Opinion

Dan Wakefield, Multifaceted Writer on a Spiritual Journey, Dies at 91

Dan Wakefield, a protean and prolific journalist, novelist, screenwriter, critic and essayist who explored subjects as diverse as life in New York City in the 1950s, the American civil rights movement, the wounds that war inflicts on individuals and society, and, not least, his personal journey from religious faith to atheism and back again, died on Wednesday in Miami. He was 91.

His death, at a hospice facility, was confirmed by Will Higgins, who from 2016 to 2017 hosted a public radio show with Mr. Wakefield, “Uncle Dan’s Story Hour,” on which Mr. Wakefield told stories about his life and career from the Red Key Tavern, an old bar in Indianpolis, his hometown. His health began to decline late last year after he had a stroke, prompting his move to Miami, Mr. Higgins said.

Mr. Wakefield achieved early and stunning success as a writer and was still writing well into his last years. He had more than 20 books to his credit; most of them were nonfiction, but he also wrote novels. Critics and other authors praised his work as showing a reporter’s instincts combined with graceful prose.

He began to build his reputation shortly after graduating from Columbia University in 1955 with honors in English, writing articles, essays and stories for Esquire, The Nation, Playboy, Commentary and other magazines. Not long after his graduation, The Nation sent him to Mississippi to cover the Emmet Till murder trial, one of the catalysts of the civil rights movement.

After the trial was over, with an all-white jury’s acquittal of the white men involved in one of the most heinous racial murders in American history, Mr. Wakefield wrote, “The crowds are gone and this Delta town is back to its silent, solid life that is based on cotton and the proposition that a whole race of men was created to pick it.”

He went on to find acclaim before he was 27, with the publication in 1959 of his first book, “Island in the City: The World of Spanish Harlem,” an account of the six months he spent living in a Puerto Rican neighborhood of Manhattan.

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