February 9, 2010

Hail & Farewell: Timothy McSweeney

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The man Dave Eggers named his McSweeney’s Quarterly after (full name: Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern) has died, according to an a brief essay by Eggers posted on the magazine’s website. Timothy McSweeney was 67 years old. Eggers first encountered McSweeney after receiving a series of mysterious letters from him: he made a habit of sending confusing “notes written on pamphlets and other sorts of mail that required no postage” to Eggers and his mother which said he “was hoping to visit soon.” As it turned out, McSweeney was a mental patient and sent the letters from an institution.

None of this was know to Eggers in 1998, when he got the idea to use the name for his magazine. It simply seemed appropriate: “It made sense on many levels. I was able to honor my Irish side of the family and also allude to this mysterious man and the sense of possibility and even wonder he’d brought to our suburban home.”

In 2000, Eggers learned the real story of Timothy McSweeney, who had studied and later taught at Rutgers University before suffering from serious bouts of alcoholism and mental illness and, eventually, being institutionalized. According to Eggers “Knowing that the journal bore the name of a real person who had endured years of struggle threw melancholy shadows over the enterprise. But the McSweeneys insisted that the use of the name was acceptable, even appropriate, given Timothy’s background as an artist and search for connection and meaning through the written word. Since 2000 we’ve implicitly dedicated all issues to the real Timothy.”

Kelly Burdick is the former executive editor of Melville House.

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