Astronaut, Critic and Man of Letters, Pulitzer-Prize Novelist: Godspeed
We lost the next-to-last of the Mercury Seven astronaut Scott Carpenter, the learned film critic of the New Republic and elsewhere, Stanley Kaufman, and the lyrical, Pulitzer Prize-winning Cuban-American novelist Oscar Hijuelos these past few days.
Scott Carpenter, one of the pioneering, original group of brave astronauts who were the first Americans to orbit the earth in the early era of space rivalry with the Soviet Union, died at 88 of complications from a stroke Oct. 10 in Vail, Colo., at a hospice.
He was a Navy man from the beginning, commissioned in 1949, becoming a naval aviator in 1951 and serving in the Korean War. He was a test pilot, and eventually became one of the Mercury 7 Astronauts selected and introduced on April 10, 1959. Among them was John Glenn, who would become the first American to orbit the earth. Carpenter was the second. The backup pilot for the first mission, Carpenter was at Mission Control and was heard to say, “Godspeed, John Glenn,” as Glenn's spacecraft burst the bounds of earth. Carpenter piloted his Aurora 7 craft on May 24 of that year, eating “Space Food Sticks” in space. He overshot the landing zone for his splashdown, by a considerable distance, but he was found in his life raft.
For the record here are the Mercury 7 astronauts: Alan Bartlett Shepard, Jr., died 1998, U.S. Navy; Virgil Ivan (Gus) Grissom, died 1967, was commander of the Gemini mission, killed in a fire during a launch pad test one month before the scheduled launch of Apollo 1; John Herschel Glenn, Jr., former U.S. senator, Buckeye, oldest man in space; Malcolm Scott Carpenter; died 2013; Walter Marty (Wally) Schirra, Jr., died 2007; Leroy Gordon (Gordo) Cooper, died 2004; Donald Kent (Deke) Slayton, died 1993.
John Glenn was quoted as saying “Godspeed, Scott Carpenter, my great friend,” when hearing the news of Carpenter's passing.
Stanley Kauffmann wrote movie—or film—reviews for the New Republic for more than 50 years with a break, writing theater reviews for the New York Times. Think of all the movies viewed for such an assignment—strung together, review after review, year after year, a lifetime in the dark.
Then, think of the straight forward, but deeply felt reviews he wrote. I remember reading him a lot. He took the job and the films seriously, but perhaps this came from being originally a man of the theater as well.
I have some empathy and sympathy for the task. Reviewing films or stage productions involves story-telling and imagery in varying degrees, as well as words, and the telling of the saga of ourselves, we humans on earth.
For Kauffmann, for all reviewers and writers, this meant dealing daily with the sublime and the ridiculous, the sublime, even among the pearls before swine, outdoing the ridiculous, and the latter becoming sublime at times. Ask Charlie Chaplin or Woody Allen, if you could.
What was evidenced in his writing was a passion, a love and affection for what he wrote about. What seemed evident in his bearing was erudition, seriousness, respect, intellect and culture. He made Americans—he was not alone in this—look at foreign films in new ways but rarely did so with the intent of calling attention to himself.
Kauffmann was 97.
If Oscar Hijuelos had never written another book other than “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love,” he would still be famous, because that’s the book that made him a Pulitzer Prize guy in 1989.
But he did write more: “Our House in the Last World,” the wonderful, almost magical “The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien,” “Beautiful Maria of My Soul,” “A Simple Habana Melody,” "Thoughts Without Cigarettes, A Memoir,” “Dark Dude,” “Empress of the Splendid Season,” “Mr. Ives' Christmas” and “Our House in the Last World.” Taken together, the titles alone suggest a style, a way with words, a lot of lyricism, lore, family memories, a great American and family theme.
His career, his output—and they will last pretty much forever—are another great addition to the fabric, the literary quilters of our immigration literature, which is in broad terms pretty much all of the output. It’s a crazy quilt with particular flavors and concerns of a country where everyone is an immigrant, an outsider, and insider, where citizenship and country are about matters of heart and soul, not addresses.
Hijuelos happened to be of a Cuban ethnic background—with that came soul, music, rhythm, mysterious tales, religion, neighborhoods and the tentacles of family.
He died after collapsing on a tennis court. He was only 62.