Were George Trow’s Eulogists Ashamed of His Psychiatric History?

Last weekend an old friend came by and surprised me with an offhand statement. She had been friends of the writer George W.S. Trow, who died last November at 63, and she said he had been in and out of mental institutions in the years before he died.

When I was young, all journalists of any ambition worshiped Trow because of his groundbreaking 1980 essay, “Within the Context of No-Context.” As style, as vision, a theory, the piece had enormous impact. It was published in The New Yorker, and I’d read the New Yorker’s eulogy to Trow, a loving piece by Hendrik Hertzberg (a former speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, whose name Carter dropped at Brandeis the other day during his speech, to get a little cred with the homeboys). Hertzberg’s piece elided Trow’s apparent miseries with oldfashioned ellipticalness:

He abandoned the house he had designed and built in upstate New York, and wandered in Alaska, Texas, and Newfoundland before finding a tenuous stability in Naples. Poignantly, for one whose life was delineated by intense and, on his part, generous friendships, his last years were shadowed by the loneliness he had written about so acutely. During that time, many of us had only fleeting glimpses: a message on an answering machine, with no return number; a secondhand report of a sighting. “A product consumed by a man alone in a room exists in the grid of one, alone, and in the grid of two hundred million,” George wrote in his famous essay. “To the man alone, it is a comfort. But just for a minute.”

The NYT obit on Trow was a little more forthcoming, referring to “a psychiatric hospital.” But as film-commenter Ray Pride notes:

“The NY Times obituary had a number of seemingly coded passages and ellipses, one of which suggested that he hadn’t been well. “In the last half-dozen years, Mr. Trow’s nostalgia for a waning world grew into an enveloping despair, his friend Mr. Nugent said. Mr. Trow forsook his home in Germantown, N.Y., and roamed North America, from Texas to Alaska to Newfoundland, living a pared-down existence, never settling long in one place. After treatment in a psychiatric hospital, he expatriated himself to Italy.” Still, “Context of No…” still provokes.”

I wonder how much more Trow’s eulogists knew on this score. Trow was a literary genius, with a burn rate like Stephen Crane and E.A. Poe; and literary geniuses often suffer from mental problems. I thought we were supposed to be past shame about these matters.