James Salant, RIP.

I’ve been putting off writing this because it’s so hard for me to do and such depressing news to saddle you all with, but Jim Salant, who commented here as jamessal, was an integral and much-loved part of this community, and I felt you should know as soon as I could bring myself to tell you. So: Jim died in his sleep on Sunday, August 25, in the Maine house he shared with his wife Robin.

Even as I write those words I don’t quite believe them. He was thirty-five, for God’s sake. He’d finally fought his way through a lot of the hard things he’d been dealing with for years, and he was writing so well I couldn’t wait for the next installment of the novel he was working on. (He had spent years writing a book of TV criticism, and when he set it aside to write the novel I was overjoyed; as I told him, “you were born to write fiction, and it always gladdens my heart to get more of it.”) He was enjoying life (though he was grieving his mother, who had died a few weeks earlier), and sounding more upbeat than he had in a long time. Things were looking good.

He must have contacted me first in 2007, having found the blog and wanting to talk about language. He sent me his book Leaving Dirty Jersey (which I called “that rara avis, a drug memoir that’s neither tough-guy fake nor weepily repentant, told in straightforward, no-bullshit style and ending exactly where it should”) and I sent him Jim Quinn’s American Tongue and Cheek, which accomplished what I hoped it would — he wrote: “Both of you have totally converted me. I’m a little embarrassed that it’s taken me a few years to get here, but I now think that if writers want to communicate ideas clearly with as many people as possible (and not merely feel superior by knowing obscure “rules” that nobody follows), then they shouldn’t waste time whining every time a word changes meaning; they should note each change and try to keep up. I can’t wait to start arguing with prescriptive-leaning friends.” And he argued eloquently, here and elsewhere, not only about language but about every form of prejudice and misuse of history. History! He was constantly investigating different aspects of it, and loved sharing what he learned as he loved sharing everything good. What a good-hearted, generous man he was! Everywhere I turn I see things he gave me: books, CDs, whiskey, and more books. And every time I visit an old LH thread I see his comments and feel a fresh pang.

I was at his wedding in 2010 (I wrote about it here), and he and Robin visited Hadley a couple of times; there should have been more chances to get together. To tell the truth, I was expecting him to be the one to write a memorial for me, hopefully many years down the line. I’m sure he would have done a better job than this. But it will have to do. Send your best thoughts Robin’s way; her father died earlier this year, and she deserved much better. I’ll close this with a quote from Jim’s beloved Beckett; everybody else quotes the end of The Unnamable, but here’s a passage from near the start:

Malone is there. Of his mortal liveliness little trace remains. He passes before me at doubtless regular intervals, unless it is I who pass before him. No, once and for all, I do not move. He passes, motionless. But there will not be much on the subject of Malone, from whom there is nothing further to be hoped. Personally I do not intend to be bored. It was while watching him pass that I wondered if we cast a shadow. Impossible to say. He passes close by me, a few feet away, slowly, always in the same direction. I am almost sure it is he. The brimless hat seems to me conclusive. With his two hands he props up his jaw. He passes without a word. Perhaps he does not see me. One of these days I’ll challenge him. I’ll say, I don’t know, I’ll say something, I’ll think of something when the time comes. There are no days here, but I use the expression. I see him from the waist up, he stops at the waist, as far as I am concerned. The trunk is erect. But I do not know whether he is on his feet or on his knees. He might also be seated. I see him in profile. Sometimes I wonder if it is not Molloy. Perhaps it is Molloy, wearing Malone’s hat. But it is more reasonable to suppose it is Malone, wearing his own hat. Oh look, there is the first thing, Malone’s hat. I see no other clothes. Perhaps Molloy is not here at all. Could he be, without my knowledge? The place is no doubt vast. Dim intermittent lights suggest a kind of distance. To tell the truth I believe they are all here, at least from Murphy on, I believe we are all here, but so far I have only seen Malone. Another hypothesis, they were here, but are here no longer. I shall examine it after my fashion. Are there other pits, deeper down? To which one accedes by mine? Stupid obsession with depth. Are there other places set aside for us and this one where I am, with Malone, merely their narthex? I thought I had done with preliminaries. No, no, we have all been here forever, we shall all be here forever, I know it.


  1. Oh man. Ohhhhhh man. The good die young (but not “only”, of course).

    I often use the word narthex in Narthex dorex, a pseudo-pretentious way of saying ‘Nothing doing’.

