THE ORIGINALS

I met Gene McCarthy a few times. He and TNR’s editor-in-chief, Marty Peretz, went back a very long way, and McCarthy would occasionally drop by the office and read a poem or two and ask gingerly if we’d publish them. Every now and again, we would. Others can better testify to his historic importance, but what was clearly admirable about him was his utter integrity to himself. And not an idealized version of himself: the flawed man, alone, in front of his God, doing what he believed was the right thing, even if it led nowhere, even if it was quixotic, even when he doubted it himself. That freedom of action is what will be recalled about him, and it was a freedom that almost by itself changed the fate of the Vietnam War, and of American history. McCarthy had the audacity to articulate in public his inside voice; and it pierced through the cacophony. The same, of course, can be said in a way of Richard Pryor. His own reinvention as a comic – the moment he withdrew and re-emerged as a radically new and hilarious voice – was a turning point in American popular culture. It was a watershed in how we think of race. It was a moment when a deeper truth emerged through a new comedy. Again: all that he needed was the courage to testify to his own life, and the voices he had heard around him, and to gamble everything on it. Every time you laugh at the early Eddie Murphy or Dave Chappelle, you are laughing somewhere at Richard Pryor. Both McCarthy and Pryor, of course, look a little tragic as well. Pryor’s life was a human car-wreck, with the last few years in slow motion. McCarthy separated from his wife and died in a nursing home, beloved more as an eccentric than as the bravest man in a dark hour. For me, they both represent America at its best: true to themselves, dedicated to freedom of expression, unapologetic about their uniqueness, often indifferent to what society thought of them. The great and too-often missed achievement of Western freedom is the way in which it allows true, eccentric, inspired individuals to rise. Pryor and McCarthy were giants in this, the most under-rated project of our way of life.

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