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An award-winning sports reporter, Mitch Albom earned national attention for his sports columns which were distinguished by his insight, humor, and empathy. These qualities led to a secondary career as an internationally acclaimed nonfiction author, and later novelist. Albom became a phenomenon in the late 1990s with publication of his memoir Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson (1997), about the time he spent with his former professor as he was dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Studied with Morrie Schwartz
Mitchell David Albom was born May 23,1958, in Passaic, New Jersey, the second of three children of Ira and Rhoda Albom. His father worked as a corporate executive while his mother was an interior designer. Albom earned his BA in sociology from Brandeis University in 1979. While a student at Brandeis, he was particularly influenced by one professor, Morrie Schwartz, who urged his students to disdain high-paying careers and follow their hearts instead. Though Schwartz urged him to stay in touch after graduation, Albom did not contact him for over sixteen years. Instead, Albom moved to New York City, and while briefly working on a music career as a piano player, he enrolled at Columbia University, where he earned a masters of journalism in 1981 and an MBA in 1982.
By this time, Albom had begun his newspaper career as an editor at the Queens Tribune from 1981 to 1982. He then moved on to contributing-writer positions at several different East Coast newspapers. In 1985, Albom joined the Detroit Free Press as a sports columnist and soon became a star writer.
Award-Winning Sports Writer
Writing for the Free Press, Albom dismissed the negative stereotypes about Detroit and spent several decades writing about what he considered one of the leading sports cities in the United States. At the time, Detroit, like much of Michigan, was still recovering from the economic recession of the early 1980s which deeply affected the auto industry—the state’s dominant employer. This recovery would last throughout the late 1980s, though Detroit, and Michigan as a whole, would continue to rely on the automotive industry to its economic detriment for many years to come.
As a sports writer, Albom reflected the concerns of his readers in this environment. He disdained the questionable ethical conduct, drug problems, and overinflated egos often found in the sports world. Instead, he emphasized honesty and accountability. Albom highlighted instances of athletic courage and determination while providing factual commentary on an individual or team’s performance. His ability to sympathize with fans, as well as their teams, earned him a loyal following and a reputation as a writer with a blue-collar perspective.
The quality of Albom’s sports writing has led to numerous awards. He was named the number-one sports columnist in the United States by the Associated Press Sports editors every year between 1987 and 1998. His success in print has also carried over into the broadcast media. Albom had also branched into writing books. In addition to the first compilation of his sports columns, The Live Albom: The Best of Detroit Free Press Sports Columnist Mitch Albom (1988), he also helped legendary University of Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler write his autobiography, Bo: The Bo Schembechler Story (1988). In this book, Albom underscored how the seemingly churlish coach was a really a sincere family man whose surly demeanor was a deliberate act.
Success with Tuesdays with Morrie
Albom continued to write sports-related books in the early 1990s. Watching Nightline one night in 1995, Albom saw his former professor Morrie Schwartz discussing his battles with ALS while remaining cheerful, pragmatic, and writing a book about the final stages of life. ALS is a neurodegenerative disease in which specific nerve cells—motor neurons that control movement—are damaged or killed. The cause of the disease is unknown. It is always fatal.
Soon thereafter, Albom went to visit Schwartz at his home in Massachusetts on a Tuesday, and returned on the same day of the week for the next fourteen weeks, till Schwartz died. Albom wrote a book based on their conversations to help defray the family’s medical expenses, and to share his revelation that his dying professor was a hap pier, more peaceful person than he was, though Albom was younger, healthier, and more successful. The book became the best-selling nonfiction book in the United States in 1998, spent at least four years on the best-seller list, and was later made into a popular television movie.
Published Two More Novels
Because of the popularity of Tuesdays with Morrie, Albom’s career expanded as he began writing more often about non-sports topics and became a sought-after public speaker. Continuing to challenge himself, Albom published his first novel in 2003, Five People You Meet in Heaven. The stories are based on stories his uncle told him as a child, and concern a grizzled old man named Eddie who does not learn his true worth as a person until after his death. Five People You Meet in Heaven was also a best-seller for Albom, with at least eight million copies in print.
After writing his first produced stage play—the comedy Duck Hunter Shoots Angel was staged at the Purple Rose Theater in Chelsea, Michigan, in 2004—Albom returned to novels with One More Day (2006). In this book, a washed-up athlete, Charles “Chick” Benetto, fails in a suicide attempt. Yet, while he is injured, he is somehow transported to his childhood home and gains self-knowledge from the ghost of his deceased mother.
Albom continues to live in Detroit, where he writes about sports and other topics for the Free Press, hosts his syndicated radio program, The Mitch Albom Show, and produces popular literature.
