When Ellen Willis–feminist, rock critic, political essayist, pioneering writer and editor at the Village Voice and valued Nation contributor–died November 9, the left lost something precious: a voice for pleasure. In a collection of tributes assembled at www.thenation.com, her former Voice colleague Alisa Solomon writes, “Of all the essential insights Ellen’s work offered over the last four decades, her insistence on pleasure–in work, politics, day-to-day life–has been, to my mind, the most necessary. Neither hedonistic abandon (which is at its core nihilistic) nor an ironic Sex in the City-style insouciance (because Ellen never agreed that there was anything naughty in it), the pleasure she propounded in her brilliant critical essays was part and parcel of freedom.” A founder, in 1969, of the radical feminist group Redstockings, on the cutting edge of the women’s liberation movement, Willis went on to play a vital role in the “sex wars” of the 1980s, taking on antiporn feminists in battles over exploitation, censorship and the meaning of freedom. As a journalist and activist, Willis recorded and shaped that history. Along the way she inspired and nurtured a generation of feminists and writers, eventually founding NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program. As former Voice colleague Richard Goldstein observes, “She brought the values of the ’60s into the present without becoming mired in nostalgia, making it possible to imagine that those values may play a role in the future, if we can preserve them.”
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We were saddened to learn of the death of novelist William Styron, a decent, humorous man who spoke out thoughtfully on political issues in our pages. He signed up (with E.L. Doctorow) to cover the first Gulf War for The Nation, but the Pentagon barred reporters from combat zones, force-feeding them propaganda at briefings. Several publications, including this one, along with Styron and others, challenged the policy in a lawsuit, which was rendered moot when the war ended. Styron was in the front rank of World War II-generation novelists. His books, like those of his contemporaries Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Kurt Vonnegut and others, enriched America’s postwar culture. In his own career Styron resisted categorization, stubbornly following his artistic compass wherever it led in such books as Sophie’s Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner. Late in life a near-suicidal bout of depression drove him to publish a powerful personal narrative, Darkness Visible. He became a champion of fellow sufferers from “melancholia’s unspeakable demons” and wrote in The Nation about the downsides of psychotropic drugs and the greed of Big Pharma (“Prozac Days, Halcion Nights,” January 4/11, 1993).
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Richard Gilman, who died recently, served as drama critic for The Nation in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Gilman, who had previously written theater criticism for Commonweal and Newsweek, performed with distinction. His carefully wrought prose was always accessible and lively, and his reviews had solid intellectual and philosophical underpinnings. Writing of Gilman’s book The Confusion of Realms, John Leonard praised his “confrontation criticism” and said that “to grapple with his perspective” was a “cultural wrestling match.” Gilman wrote several erudite books on the theater, taught at the Yale Drama School and served as president of PEN.