the Chicago Tribune, “as if I’m doing the only thing I can do, with this illness.”

Pausch felt the same way about his diagnosis: It was an inspiration to keep going, not a reason to quit.

The same spirit moved British poet John Keats, whose final book _ written as he began to realize that tuberculosis would put him in an early grave, as indeed it did, in 1821 when he was 25 _ includes such masterpieces as “Ode on Melancholy”: “She dwells with Beauty _ Beauty that must die;/And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips Bidding adieu …”

When it comes to death’s effect on words, though, it is hard to top poet Wallace Stevens’ line: “Death is the mother of beauty.”

And sometimes, it seems, it is also the mother of bestsellers.

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(c) 2008, Chicago Tribune.

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