Works in Literary Context
Albom has written several best-selling, non-sports books that emphasize the importance of self-awareness, the idea that life matters, and the value of having convictions and ideals. Often using the power of death as a springboard to a better understanding of self and how to live, his works are intended to inspire readers to change their lives for the better instead of focusing on such pursuits as fame and fortune. Albom also emphasizes that time is not endless. As an author, Albom was greatly influenced by his college mentor, Schwartz, who was the focus of Tues days with Morrie.
Importance of Living with Ideals
In his non-sports books, Albom often underscores the importance of living a life that is reflective, appreciative, and, in some ways, idealistic. In Tuesdays with Morrie for example, Albom relates how, without realizing it, he had slowly abandoned his youthful ideals, and become cynical, spiritually shallow, and materialistic. Working around the clock to maintain his career had left him with little time for reflection. Schwartz, Albom noted, helped his former student to refocus his life, and the pair discussed such weighty topics as fear, aging, greed, family, and forgiveness. A similar message is imparted in Albom’s novel For One More Day. In that work, the main character comes to understand how he should live his life.
Death and the Value of Life
In his popular writing, Albom often uses the concept of death to highlight the importance of life. In Tuesdays with Morrie, the dying Schwartz encourages Albom to slow down and appreciate the life he has been given. In Albom’s novels, this idea is explored more deeply. At the center of The Five People You Meet in Heaven is Eddie, an older, unappreciated veteran who works as a maintenance man at an amusement park and dies while trying to save the life of a little girl. It is not until his death that the value of his life becomes clear to him and the reader. In heaven, Eddie meets five people who help him gain understanding about life’s meaning and his own value. Similarly, in For One More Day, Chick tries to kill himself after the death of his mother, Pauline. Only injured, he finds himself transported to his boyhood home. There, Pauline’s ghost returns to life for one more day to present him with basic truths about himself and their shared past.
Works in Critical Context
While Albom is highly regarded as a sports writer, many critics are dismissive of his non-sports books as sentimental and overly simplistic in how they address major themes and ideas. Tuesdays with Morrie may have been wildly popular with readers, but a number of reviewers found fault with the book as well as Albom’s two novels. They have often cited these works’ schmaltzy language and predictable plots.
Tuesdays with Morrie
Critics were divided over Tuesdays with Morrie; many found the book generally facile, but others contended that its message was indeed inspiring. In the New York Times, Alain de Botton was critical of Schwartz’s words of wisdom. Botton wrote that ”One gets whiffs of Jesus, the Buddha, Epicurus, Montaigne and Erik Erikson” from his discourses. Botton admits that Schwartz gave ”true and sometimes touching pieces of advice” but that such words ”don’t add up to a very wise book. ” In contrast, an anonymous reviewer in Publishers Weekly concluded that Tuesday with Morrie was ”an emotionally rich book and a deeply affecting memorial to a wise mentor.” People contributor William Plummer responded positively to the book, noting
the reader hears Morrie advise Mitch to slow down and savor the moment …to give up striving for bigger toys and, above all, to invest himself in love. Familiar pronouncements, of course, but what makes them fresh is Morrie’s eloquence, his lack of self-pity. . . and his transcendent humor, even in the face of death.
The Five People You Meet in Heaven
As with Tuesdays with Morrie, critics were divided over the way Albom delivered his message in The Five People You Meet in Heaven. Writing in Book, reviewer Don McLeese noted that ”Eddie’s story mainly serves as an excuse for a string of quasi-platitudes, warmed-over wisdom.” More positively, an anonymous reviewer in Publishers Weekly commented, ”One by one, these mostly unexpected characters remind [Eddie] that we all live in a vast web of interconnection . . . and that loyalty and love matter to a degree that we can never fathom.” And Booklist contributor Brad Hooper called the novel ”A sweet book that makes you smile but is not gooey with overwrought sentiment.”
- De Botton, Alain. Review of Tuesdays with Morrie. New York Times (November 23, 1997): 20.
- Hooper, Brad. Review of Five People You Meet inHeaven. Booklist (September 1, 2003): 5.
- McLeese, Don. Review of Five People You Meet in Heaven. Book (September 1, 2003): 5.
- Plummer, William. ”Memento Morrie: Morrie Schwartz, While Dying, Teaches Writer Mitch Albom the Secrets of Living.” People (January 12, 1998): 141.
- Review of Five People You Meet in Heaven. Publishers Weekly (July 28, 2003): 18.
- Review of Tuesdays with Morrie. Publishers Weekly (June 30, 1997): 60.
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