On Uncommon Ground: J. Anthony Lukas, 1933-1997

Article excerpt

IN A SHALLOW, UNSERIOUS TIME, HE remained deep and serious--about his craft, his country and, sadly, about his own imperfections. When he killed himself last week at 64, J. Anthony Lukas had just completed a book about bitter class warfare in turn-of-the-century America. He was despondent over it, certain it didn't measure up to the impossibly high standards he set for himself. In fact, the manuscript of "Big Trouble" is said to be brilliant, his usual sprawling mix of freight-train narrative, prodigious intellect and obsessive research. Long before this book, Lukas, a fanatic pinball player, lit up the creaky machine of postwar nonfiction. No work has better captured the cleavages of race and class in America than "Common Ground," his masterpiece. No author was more revered by his peers.

The son of a New York lawyer and an actress who committed suicide when he was 8, Lukas was a journalistic prodigy, breaking big stories on McCarthyism while still writing for The Harvard Crimson. After covering the Congo and India for The New York Times, he won his first of two Pulitzers in 1968 for a piece about the life and death of a wealthy Connecticut girl caught up in the counterculture. In expanding it into a book about young people struggling against their parents, "Don't Shoot--We Are Your Children!" Lukas wrote: "The experience of examining closely their assumptions has taught me one valuable lesson: the compelling need to constantly re-examine my own. …