One has the right to expect decency even of a poet, George Orwell said, poet standing for both the supercilious, sandal-shod poetaster of yore and for self-absorbed, courtesy-flouting artists in all media who feel that their high calling allows them to treat the feelings and even lives of lesser mortals with contempt. Not to mention their attitude toward rival poets, which is often one of feral savagery.
Well, you can expect 'til the cows come home, as Orwell well knew, and you are likely to come up empty-handed. The poet, like his distant cousin, the academic, lives with an abnormally high fear that someone may be gaining on him and, what is worse, with the secret knowledge that the someone deserves to.
Too bad Orwell never met Ross Macdonald. The encounter would have gone a long way toward restoring his faith in the decency of poets. But Orwell died in 1950, just about when Macdonald, whose real name was Kenneth Millar, was beginning his quarter-century run with his series of novels featuring the private detective Lew Archer.
Fortunately we can meet him in Tom Nolan's Ross Macdonald: A Biography, one of the finest and most affecting biographies I have read in years. It sensitively and intelligently covers all aspects of Millar's art and life. The greatest of its virtues, I think, is that it gives us, largely through extensive interviews with people who knew him, a rounded picture not only of Macdonald the writer, but of Millar the man, husband, father, and citizen.
But, as the Wise Old Newspaper Filosofer once said, one thought per column, and the thought I'd impress upon you in this column is . . . what a thoroughly decent, considerate, kind, ethical, and humble man Millar was. Not simply because those can be rare qualities in the arts, but because they form a strain running all through Nolan's book.
Millar gave aid and comfort to fellow writers and to aspiring writers. He wrote long, thoughtful replies to fans who sent him enthusiastic letters. He helped those in trouble; the singer-songwriter Warren Zevon credits Millar with saving his life. Millar was even nice toward those who treated him shabbily, like his forerunner and eventual rival for literary reputation, Raymond Chandler, who apparently thought (correctly) that someone was gaining on him.
Nor was he, as so often happens, a hero to the world and a monster to his family. His wife Margaret Millar, equally renowned as a mystery writer, apparently could be a bit of a dragon, but they loved and supported each other through more than four decades of marriage. Both agonized over the emotional troubles of their only child Linda, who died at 31.
Still, one thought per column aside, they don't write biographies of people for being nice; they write them because they achieved something. It would be futile in this short oblong of space to try and explain Millar's achievement as a writer. Nolan and his interviewees explain it superbly. A Bantam publicist caught it succinctly. With Lew Archer, the publicist said, Ross Macdonald began the trend away from writing mystery novels to writing novels that dealt with mysteries. The distinction is everything, and Macdonald did it with distinction.
There is much more besides in this superior biography. For one thing, an examination of Southern California culture, which was Macdonald's essential subject. It also evokes the wonderful time in publishing before the book culture broke down into the blockbuster mentality, when a writer could turn out a book a year, each one better than the last, and, though none sold in great numbers, be patiently supported by his publisher (in this case, Alfred A. Knopf), who saw merit in what the writer was doing and the possibility of greater profits on the horizon.
It ends sadly. Alzheimer's disease began eroding Millar's powerful intellect and creativity around the age of 60. It is as pitiful to read about as the stroke that left H.L. Mencken, famously verbal all his life, inarticulate for eight years. Margaret took care of Millar, and if occasionally she did it with less than perfect grace, well, she had her own physical frailties to deal with. Millar's grace, however, was fully intact. He made no claim for sympathy, a friend said, no protest against fate. Kenneth Millar died in 1983 at the age of 67. Margaret died in 1994, aged 79. Nolan's book makes you mourn their loss nearly as much as that of your own kin.
Roger Miller is a freelance writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.