Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018)

Photo by Eileen Gunn

Merely typing in the title of this post hurt. In the words of Nisi Shawl, "The great and grand and extraordinary Ursula K. Le Guin walks the Earth no more." Despite Ursula's recent frailness and shortness of stature, Nisi's words resonate with my own image of her as a robust giant bestriding the globe as though she were one of Eleanor Arnason's "Big Mamas."

Obituaries are appearing today in newspapers around the world. How, I wonder, do those writing them decide which accomplishments, books, and honors to mention? Ursula K. Le Guin's legacy is tremendous and impossible, perhaps, to summarize.

Many, many of us feel this loss in a deeply personal way because of the ways in which her work touched us, affecting how we saw the world and envisioned what we are and could ourselves become. Karen Joy Fowler, writing for the Washington Post, sums up the core of what Ursula's work has brought us: "Possibility and permission, these are the gifts Le Guin gave us. She inspired a generation of writers to unshackle from realism — a mode she once accused of centering the human undeservedly — in favor of her wide and generous vision."

That wide and generous vision came to us thanks to the scope and depth of Ursula's moral imagination. Although I don't often talk about "great writers," I, as I suspect do most readers of this blog, hold always in my mind a personal pantheon of great writers, each of which differs so much from the others that I would be hard put to name a common quality their writings share--with the exception, that is, of exhibiting great moral imagination. I continually go to them to nourish whatever moral imagination I myself have. Moral imagination is one of the most valuable, rare, and necessary qualities in the world. We're feeling this with special acuteness now in 2018, at a time when the dominant figures in the public sphere in 2018 US have stripped themselves of moral imagination and are doing their damnedest to strip our public institutions of it, too. Ursula's public voice, which grew franker and more potent with every year she added to her age, was an inspiration to moral courage in the face of its absence among the most powerful. Though she no longer walks among us, we can--and must, I think-- still take inspiration from her work.

We will miss Ursula's public voice, and we will miss the human being she was in all her wonderful particularity, which managed to include both playfulness and moral sternness, both self-respect and humility. But she leaves us with the consolation of an enormous body of great writing. The website devoted to her, is a treasure trove spilling over with Ursula's biography, bibliography, photos, a list of her awards and honors, and much, much more about her. If you've never visited it, do so now. And of course continue reading and re-reading her work. It is more than likely that she has written about what you are feeling at this moment.


Alma Alexander said...

Thank you for this. Beautifully written.

Kristin said...


I had to look up "moral imagination" because I've never heard the term before but it's exactly right. She also could capture, in the exact same moment, humility and power, and use it to oppose bullies of any kind.

That was her greatest contribution to me, because it gave me the power to stand up to literary "giants" who insisted writing could only take certain shapes and forms, not in person, but in my head, where they were doing the most damage. She helped me write to my deepest desires, not what someone else thought I should.

Mark Rich said...

Thank you, Timmi.

Martha saw the news (on whatever morning it was -- it seems far away, already, because so unreal) and it chimed a dream-note, since just days before Martha had begun reading the Earthsea trilogy, which I had recently finished, while I was re-reading Left Hand for the first time since being a teenaged idiot. (Or since becoming, for the first time, the teenaged idiot that I am.)

And at bedtime that day, we went back to our readings, each of us in different Le Guin worlds --

... as seemed just and appropriate. Her words kept moving in us, during whatever transition she herself experienced away from this life of ours.

Her death failed to change that.

I should say, too, that I should have imagined her frailty, by this point in time.

And I suppose it is a tribute to her that I had failed so utterly to imagine that.

Cheers ...

Amika Press said...

Thank you for writing this.