As Edward Kennedy is lauded for his tremendous accomplishments as a Senator, Joyce Carol Oates remembers a voiceless victim from his past.

From the Guardian [link no longer available]:

‘There are no second acts in American lives’– this dour pronouncement of F Scott Fitzgerald has been many times refuted, and at no time more appropriately than in reference to the late Senator Ted Kennedy, whose death was announced yesterday. Indeed, it might be argued that Senator Kennedy’s career as one of the most influential of 20th-century Democratic politicians, an iconic figure as powerful, and as morally enigmatic, as President Bill Clinton, whom in many ways Kennedy resembled, was a consequence of his notorious behaviour at Chappaquiddick bridge in July 1969. …

Kennedy chose to flee the scene, leaving the young woman to die an agonising death not of drowning but of suffocation over a period of hours. Incredibly, it was 10 hours before Kennedy reported the accident, by which time he’d consulted a family lawyer. The senator’s explanation for this unconscionable, despicable, unmanly and inexplicable behaviour was never convincing: he claimed that he’d struck his head and was “confused” and “exhausted” from diving and trying to rescue the young woman and had gone home to bed. …

Yet if one weighs the life of a single young woman against the accomplishments of the man President Obama has called the greatest Democratic senator in history, what is one to think?

In 1992, JCO published Black Water, a Pulitzer-finalist that reimagined the Chappaquiddick tragedy in the present time, and from the point-of-view of the drowned victim.



  1. With each word she writes, I love her more. Whether it be fiction or nonfiction, she and I seem to agree on nearly everything. This included.


  2. I loved reading her novel Black Water, the drowning victim’s point of view is breath-taking.

    I also agree with Joyce Carol Oates’ opinion of Ted Kennedy wholeheartedly. This man has been overestimated, both as a human being and as a politician.


  3. I have always loved the way JCO writes–with such ease and elegance. However, her elegant words about the fascinating and flawed Edward Kennedy can not erase their disturbing and vile meaning. Her insinuation that the privileged life of a powerful politician(who sometimes displayed incoherent rhetoric and logic) far out-weighed the stolen life of a young woman is deeply troubling. We will never know what Mary Jo’s potential could have been. Could it, or that of her future offspring, have outshone Kennedy’s uneven legacy? We will never know the answer to that nor should we have the hubris to pretend such knowledge. We will never know because the weakness in Kennedy’s character denied us the answer.

    Shame on you Ms. Oaks. I can no longer read your words after reading your Kennedy eulogy.


    • You seem to have completely misunderstood the import of Joyce Carol Oates’s remarks on Senator Kennedy. She is not asking us to weigh the senator’s life as more meaningful or valuable than Mary Jo Kopechne’s life. Rather, she is asking how someone who allowed her to die can have managed to be eulogized as the greatest democratic senator in history. She is also asking us to question whether his many accomplishments in some way balance out this irreversible tragedy.
      As always, Joyce Carol Oates refuses to simplify or back away from difficult, morally ambiguous situations. That’s why she is so vitally important to our nation’s literature and its conscience.


      • Wonderful comment on JCO and Kennedy. I understand the Kennedy’s Foundation paid Mary Jo’s family 50,000. Think of thowing 50,000 into the brackish waters off the Chappaquiddick Bridge. Shine on Ms Oates.


  4. I believe that every human being has a right to live and to survive, no matter whether he or she is shining, outstanding or fascinating in any way.

    Even if this young woman in the novel Black Water was the dullest person in the world, the man driving her into the marshes had no right to let her die. He is described as an alcoholic, a liar, a murderer, a cheap guy with an inflated ego.

    I greatly appreciate Joyce Carol Oates’ ethical approach to life in her writings and find her one of the best writers worldwide, worthy of the next literary Nobel Prize for Literature.


  5. It is astonishing that we are contemporaries of a person as monumental as Joyce Carol Oates. It’s as if she were plucked from some time in classical history of centuries past and dropped in our midst. We are lucky devils indeed!


  6. Oates’ article continues with the following two paragraphs:

    The poet John Berryman once wondered: “Is wickedness soluble in art?”. One might rephrase, in a vocabulary more suitable for our politicized era: “Is wickedness soluble in good deeds?”

    This paradox lies at the heart of so much of public life: individuals of dubious character and cruel deeds may redeem themselves in selfless actions. Fidelity to a personal code of morality would seem to fade in significance as the public sphere, like an enormous sun, blinds us to all else.


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