Tributes to writers who are dead always sadden me. I know how much better it would have been to appreciate their work when they were alive. But, today, I am happy to be talking about Miles Franklin, whose novels are among the finest written in Australia, and who still lives and works among us – glory be!
It’s Katharine Susannah Prichard, in a 1944 ABC broadcast about her friend Franklin. Captured in print in the year 2000 in Delys Bird’s edited selection, KSP: Stories, Journalism and Essays, it sounds ghostly: the “today” is ghostly; the “lives and works among us” is ghostly. Franklin had ten years left to be celebrated before she died, and Prichard a whole twenty-five. I hope they felt appreciated enough in their lifetime, but I don’t think either of them did.
Did Prichard imagine the posthumous tributes the people of the future might pay her? Would these imagined tributes have been any comfort to her, or only a sadness?
The Christian tradition talks of the “great cloud of witnesses” observing the living. The cloud is a metaphor but the concept is meant quite literally – the dead await the resurrection in the New Testament; their story is not done, their awareness is not finished. Yet even the NT does not talk much of a duty to remember the dead, beyond remembering the example of their faith. We remember them for our sake, not for their sake.
Prichard didn’t believe in life after death; she regarded all supernatural beliefs as superstitious. I can’t be paying tribute to her, then, for her sake. Or not exactly. Not “her” as a living being, but possibly “her” as our cultural memory of her. I can pay tribute to her as a dead person, occupying that peculiar state all the dead occupy. (It’s overwhelming to start trying to conceptualise just what a dead person is.)
We pay tribute to the writers of the past for other reasons than how it makes them feel. We do it because it deepens us. It recognises the reach of the dead into the present. It recovers a piece of the past, the best we can hope for, snatches and scenes of stories from the rubble.