“One Generation Passeth Away, and Another Generation Cometh”: On the Inevitability of Oblivion

It is a melancholy and sobering truth, but a truth all the same, that most of us will be quickly and easily forgotten when we are gone. Most people don’t remember their own families beyond two, or at most three, generations. And if our descendants won’t remember us—well, who will?

I was reminded of this the other day. I had recently finished reading Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s wonderful novel The Ox-Bow Incident, which he wrote while teaching high school English in a small town in New York. (Perhaps more on that another time.) It is a novel of ideas, of moral philosophy and of political philosophy. It is also one of the most psychologically observant and astute books I’ve ever read.

But none of that is to my purpose at present.

The book was published in 1940 and was greeted with acclaim. Another Western writer, Wallace Stegner, refers to “the swiftness with which The Ox-Bow Incident made its way onto the small shelf of Western classics,” and later compares Clark to Hawthorne.

Within three years The Ox-Bow Incident had been made into a movie starring Henry Fonda, and it was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Clark published a few more works of fiction, and mostly went silent after 1950. He died in Nevada on November 10, 1971. Here is the entirety of his obituary in The New York Times:

RENO, Nov. 11—Walter Van Tilburg Clark, author of “The Ox‐Bow Incident” and other books, died of cancer yesterday. His age was 62.

A little shocking, isn’t it? Two sentences to sum up a man who had at one time been a major American writer. Two sentences—that’s it. And the sentences aren’t even long. Clark gets twenty words; and four of them—20%—are his name. By the time he died, that was all that was left of the public figure.

But you might object that he hasn’t been forgotten. After all, we’re talking about him right now. That is true. The famous can sometimes recover their reputation, and even see it enhanced, after their deaths. But we should be honest: that isn’t most of us. And so I think the initial point stands. One can see why Achilles was so desperate to be remembered in Homer’s Iliad. But by the time we come to the Odyssey, Achilles seems to care about his fame a lot less, as his words in the Underworld indicate.

So what’s the sum of it all, then? The lesson Achilles drew was that being alive was better than being dead. Fair enough. But we might take another lesson from the ephemerality of our earthly lives and of so much of what we think to be solid and substantial, and that is the lesson of the Psalmist: “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom” (Psalm 90:12, KJV).


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