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Kennedy's literary chapter in history ends with Ted's death

What distinguishes this family from other remarkable families is the power of their well-chosen words. The books they wrote, and those written about them, have mesmerized readers for decades.

August 27, 2009|Julia Keller

The words are what woo us. The words written about Edward M. Kennedy and the rest of the Kennedy family, and the words spoken and written by the family members themselves. The words that come from historians and hangers-on, from admirers and skeptics, from novelists and songwriters, from cousins and pundits and pals.

The Kennedys are as much a literary phenomenon as a political one, a fact that President Obama seemed to acknowledge with his statement in the wake of Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's death at 77 from brain cancer on Tuesday: "An important chapter in our history has come to an end."

Not scene. Not screen. Not moment. But "chapter."

The Kennedy influence on our cultural life may have coincided with the rise of television and modern media, but the essential narrative of this singular American family has always made its way to us in the form of literature. From the advent of what might be called the Kennedy era -- the election of John F. Kennedy to the presidency in 1960 -- it has come in a constant stream of words: the books and the magazine articles, the memoirs, the critiques, the shamelessly flattering profiles and the vicious takedowns.

And the words keep coming. The publisher of Edward Kennedy's memoir, "True Compass," announced Wednesday that publication would be moved up from October to Sept. 14. Earlier this year, "The Kennedy Legacy: Jack, Bobby and Ted and a Family Dream Fulfilled" by Vincent Bzdek was published.

The Kennedys are a unique and astonishing American family for many reasons -- wealth, smarts, sky-high ambition juxtaposed with lowdown scandal, a tradition of public service, good looks and breathtaking tragedy -- but what distinguishes them from other remarkable families, what makes them resonate, are the words. For all the significance we ascribe to images, the real power resides in words.

It was a lesson young John F. Kennedy understood when he wrote his first book, "Why England Slept" (1940), based on his undergraduate thesis at Harvard University. Later, as a senator, he wrote "Profiles in Courage" (1955), which won the Pulitzer Prize. Robert Kennedy also wrote books and sought out authors as friends and mentors.

The Kennedys understood the gravity and significance of well-chosen words. As a clan they were often accused of embodying style over substance, but it was the substance of literature -- the ability of a phrase to go straight to the heart of an issue or historic moment in time, sealing it forever within a graceful cocoon of the perfect words -- that they reached for, again and again, to make their mark on the world.

At Robert Kennedy's funeral in 1968, Edward Kennedy said, "My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it." And when his nephew, John F. Kennedy Jr., died in 1999, Edward Kennedy said, "We dared to think, in that other Irish phrase, that this John Kennedy would live to comb gray hair. . . . But like his father, he had every gift but length of years." To utter such words, one must understand how much words matter.

Many people grew up reading about the Kennedys, and whether those readers loved them or resented them, they kept on reading. The hagiography started in the wake of President Kennedy's death in 1963 and never let up. Books such as "The Pleasure of His Company" (1966) by family pal Paul B. Fay and "Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye" (1972) by Kennedy aides David F. Powers and Lawrence O'Donnell launched a new genre: books that made dashing, debonair heroes out of the glamorous clan, casting them as American royalty.

But there were naysayers too, of course, and those books also helped define the Kennedy legend. Henry Fairlie's eloquent, embittered "The Kennedy Promise" (1973) complained that the martyrdom of John and Robert Kennedy had done neither the Kennedys nor the country any favors. David Halberstam's "The Best and the Brightest" (1972) demonstrated how the most appealing elements of the Kennedys -- radiant confidence, intelligence, self-assurance -- could provoke the tragic consequence of the Vietnam War. Even the criticism of the Kennedys by their fiercest detractors rings with a distinctive literary quality.

With Edward Kennedy's death, a torch has been passed -- and a page has been turned.

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Julia Keller is cultural critic at the Chicago Tribune.

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