Hillary Clinton dedicated her book to me!
Imagine how thrilled I was to open "Living History" and read:
To my parents,
my daughter --
and all the good souls around the world
whose inspiration, prayers, support and love
blessed my heart and sustained me in
the years of living history.
Yep, that's me -- one of the "good souls." I remember pushing my way to the front of a crowd gathered by the Reflecting Pool in the winter of 1993, straining to get a glimpse of the new first-couple-to-be, while celebrities serenaded their inaugural. I must admit, Aretha Franklin belting out "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" equally drew my attention. The next day, another cold one in January, I was back on Pennsylvania Avenue, cheering the Clintons into town.
If that's not support and love, I don't know what is.
And prayers! During all the scandals, boy, was I praying. I won't say for what!
I'm not sure what inspiration I provided for Hillary. But I count three out of four as a good enough number to include myself in the sweeping dedication of her book.
So, why does it feel less than satisfying?
Perhaps trying to encompass approximately half the world in a book dedication is not a good idea. For one thing, someone is bound to feel left out. For another, and more important, why didn't Hillary cite her husband and daughter by name? After all, we all know who they are, and wouldn't it reinforce to them, her loved ones, that she actually remembers who they are?
Do I sound picky? Gosh, I hope not. Dedicating one's book is so personal, the one choice over which an author has absolute control through all the troubled waters of wrestling a manuscript between hard covers. Everyone from agents to editors to best friends offers his two cents' worth of bad advice and changes that must be made. Yet that dedication page rests there, clean and inviting, waiting for the author to lift a pen and immortalize -- someone.
Think of J.D. Salinger's mom breaking open her pristine copy of "The Catcher in the Rye" and seeing: "To my Mother." Brings a tear to my eye. Mothers being what they are, she probably overlooked how Jerome actually portrayed them in print. Another truly interesting and personal dedication was Charles Lindbergh's when he finally got around to writing "The Spirit of St. Louis," a quarter-century after his historic flight. His dedication states: "To A.M.L. -- who will never realize how much of this book she has written." That stirred up flurries of speculation at the time. Everyone knew that Anne Morrow Lindbergh was the real writer in the family, and the word spread that she had ghosted her husband"s memoir. But history has shown Lindy was as good a writer as he was a pilot.
Mary Oliver is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who suffered sorrows and abuse in adolescence. She now regularly publishes luminous volumes of verse, life-affirming and deeply in tune with the natural world, and every single book is dedicated exactly the same way to her companion and life partner. It is comforting to pick up Oliver's most recent book and read, yet again,"To Molly Malone Cook." I know then that they are still together, and the world contains that modicum of order.
J.K. Rowling wrote a delightful note in her first Harry Potter book: "For Jessica, who loves stories, for Anne, who loved them too; and for Di, who heard this one first." This dedication tells a story in itself. There is something a little sad about Anne. Jessica is a stand-in for all the children who read about Harry, but Di is really special. How wonderful to be the first!
Surely one of the great dedications is F. Scott Fitzgerald's for "Tender Is the Night." A hauntingly autobiographical novel, written over 10 tortured years of decline while he tried to hang onto his enormous talent, Fitzgerald honored Gerald and Sara Murphy, a truly original couple and generous friends to the troubled author. He wrote simply: "To Gerald and Sara -- Many Fetes." In that elegant phrase, he conjured up perfumed nights of revelry along the French Riviera and laughter and living well. Fitzgerald always could say a lot in a few words.
I could go on and on. It's difficult to narrow the field among so many remarkable tributes. I marvel that authors are able to do this at all. I speak from experience when I say it is not easy to come up with just the right words or the right person. A few years ago when I finished my first novel, I became flustered and blocked, trying to choose the one person upon whom to bestow the laurels of dedication. Time passed, and as my various relationships changed, so did my thoughts of who would appear on that all-important dedication page. For me, it was the equivalent of an actor who plans for years his acceptance speech for the Oscars. Who deserves such public recognition?
For better or worse, that torch passed from me. The book was never published. Many people will never know how often they were on the list and then scratched out. I did not want to tell anyone, because I think a dedication should be a surprise, perhaps even cause one to blush with pride. And what to do with all the other friends and family who will be hurt and offended? These days, the solution for many authors, even in works of fiction, is to compose pages and pages of acknowledgements for the also-rans, the ones without whom this work would never have been written, etc. It almost seems that modern books are assembled by a committee, the lists are so long.
I confess I am fascinated by the acknowledgements. Just how many people does it take to produce a book of, say, 300 pages? It's a little like watching today's inflated movie credits scroll by. As the artistic unions have become more precise and demanding about who has made a credit-worthy contribution, the length of credits has become stupefying. Every guy who delivers bagels to the set or walks the star's dog gets his name up in lights. My favorite credit is for the "stand-by painter," the person who rushes in between takes and touches up little nicks and scars in the furniture or on the walls. Ah, show business!
This is only to make the point that, in literature as well as cinema, if too many people are given credit, the message becomes diluted and pointless. A book dedication should be striking and pithy, slightly intriguing, straightforward and yet mysterious at the same time. In that regard, I nominate as the greatest -- ever -- Herman Melville's dedication of "Moby Dick" to Nathaniel Hawthorne.
The two men became friends one summer in the Berkshire hills of Massachusetts where Melville was struggling to make a small farm earn enough to support his large extended family. Every morning, he locked himself in a second floor room to gaze at a far mountain and imagine himself at sea. In the afternoons, he would meet Hawthorne at the property line to walk and discuss the deepest issues of life. At only 32, Melville was in awe of the more established author and craving validation. When he finished his behemoth of a novel, the dedication page read: "In token of my admiration for his genius, this book is inscribed to Nathaniel Hawthorne."
Wow! The words stand there as if carved in granite, expressing a moment of friendship, of creation and of genuine love. There is nothing more to say.
Except, thanks, Hillary, for thinking of me, but here is a piece of cheap advice: Next time -- and, given the arc of your career and the success of your book, I'm certain there will be a next time -- skip the generalities. Make it personal. Make it sing!