America mourned and remembered vibrant cultural voices in the last weeks of this broken year.
Stephen Sondheim was the first to go, at Thanksgiving. Christmas brought the death of Joan Didion. John Madden passed away just before the new year.
Their childhoods shadowed by World War II and the 1950s, they made major contributions to America's dynamic culture that rose during the 1960s and lasted until the first decade of the 21st century. They registered their era's conflicts, shifting social attitudes, economic changes and entertainment innovations.
Each of them had special American voices. They found universal significance in claimed places and cultural forms: New York City for Sondheim and Didion, California for Didion and Madden, musical theater for Sondheim, pro football and television for Madden, the essay, novel and cinema for Didion.
Madden represented an America united by pro football. First gaining recognition as the swashbuckling young coach of the NFL's counterculture rebels the Oakland Raiders, he changed American sportscasting like the Beatles did music.
With the witty and urbane Pat Summerall, and later Al Michaels, he made televised NFL games America's sports story, rather than baseball.
Madden’s expressive talent and ability to simplify the game gave each play narrative significance. He understood the game’s comic and dramatic rhythms. Later, his football videogame met young males' need for myths and stories, unfulfilled by American literature.
Sondheim's music held a similar place in the Broadway theater and film musicals. He expressed the viewpoint of sophisticated New York culture, extending its influence across the country, even to small towns. His music, lyrics and productions revolutionized American theater while upholding its traditional standards.
As with Sondheim, Didion's work after her death has received an outpouring of re-revaluation, testfying to her complexity and career longevity. Her work, like Sondheim's, has been distorted and mischaracterized.
Didion's early work in "Slouching Toward Bethlehem" and "The White Album" has overshadowed her later political reporting for the New York Review of Books, which I believe is her greatest achievement. Her "A Year of Magical Thinking" and "Blue Nights" deserve more attention as well. Her novels will require their own future evaluations.
She established a unique place in American literature, fearlessly exposing her own emotions as well as examining American personalities, politics and culture. Such a protean career is difficult to summarize. The wide range of responses to her work indicate that she is a major writer who will continue to be read.
The deaths of Didion, Sondheim and Madden mark the end of America's postwar cultural hegemony. Sondheim, Didion and Madden shaped, defined and enriched American consciousness. Their creativity and high standards of excellence were hallmarks of a lost time.