July 11, 2012
‘I always wondered when and how it was going to end’
A few months ago, I received an email from Philip L. Fradkin, who was alerting his friends and colleagues to the diagnosis of a fatal disease that seemed likely to end his life. Like everything Philip has written — as a war correspondent, investigative journalist, environmental reporter, literary biographer, and historian — the prose in his email was lucid, impactful, elegant and even noble, all qualities that I associate with the man himself.
“I always wondered when and how it was going to end,” wrote Philip. “Now there is no more suspense. I am hoping there will be a relatively pain-free way to gracefully leave life. Until then, most of my time will be taken up with doctors, hospitals, medicines, friends, family, and eking a few more moments of joy from life, like getting out in the western landscapes that have always revived me.”
Today I read Philip’s obituary by Elaine Woo in the Los Angeles Times, and I am moved to salute him as one who was truly great.
I knew Philip as a reader before he kindly befriended me as a fellow writer. He reported from the combat zones of both Vietnam and Watts, and he was one of the reporters honored with a Pulitzer for the coverage of the Watts Riots in the L.A. Times. I have reviewed several of his books in the Times and, more recently, in The Jewish Journal, including two of my own favorites, “The Left Coast: California on the Edge” (co-written with his son, Alex) and “Wallace Stegner and the American West.” Whether he was writing for the morning edition or for the ages, his work is marked by a devotion to finding the truth and a gift for rendering the truth in luminous prose.
“I tell stories; I don’t spin theories or outline ideas,” he wrote of himself. “I don’t believe there is any single truth, but rather differing versions of it. For my version I employ three goals: accuracy, fairness, readability. Along the way the following phrase from Emerson’s essay ‘Nature’ became my guideline: ‘All the facts of natural history taken by themselves, have no value, but are barren like a single sex. But marry it to human history, and it is full of life.’ I am interested in the blending of natural and human histories. That is why I call myself an environmental historian.”
I will remember Philip Fradkin as I last saw him — a tall, slender, handsome man with razor-sharp intelligence and relentless curiosity, but also a man full of compassion and grace. When I received his final email, I was moved to respond with a handwritten note that I mailed to the home in Point Reyes that he shared with his wife, Dianne. Somehow I felt that a man whose life was devoted to the art and craft of writing deserved a hail and farewell in the form of ink on paper. That’s why the most appropriate tribute, for me and for all of his readers, is to take one of his books off the shelf and read again the words that he put into print.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.