Reading obituaries is part of reading the newspaper and can be oddly rewarding.  It’s instructive and even inspiring to read about lives and careers.  Sometimes, we read about strangers, sometimes celebrities, sometimes even people we know—or knew.  The gravity of the occasion requires a formulaic response: Without considering the matter, we all know how an obituary is supposed to be composed.

We must therefore notice when we see an obituary that is not formulaic, and wonder why.  I was saddened to read of the passing of Grady McWhiney, the noted Southern historian and academic who was 77 when he died in Abilene, Texas, on April 18.  His obituary appeared in the New York Times on May 1, and it is upon the obituary and not upon the man and the career that I wish to reflect.  I derive all that I know about the late Grady McWhiney from what was implied in two books of his that I read, and what I recall of a couple of hours I once spent with that humorous, thoughtful, and polite man.

He was a gentleman and a scholar, though that can hardly be derived from the bizarre obituary in the Times.  There we read of “bourbon,” “endless analyses of the Civil War,” “drinking,” and then of “the League of the South, which the Southern Poverty Law Center called a hate group.”  Dr. McWhiney’s “Celtic thesis” must be ridiculed because it touches upon an obsession of American politics and power: The South is contemptible because so much politics and power is served by that contempt.  Dr. McWhiney’s professional work, attempting to explain Southern identity and distinctiveness, must therefore be discredited even in his obituary, thereby blighting the occasion.  Did an expired professor deserve this?

The League of the South is, of course, not a hate group—hate group being the latest term for “Southern group.”  The League of the South could more accurately be described as a love group.  If a hate group is hateful, then the odious Southern Poverty Law Center is a hate group.  And the odious obituary for Grady McWhiney powerfully suggests that the New York Times is a hate group.

One must wonder, must one not, just what sort of individual would merit a dignified obituary from the Times, and one did not have to wait long for a perfect example.  Dr. Fritz Klein, psychiatrist and sex researcher, died in San Diego on May 24, at the age of 73, though his notice did not appear in the Times until June 4.  As the author of The Bisexual Option (1978), as an editor of Bisexual and Gay Husbands: Their Stories, Their Words (2001), as the designer of the Klein Sexual Orientation Grid, as a founder of the American Institute of Bisexuality, and as an editor of The Journal Of Bisexuality, Dr. Klein was treated with exemplary care, right down to the identity of his partner.  Seeing nothing in his career that connected him to the South, one began to understand why Dr. Klein received such a respectful send-off.  And one began, did one not, to understand something about the editorial and other values of the New York Times.