Lars-Erik Nelson was a journalist most recognized [outside New York City at least] for his syndicated column. He died in 2000. Our epistle for today was delivered by fellow journalist Pete Hamill.
About what journalist today would we utter similar praises?
In a very basic way, I suppose I’m like everyone else in this auditorium: I wish I were not here. That is, I wish that there was no reason for us to gather together this morning and that we could just go about our imperfect lives, knowing that tomorrow we could pick up a Daily News or a New York Review and read the prose of Lars-Erik Nelson.
Particularly now. He has been gone only a matter of weeks, but oh, how we need Lars now.
If, as seems clearer with each passing hour, we are once more entering what Auden long ago called “a low dishonest decade”, the loss of Lars-Erik Nelson is even more unacceptable than it already is. In the midst of so much televised mediocrity, so much vulgar manipulation of base imagery, we need that deceptively elegant style, with its lucidity and grace. We need the eye and ear of the man who wrote that prose, his ability to see what too many Washington journalists miss, to hear what too many don’t want to hear. We need his blunt common sense. We need his nose for the smelly political lie and the wormy platitude that disguises the lie. We need his intelligence. We need his moral toughness. We need his sense of irony, which is to say, his sense of proportion. And we need his ability – always carefully rationed – to get madder than hell.
There is never any simple explanation for a good writer. And a great journalist is even more difficult to explain. But I suspect that somewhere back in the misty fjords of Norway, where his people came from, Lars had some ancestor who made ships that sailed the whale roads of the ocean sea. Or built houses that lasted for a hundred and fifty years without the use of a single nail. As a craftsman, Lars planed every sentence into such solidity that the sentences and paragraphs and essays, short and long, seemed inevitable. You examine them for craft and thought: there’s simply no other way to write that paragraph. And of course he never let us see a nail.
We know one other essential thing about Lars-Erik Nelson: he was not afraid of his readers. He never wrote down to them, he never patronized them. He respected their intelligence, and the reason was simple: he was once one of them. He grew up in Brooklyn with the people who read the Daily News. He went to school with them. He rode the subways with them. He knew how hard they worked and he worked very hard on their behalf. He knew that the best review a newspaper columnist could get was either “I didn’t know that” or “I never thought of it that way.”
He never placed his immense skills in the service of an ideology. “The enemy isn’t liberalism,” he said to me once. “The enemy isn’t conservatism. The enemy is bullshit.” Words that should be engraved – perhaps more politely in Latin — upon the façade of this journalism school. Lars was a serious man, but not a solemn one; he used his flame for illumination, not empty heat. He never bent a knee to power. One reason for this was that – as young reporter for Reuters – he had lived in totalitarian countries where too many writers and journalists were valets of the state, collaborators in the lies of an armed bureaucracy. His experience in Eastern Europe and the old Soviet Union – in daily contact with the cement face of the state — deepened his love of the freedoms of this country – and made him a permanent defender of certain cherished values: pluralism, tolerance, a fundamental honesty.
But he was never self-righteous in the expression of those beliefs. He lived them. They permeated his work. They were like his toughness. From this city he had learned one important truth: the true tough guys never talk tough. They are tough. Lars lived and worked in Washington, a city full of people who like to talk tough. Most of the time, they made him laugh. Sometimes they made him angry. But he had no interest in their company.
Lars did not write his columns and essays in order to get invited to dinner parties in Georgetown. Nor was he interested in becoming a professional talking head on television, nattering away in some cartoon version of a reporter. Nor would he become a star turn on the lecture circuit by coarsening his opinions, or distorting the facts that shaped those opinions, or take the shilling from the people he was supposed to scrutinize.
He had more important things to do with the only life he was ever going to live. He loved his wife and his family. He loved his work. He loved good reporters, and good writers, and was particularly generous to the young. When Helen Kennedy moved to the Washington bureau of the Daily News, Lars found time to take her around to the various offices of the government. And more: he even found time to drive her in search of an apartment. I know what he must have been thinking: This is a newspaperwoman, a member of God’s noblest craft, and if I can help her in some small way, she’ll help someone else, ten or twenty or thirty years from now.
Lars had one other passion: Art. He painted wonderful watercolors. We talked more often about painters and shows than we did about politics. And the love of great art was part of the context of his own work. We shared a mutual passion for a small book by Robert Henri called “The Art Spirit”. Last night, thinking about coming here, I took down my copy, and on every other page seemed to find Lars.
“Don’t belong to any schools,” says Henri.
“A man cannot be honest unless he is wise. To be honest is to be just and to be just is to realize the relative value of things.”
And this: “When the artist is alive, in any person, whatever his kind of work may be, he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressive creature…He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and he opens ways for a better understanding. Where those who are not artists are trying to close the book, he opens it, shows there are still more pages possible.”
Lars Erik Nelson opened many books, for those of us who cherished him as a writer and a man. I hope that the young – many of them in this university – will learn from his example and make still more pages possible. That would be the best of all ways to memorialize this fine newspaperman, this splendid New Yorker, this good, decent human being: by honoring the work and the honesty, and finding time to help some young person in a strange city to find a place where he or she can fully and completely live.