Friday, January 30, 2015

Two Writers Evocative of the 1970s, Now Passed On

Readers of a certain age will remember two authors who were hugely successful, especially in the 1970s, although not considered “literary” writers. These two very different authors, Rod McKuen and Colleen McCullough, both died yesterday, McKuen at age 81 and McCullough at 77. McCullough, an Australian, was best known for her sentimental novel “The Thorn Birds,” about a priest torn between his vocation and his love of a woman, which was published in 1977 and sold 30 million copies, and then went on to be an extremely popular mini-series. She also wrote 24 other novels. (I learned something surprising and fascinating from her obituary: in her "other life," she had a career as a researcher in neuroscience both at Yale and in Sydney.) McKuen was a prolific poet and songwriter from the Bay Area (Oakland), who was associated with the Beat writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, and who developed his own popular New Age-influenced style. His poetry and songs were very accessible and could be found on the radio and in movies, as well as in poetry collections that were snapped up by readers, mostly young and soaked in 60s culture. I remember that in college I thought his poetry collection title “Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows” sounded very sad and romantic, although I didn’t actually read the poetry; it was just in the air around us. When I moved to San Francisco and saw the actual Stanyan Street, which runs next to the university where I teach, I have to admit that I had a starstruck moment of feeling connected to this popular writer and his work (very quickly followed by an embarrassed laugh at myself). Although I didn’t actually read or particularly admire either McKuen or McCullough’s work, their work gave much pleasure to many readers. They were each immensely popular, and each a part of the zeitgeist for many years, so reading their obituaries this morning evoked a shiver of memories of that golden yet complicated time.

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