  2. I should mention that Jim’s mom, Lydia, occasionally commented here as dameragnel.

  3. Sad, sad news. He commented here that very day. I don’t know what to say. There’s no justice in life.

  4. And a good comment, too; thanks for reminding me.

  5. I’m very sorry, LH. Thanks for writing this fine tribute, for those of us who didn’t know him.

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    Beth speaks for all of us.

  7. David Marjanović says

    In time he recognized this loss
    As the end of his journey
    And returned to Uruk.

    Perhaps, he feared,
    His people would not share
    The sorrow that he knew.

    He entered the city and asked a blind man
    If he had ever heard the name Enkidu,
    And the old man shrugged and shook his head,
    Then turned away,
    As if to say it is impossible
    To keep the names of friends
    Whom we have lost.

  8. For a moment I had trouble taking in the title. James Salant? Is this another obituary for a giant of linguistics? But wait, James Salant… Wasn’t he a contributor on LH? But it can’t be that James Salant, if my foggy, unreliable memory is correct … James Salant was a young man….

    So I opened up the post and yes, it was jamessal. I’m sorry for your loss, which is our loss too. He always wrote exuberant, if somewhat rambling comments. He didn’t hide his feelings behind impersonal academic language, always straight from the heart, leaving himself vulnerable to attacks from unkind critics if they chose to. It was a mark of his sincerity that few (if any) chose to exploit that vulnerability.

    You often wrote of him, his wedding, and his visits. Through you, we knew him too. We will all miss him.

  9. This is terribly unfortunate. There are so many interesting personages that I meet online, and I sometimes get a bit wistful about the fact that I will almost certainly never actually meet most of these individuals in person. It is always sad when someone like that—who I am sure would have been fascinating and edifying to know better—passes away, and particularly sad when their death is so untimely.

  10. Very sad. And Brett, that was well-said, I feel that way, too.

  11. To tell the truth, I was expecting him to be the one to write a memorial for me

    And what a job Jim would have made of it. You meant so much to him partly because, having skipped formal education he appreciated your erudition and the clarity of your writing on any subject, but really because you two enjoyed the same things – food & drink, poetry and any writing – and so offered each other insights in the spirit well known to us at Language Hat. And both of you so sensitive to other people’s feelings, so polite, I love that. I once got an email from Steve, some time in ’08: would it be all right if he gave my address to someone I might enjoy discussing… but please don’t worry if it was inconvenient. And then the first of so many from Jim, Thank you so much, I do hope I’m not… Perhaps it’s just the contrast with Jim’s vivid and sweary other side that he’d honed during his Leaving Dirty Jersey drug-using streetlife days, always funny and managed, like everything, with originality.

    Robin sent me, in the circumstances, a lovely and touching email two days later that began with the words, Jim died on Sunday. It was such a shock that my first thought was But, but, that’s impossible we’re in the middle of a polite discussion about the relative qualities of a TV show, Ripper Street (it had started at Language Hat: like Steve, Jim could discuss and without pretentiousness bring insight to any aspect of high or low culture).

    The sister of Jens Stoltenberg, Norwegian former PM and head of NATO, was a well-known (in Norway) recovered heroin & meth user. It may be a common occurrence: after a few clean years you think everything’s been resolved and then, like a plot twist, suddenly a heart attack in their sleep and they’re gone. The life Robin and Jim built in Maine by the ocean is enviable. They had worked so hard – does anyone remember their ice cream making business in New Jersey? Jim mentioned it here, it deserved a novel to itself: the getting up at 5 am after having scrubbed the machine the night before to prepare some really exotic hitherto-untried flavor. Robin is a gourmet professional cook who has written about food and restaurants as well as being an innately talented landscape photographer; each appreciated the other’s skill and knowledge and they worshipped each other. I wish I’d gone to their wedding, I wish they’d come here. Both events nearly happened.

    The novel Jim had just begun is so good. I can’t wait to read the next

  12. Sad news indeed!

    But life is sure unfair. Two cousins, aged 16 and 20, drowned. And a younger brother of the 16 year old’s lost his battle to cancer on August 25, 2013, just two days before he would have turned 56.

    James Salant, we will miss you greatly. Rest in peace!

  13. He was the same age as my daughter is. That’s what brings it home to me. I’m just sitting here staring.

  14. Roger: I’m just sitting here staring.

    Yes, exactly. I’ve been like that since it happened. Steve too, I think.

  15. Yup.

  16. What it brings back is when my friend Allan died in 1998; he wasn’t much older, and he and his wife had just bought a house and had a kid… but he had leukemia, and I’d been visiting him at home and in the hospital for months and playing Blood Count obsessively and was in some measure prepared for it, even if his sister and I denied to ourselves and everyone else that he was dying. This came like snow on the head, as the Russians say, and it’s going to take me a long time to accept it, let alone come to terms with it.

