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Dave Eggers’ muse, Timothy McSweeney, dies

February 8, 2010

Dave Eggers

Since Dave Eggers emerged on the literary scene in 2000, I’ve viewed the wunderkind with grudging admiration. Sure, he’s an enormous talent, but I choked on the smug self-regard and irony that came with it. Today’s news of Timothy McSweeney’s death tips the scale  away from grudge and toward admiration.

Who is Timothy McSweeney? I’d always assumed he was another Eggers affectation, a name made up to provide a characteristically cute  title for the literary journal Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern (better known as McSweeney’s), the daily lit and humor website, McSweeny’s Internet Tendency, and the publishing house, McSweeney’s.

Had I read McSweeney’s, as friends urged me to over the years, I might have known that Eggers claimed his various literary enterprizes were named for a real person. More than once, apparently, Eggers told the story of how his mother received odd letters and miscellany from a man named Timothy McSweeney, who claimed to be her brother.

Eggers’ mother dismissed the letters as the work of a disturbed person she did not know, but the boy Dave, fascinated, read them carefully and saved the letters in a drawer.

When Eggers founded a journal in 1998 for stories, poems and essays outside the literary mainstream, he named it for Timothy McSweeney.

“We didn’t know if he was real—if there was a real person named Timothy—but in any case the name Timothy McSweeney came to hold an aura of mystery,” Eggers writes.

It was not until 2000 that Eggers learned the truth behind the letters and the life of the man who had sent them. I strongly suggest you read Eggers’ brief account of the story, but the gist is this: Timothy McSweeney was a promising young artist felled by intractable mental illness. He spent most of his adult life in an institution, where he wrote letters to people sharing his last name (Eggers’ mother’s maiden name was McSweeney).

Timothy McSweeney died on Jan. 24 at the age of 67. His family sent Eggers a touching note, part of which reads: “By encouraging and celebrating self-expression, McSweeney’s, its contributors, and its readers already offer the most fitting tribute possible to Timothy’s life”

Okay, I may have been born at night, but it wasn’t last night, and my inner reporter forces me to consider this may all be another clever Eggers’ spoof.  It’s a good story, charming and sad — perhaps too good. But I don’t think so.

For one thing, the details have the homey ring of truth, like a frayed and stained antimacassar neatly folded in your great-grandmother’s trunk. For another, sometimes you just have to choose against cynicism.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. February 8, 2010 3:56 pm

    I like your “homey” ending. My sentiments about Eggers similar.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 8, 2010 4:53 pm

      So your great-grandmother used antimacassars, too? Another charming relic of bygone days of which the youngsters in the audience will have no clue. In my case, I confess, it was grandmother.

  2. rachel permalink
    February 8, 2010 3:56 pm

    I too look at Eggers with grudging admiration. (and seriously, shouldn’t there be a d in there?) And if someone had tried to shove McSweeny’s down my throat I probably would have rebelled. However, I came to it in such an organic way that I could not help being charmed and intrigued. I noticed the odd books while working at BooksandBooks in Coral Gables. While shelving I often got distracted by books and I found that I kept returning to oddly packaged and beautiful books. After a bit of research I found that they were McSweeney’s. I read the story about Timothy McSweeney, and I too wondered if it was a work of fiction. But I too would rather believe that it was true. And in a way it’s one of those stories that you say “people can’t make this stuff up” about. Sometimes, strange and beautiful things do happen in life.

    I both love and hate Eggers. But I admire McSweeney’s and choose to turn away cynicism.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 8, 2010 4:57 pm

      Yes, and while we’re in the mood to forgo cynicism (who knows how long that will last!) and admire Eggers, the less said about Away We Go, the most ridiculously condescending, excessively cute and full-of-itself movie of last year, the better. Yech. After leaving the theater, I felt I need an acid bath to get the treacle off my skin. Eggers, by the way, was the screenwriter for that overpraised little gem.

      • rachel permalink
        February 8, 2010 5:06 pm

        Why did you have to remind me? I had conveniently forgotten that!

  3. rachel permalink
    February 8, 2010 3:57 pm

    (I wonder: Could I use the word too any more in a single paragraph?)

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 8, 2010 4:58 pm

      I, too, am sure you could, if you really, really wanted to.

  4. rachel permalink
    February 8, 2010 3:58 pm

    I guess mostly I just agree with you, Chauncey Mabe.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 8, 2010 4:59 pm

      That’s a wise strategy for one and all, if you ask me.

  5. rachel permalink
    February 8, 2010 3:59 pm

    Um, this website just told me: You are posting comments too quickly. Slow down.


    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 8, 2010 5:00 pm

      Don’t you hate that? I thought electricity traveled at the speed of light…? An if not, surely the speed of electricity is pretty darned fast.

      • rachel permalink
        February 8, 2010 5:06 pm

        It is the ordering me to Slow Down that really annoyed me.

  6. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    February 8, 2010 5:20 pm

    Yeah. Who likes being told what to do?

  7. DeeBishoff permalink
    February 8, 2010 6:43 pm

    Had to look up the definition of antimacassars to see if MY grandmother used them as well. Alas, strangely she did! Love your blog Chauncey.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 9, 2010 1:16 am

      Of course she did. How do you think I know what they are?! Thanks for the kind words. I aim to please. And sometimes I hit the target.

  8. February 9, 2010 10:52 am

    One thing I knew with both my grand mothers. If you made them fall off, you had better put them in back in Quick-Spot time. I have a couple at my house still. I never really knew what they were called. Great.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 9, 2010 11:53 am

      For the record, an antimacassar is a small washable cloth, often crocheted, placed on the back of a sofa or armchair to protect against soiling. The term derives from macassar oil, used widely as a hair-styling product by men beginning in the 19th century. At one time, macassar oil was so popular (and so tacky) that antimacassars were common in theaters, trains and other places of public seating. The fancy cloths outlived the fad for hair oil. When I was a boy in the ’60s, my grandmother had them arrayed prettily on all her couches and chairs.

  9. Candice Simmons permalink
    February 9, 2010 12:55 pm

    I love the history lesson, Chauncey Mabe. But unlike you, I think I chose to be a cynic. At least for this moment.

  10. February 9, 2010 1:32 pm

    Sick of cynicism, but I still can’t help myself. The story is too cute, too easy, too compelling. And yet …

  11. Leon Sammartino permalink
    May 17, 2010 2:53 am

    That really is quite a story

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