Dave Eggers’ muse, Timothy McSweeney, dies
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.