  17. I am very, very sorry to hear this news, languagehat.

  18. Mattias Hägglund says

    I’m sorry to say that I am unfamiliar with this forum; I only found it while looking up Jim while I remember him. I only just learned of his passing yesterday from Robin’s Instagram.
    I was the bartender at their wedding all those years ago. Yesterday would have been their anniversary. Jim, Robin and I met when they started coming into the bar I worked, and we became fast friends. As you say, he was a remarkably generous person, thoughtful, and funny as hell. We were the same age, and found a lot of ways to connect very quickly in a time where I really didn’t have many friends. I think that was just the power of his personality and his charisma.
    Time went on and I moved away, and we fell into being friends who only caught up over the phone every few years. It was a shock to learn yesterday, and I’m so sad for Robin. Life can be so cruel. Thank you for the kind remarks.

  19. Thanks for commenting; just seeing your name brought back memories of that wonderful wedding (and the wonderful drink you made for me — I mentioned it in that earlier post). And yes, life can be cruel.

  20. May his memory be eternal and may his family and friends find, in time, comfort and peace.

    This might be as good an opening as any to mention something I’m not sure I’ve ever really said here all that explicitly — I transitioned from being an occasional to a regular-if-not-inveterate participant in this forum during the months in 2008 after my first wife had died suddenly, aged 38. It was extraordinarily helpful to me at that difficult time to be able to participate in such a thoughtful and amiable community made up of fascinating folks who didn’t know me in real life and thus, unlike those who did know me in real life, weren’t constantly checking in in tones of concern to see how I was coping. Not that all those people who did know me in real life and were super-supportive weren’t vital, but the occasional change of pace was very important. A belated but heartfelt thanks to all of you.

  21. I’m very glad LH was a comfort to you, and I extend my belated condolences for your loss. Thanks for mentioning that.

  22. Yes, thanks, JW. It’s another example of “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”. I’m very sorry about your wife and very glad you took advantage of the change of pace.

  23. was in some measure prepared for it

    Well, I don’t know…

    At the end of January, an aunt—the mother of the 20 year old’s upthread, to be precise—called to check on me. We chatted for a few minutes and hung up. Scarcely three hours later there was a phone call and a frantic voice screamed: “Mother is dead! Mother is dead! I don’t know what do do!” and the line went dead. It took me a few minutes to figure out who it was.

    The aunt expected to celebrate her 80th anniversary this July… She survived her son—and her husband, who had died barely a year later than their son—by 34+ years.

    Where there is life, death is just a few steps behind, alas!

  24. Michael Eochaidh says

    I lost my brother to a heroin overdose when he was far too young, and he was still older than James was. This has to be worse.

    My sympathies to Robin and to everyone else his life touched.

  25. Adrian Flores says

    Jim was a good dude, went to school with him back in our hometown Princeton. He always had a good vibe with him. Like the rest of us, it’s hard to hear someone you knew gone so soon, I hope his family and friends find strength during their loss. All due Jim, you was a cool one.

  26. Oh terrible. I extend my condolences to James’s family and friends. Despite my recent heremity, I fondly remember him via his commentary as a solid enhancement to the discussion & camaraderie here.

  27. Oh, no! So tragically young.

    May his memory be a blessing.

  28. Oh, thanks, that’s a nice picture.

  29. Yeah, I liked it too. Robin’s going to let me know when the NYT obit appears.

  30. I saw Robin now has a professional instagram site for her photography, not before time.

  31. Damn, I was just searching to see if he had any other books I haven’t read yet and this came up. Very sorry to hear. James had an incredible gift for writing. His ability to accurately portray the ups and downs so many families have had to deal with was uncanny. I never met him. I only know him through his writing. But like so many good authors, he had the ability to make you feel like you were walking in his shoes when you read his work. Condolences and best of luck to his family.

  32. John Cowan says

    It was extraordinarily helpful to me at that difficult time to be able to participate in such a thoughtful and amiable community made up of fascinating folks who didn’t know me in real life and thus, unlike those who did know me in real life, weren’t constantly checking in in tones of concern to see how I was coping. Not that all those people who did know me in real life and were super-supportive weren’t vital, but the occasional change of pace was very important. A belated but heartfelt thanks to all of you.

    This is exactly how I have been feeling for the last three months. Thanks, JWB.

  33. J.W. Brewer says

    You’re very welcome, JC. Looking back at the context where I wrote this I note a response by our departed colleague AJP, felled in the interim by the inexorable progress of Thanatos.

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