Death of a Man


Death of a Man, by Lael Tucker Wertenbaker, Boston: Beacon Press, 1974, 181 pp., $7.50.

This work does not contain anything of political or economic interest. But then matters other than political ought to be of concern to readers of this or any other journal. And with Death of a Man one simply cannot talk about libertarianism (or any other "ism," for that matter). It is not a political book by any means—yet everyone should read it.

Some people may not be interested in philosophy, politics, economics, and so the books usually reviewed in REASON may not do much for them, however great they are. But is there anyone who has absolutely no interest in the issue of death? Staying alive and well itself discloses some concern with death—in one's success of avoiding it and forestalling it. So while this book is not for libertarians as such, it is for everyone and, thus, also for libertarians.

Lael Wertenbaker has written such a beautiful book about the last months of her husband's life after he learned he had cancer, that writing about it, for someone like myself, is almost an embarrassment. If it were not for my conviction that this is a great book and that many who read it will be completely overwhelmed by it, I would not attempt to review it. Ms. Wertenbaker writes so beautifully, and her way of presenting her husband, the late Charles Wertenbaker of Time & Life publications, through her impeccable and completely natural language, is so lively, so "unmorbid," that while the subject is often death, little of the negative emotional accompaniment of that subject enters the experience of reading this book. Instead we get a romantic narrative. What the reader will witness through this work is an extraordinary, totally unpretentious story of a good man who must die (and knows it) of a very painful and physically disabling disease. The disease turns out to be the backdrop, however, for a rich and encouraging final act in the life of a wonderful couple.

Instead of continuing with my unartful emulation of this book, let me simply say that although my wife asked that I keep my reading to myself—ordinarily we read passages of good works out loud—I simply could not contain my eagerness to share with her some of what comes through in this glorious story. I can guarantee that anyone with a love of life will experience similar responses. (I will go so far as to claim that those who do not like this book cannot have a full appreciation for living.)

Finally, dying will come our way sooner or later, and to many of us it will not be a comfortably quick process. I am certain that from the example of Charles ("Wert") Wertenbaker's confrontation with this time of his life, the attitude one may have toward dying could only improve. I am not one who, like some Existentialists, considers dying the most important experience of human life. But there is nothing to be gained from remaining ignorant of the prospect of death and a good deal learned from witnessing what might be considered a good death. "Dying is the last thing I'll have a chance to do well…I hope to hell I can," said Wert to his wife when they knew that he would die soon. This book shows, among many other things, just how well dying can be done, provided one has learned how to live well, also.

Senior Editor Tibor Machan teaches philosophy at SUNY-Fredonia, and is currently a fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford, California.