WAYLAND — Her young life ended two years ago in a tragic car accident five days after her college graduation. Her commencement essay in the Yale campus newspaper quickly went viral, drawing more than 1.4 million views. In an outpouring of tributes to the 22-year-old writer, many hailed her as the “voice of her generation.”
Now comes a collection of Marina Keegan’s essays and stories, being published this week by Scribner. Titled “The Opposite of Loneliness,” after the essay that brought Keegan worldwide attention, it marks a bittersweet milestone for the author’s family, friends, and academic mentors, all of whom have struggled with her loss.
And yet, they say, what a gift Keegan has left behind. Not only in her written words — she also wrote plays, poetry, and literary criticism — but also in her legacy of social activism and fierce belief in leading a life of purpose, not privilege. That was the challenge laid down to her Yale University classmates in “Loneliness,” and it has powerfully resonated ever since, according to many close to Keegan.
Keegan’s writings, and the response, have provided at least some measure of comfort to her family.
The hundreds of e-mails and letters received by the Keegans have been “little pieces of light in the darkness,” said her mother, Tracy , during an often emotional interview at the family’s Wayland home. “Marina would have been touched and proud to know she could create positive change in the world.”
The book includes an introduction by author Anne Fadiman, one of Keegan’s Yale writing instructors, who helped collect and cull the work, some of it written when Keegan was in high school. She was assisted by Keegan’s parents, several Yale classmates, and Beth McNamara, who taught Keegan creative writing and English literature at the Buckingham Browne & Nichols School in Cambridge.
Following her death, friends and family scrambled to preserve and share as much of Keegan’s work as they could find. Initially this was done for their own benefit, they say, but then, beginning a year ago, with the aim of reaching a wider audience. Fadiman and others will read from “Loneliness” this month at bookstore events in Wellesley, Brookline, and Cambridge.
A few pieces were recovered from Keegan’s laptop, badly damaged when the car Keegan was in — driven by her boyfriend — hit a guard rail and flipped over en route to celebrate her father’s birthday in Wellfleet.
One of her stories, “Cold Pastoral,” was posthumously published on The New Yorker’s website; Keegan had interned in the magazine’s fiction department (later at The Paris Review as well) and had accepted a job in the magazine counsel’s office, one she never got a chance to start.
The stories and essays, 18 in all, are often humorous and frequently poke fun at the author’s own idiocycracies. Few, though, pack the emotional punch of the title essay, both for its haunting theme — that it’s never too late to fashion a life filled with meaning and joy — and for its timing, so close to when Keegan’s own life was cut tragically short.
The opposite of loneliness, Keegan writes, “is not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together.”
“The best years of our lives are not behind us,” she goes on, vowing to make the most of whatever lies ahead, even if she and her classmates “never live up to our perfect fantasies of our future selves.”
Flashing the tart humor that’s sprinkled throughout her writing, Keegan notes some classmates already know the gilded paths they’ll soon be taking. “To you I say both congratulations and you suck,” she writes bluntly.
Ending on a hopeful note, though, Keegan dismisses as “comical” the notion that it is too late, at 20-something years of age, to chart a more rewarding course in life. “Let’s make something happen to this world,” she urges.
Part of what made Keegan such an exceptional young writer, Fadiman says, was her utter lack of pretension or false maturity.
“Marina was never afraid to sound her own age and had a confidence most young writers lack,” Fadiman said last week. Keegan’s talents, she added, were matched by a determination to forge a career in writing, no matter how difficult that might have been.
Nevertheless, Fadiman’s book introduction does not idealize Keegan. Rather, she portrays a brilliant, complicated young woman whose writings reflect the aspirations and anxieties of a generation just entering adulthood.
“High on their posthumous pedestals, the dead become hard to see,” Fadiman writes. “Fierce, edgy, and provocative,” she continues, Keegan was no teacher’s pet. “If you wanted a smooth ride, Marina wasn’t your vehicle.”
While in college, Keegan pursued a myriad of passions besides writing, which earned her a slew of awards. She started the Occupy Yale movement and wrote an article protesting Wall Street recruiting on campus. She chaired the Yale College Democrats and worked on President Obama’s 2008 campaign in New Hampshire, earning an invitation to the Democratic National Convention that year.
She wrote and performed poetry (snippets can be found on YouTube) and was a talented playwright whose play “Utility Monster” was staged at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater on the one-year anniversary of her death. “Independents,” a musical on which she collaborated, was staged at the New York Fringe Festival and earned a New York Times Critic’s Pick.
Another of Keegan’s Yale mentors was Harold Bloom, the eminent scholar and critic. Still haunted by her death — Keegan also worked as his research assistant and took on a familial role in his household — Bloom says Keegan appeared destined to lead a writerly life.
“More than that, in terms of her generation, Marina was an activist,” Bloom said by phone from New Haven. “She encouraged her friends and classmates to look at the world in a different way,” and not simply to pursue a life of monied privilege.
Bloom added, with a poetic flourish, “She had not only ethos and logos — high character and intelligence — but the deepest kind of pathos as well. An immense capacity for feeling the suffering of others.”
Tracy Keegan recalls her daughter struggling with a desire to create art and her social and political activism. Nodding in agreement, Kevin Keegan, her husband, said Marina had once considered becoming a lawyer, then asked herself: Is this really what I came to Yale to do?
“That’s when she put [the writing] in another gear,” he said. It was fascinating, he added, that his daughter wrote so often about mortality in her essays, stories, and plays, not a subject most 20-year-olds would dwell upon.
Keegan’s parents have stayed in touch with Keegan’s boyfriend and Yale classmate, Michael Glocksch, who fell asleep at the wheel and escaped the car accident without serious injury. They appeared in court by his side and supported the decision not to file criminal charges against him. Kevin Keegan calls him “a wonderful young man,” someone who loved Marina deeply and was devastated by her death.
Their private grief notwithstanding, the Keegans remain stunned by the number of e-mails they have received and their emotional intensity. Teenagers and 80-somethings have written about how life-changing Marina’s words have been to them.
“I’ve lived the last 12 or so years thinking of all the ‘woulda, coulda, shoulda’s,’ ” wrote one 30-year-old mother. “It’s truly amazing that the words of a young woman I have never met can wake me the hell up, inspire me” to change her outlook on life.
An aspiring writer in her 40s wrote, “Marina’s words are like a tonic to me, at this hour when I am battling so many uncertainties.” A 65-year old Vietnam War veteran said that after reading her essay, “I’ve learned in life to be Thankful. I am Truly Thankful.” A 65-year old grandfather said Marina’s words had inspired him to run for Congress. Many said they had printed out “Loneliness” and posted it in their homes. Some sent in songs and poems written for Marina, and at least two books have been dedicated to her.
In reading her daughter’s journals, Tracy Keegan says she has gotten a fuller picture of Marina’s inner life, painful as it has been to digest personal material she kept to herself.
“She was unbelievably mindful and determined to have what she called an examined life,” she said. “She wrote down things like, ‘Strive for open empathy. Strive for humility.’ ”
The accident and its aftermath have been “horrible, devastating,” continued Tracy, her voice choked with emotion. “Like any parent, I wonder: Why couldn’t it have been me?”
“Obviously this has been a painful journey, but one I’ve felt compelled to take, to gather her writing,” she acknowledged. “Marina was hard working, but also very brave. To open up about your foibles and flaws, to acknowledge them and work through them, takes courage.”
Finally, she said, “Marina would be offended if people only read her because she’s dead.” Rather, her parents hope she will be read, and remembered, for what she had to say.
Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at email@example.com.