Some Advice for Baby-Boomers Who’d Like to Be Remembered

Illustration by Barry Blitt

Illustration by Barry Blitt

One of my favorite novels is Memento Mori, by Muriel Spark, published in 1959. Evelyn Waugh, no less, called it a “singularly gruesome achievement.” It’s about a group of aging intellectuals in London who keep getting anonymous phone calls with the message “Remember, you must die.”

“Remember, you must die” is good advice, but the situation is even worse than the words suggest. Not only are you going to die, but in all probability you’re going to be forgotten. Members of the baby-boom generation don’t warm to this idea. For going on 60 years, they have been competing with one another for a succession of Good Things. First it was toys and grades and schools. Then it was sex and jobs and vacations and possessions. Right now the competition has moved on to longevity (who will live longest) and cognition (who will keep their marbles). But the ultimate baby-boomer competition, the one coming next, isn’t about any of this. It’s about reputation. How will you be remembered after you die?

You’re going to be dead for longer than you were alive, and all you will have is your reputation. So you want to pay some attention to it while something can still be done.

The challenge of posthumous reputation is really two challenges. You want to be remembered favorably, of course, but first you need to make sure that you’ll be remembered at all. Most people aren’t. Some individuals reach the unfortunate but not entirely irrational conclusion that the best way to be remembered is by killing somebody whose fame is guaranteed. There is something very modern about this idea. In the celebrity culture in which we live, a negative reputation for all time is better than no reputation at all. John Hinckley Jr. shot Ronald Reagan because he wanted fame, like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver—or at least an opportunity to touch fame.

It’s hard to think of any way to establish a good reputation as quickly as you can establish a bad one. The best way to gain a healthy posthumous reputation is to get rich and buy one. In ancient cultures you built a memorial to the gods—and, with varying degrees of indirection, to yourself. The Catholic Church used to trade heavily in “indulgences,” an explicit quid pro quo: money in return for forgiveness of specific sins. It’s not quite so easy today, but contributions to good causes can still cleanse a soiled reputation and set you up to be remembered for the ages.

You do not have to be a sinner. In modern America, the equivalent of building a pyramid is called a “naming opportunity.” A naming opportunity is the chance to get something named after you at an institution—a hospital or college or public arena. It’s all very clinical. For x dollars you can get an entire building, though x is usually somewhat less than the full cost—and the price is usually negotiable. For some smaller fraction of x you can get a wing or a “pavilion” (as hospitals call them for some reason) or a classroom or an operating theater or a seat in an auditorium. Some cultural institutions plant floor tiles with contributors’ names on them. Congratulations. You have achieved immortality: forever, people will be walking across your name, and maybe one or two out of thousands of concertgoers will devote a couple of seconds to wondering who the hell you are or were.

Although having your name carved in marble may suggest permanence, the real message of a sign declaring this to be, say, the Travis Bickle Center for Dispute Resolution is nearly the opposite. It’s the lesson of Shelley’s Ozymandias. You remember: the inscription found on a crumbling pillar in the desert—“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; / Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” (“So who is this Ozymandias person?” Arianna asks. “Is he related to Ozzie and Harriet? He should have asked me. I would have told him: write a blog. It won’t bring you immortality, but it feels like immortality while it lasts.”) When dealing with the immortality peddlers of the nonprofit world, it’s definitely caveat emptor. Look out for double-dealing. Are you buying the name of the building, or are you buying the name of the Institute or Resource Center (formerly known as the “library”) that sits inside the building? Back in the day, when you paid for the construction of a pyramid along the Nile, or a small cathedral not too far from Paris, there was no question that, if anyone’s soul was being saved, it was yours. Today, if you finance, say, a set of dorms to be called the Stephen Glass Houses, you’d better make sure that they’re not located on what everyone refers to as the Jayson Blair Campus. If you’re buying immortality, best to find out how much immortality you’re getting.

Being forgotten is especially painful for writers, as Heather Jackson explains in her 2015 book, Those Who Write for Immortality. In Professor Jackson’s opinion, hoping to be remembered is the chief reason that many people write (and probably part of the reason most people write). Yes, yes, she knows all about Samuel Johnson’s famous line that “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Jackson allows how Johnson may have been “deliberately contrary.” Apparently, back in Johnson’s time, to say you wrote for money was considered crass. So Johnson said it. He also said, “No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes than a publick library.” It’s clear he’s not referring to human hopes for more money. He means the hope of popular acclaim and lasting readership. Dr. Johnson believed that 100 years was the right test for a “contrivance of esteem.” If an author’s reputation is still high a century after the author dies, then the reputation is safe indefinitely.

A hundred years is a long time. As an experiment, the next time you find yourself talking with a young Washington journalist, ask if the name Joseph Kraft rings any bells. It’s pretty unlikely that he or she will have ever heard of Joseph Kraft. But he was one of the best-known newspaper journalists of his era, which was the 1970s and 1980s. When I went to Washington in the late 1970s, the names to reckon with were people such as Kraft, Scotty Reston, David Broder, R. W. Apple, and Meg Greenfield. I’m probably forgetting some equal big shots, but that just proves my point. Kraft died in 1986 and was almost immediately forgotten by all except his close friends and family, the same small group that will remember each of us (we hope).

So, anyway, now you’re dead. This narrows your options considerably. There is little—or, to be perfectly accurate, nothing—you can do now to affect your final score in the Boomer Olympics. This is what makes reputation different from longevity and cognition. Jackson hauls out various writers to take slight issue with the statement that there is nothing you can do about your reputation after you’re dead. She notes that, for your friends, this can be a test of their friendship. Are they doing what they can to keep your name and your works in circulation—or even to get them published in the first place? (Emily Dickinson would be unknown had it not been for the efforts of family and friends.) And since literary deeds (that is, writing) can be re-experienced more or less exactly and more or less indefinitely, there is always the chance of a revival.

Then, too, Professor Jackson writes, there is the question of merit. Maybe Jane Austen lasts, while others of her era and genre fade, because she really is better than literary also-rans such as Mary Brunton, whoever she was. (All right, I looked her up: Brunton’s hugely popular novels Self-Control and Discipline “rose very fast into celebrity,” as her widowed husband would write, “and their popularity seems to have as quickly sunk away.”) Jackson is skeptical that quality alone does the trick, providing hope for us all. “The test of time was and is still supposed to be the guarantor of merit,” she writes. “I maintain, to the contrary, that many factors play a part and that no more than threshold competence—a relatively low standard of merit—has ever been necessary to keep a writer’s works in favor.”

“Threshold competence.” Well, that sounds doable.