Literary exits: Nicholas Delbanco on artistic lives cut short

Like other successful contemporary novelists – John Updike, for instance, or A.S. Byatt (take your pick) -- Nicholas Delbanco is at ease as both creator and critic. In his oeuvre, several critical studies and essay collections walk alongside his acclaimed novels, including, most recently, Sherbrookes, a reconstitution of his trilogy about a Vermont family as a single work (think of Peter Matthiessen's remaking of his own Watson trilogy as the mammoth-sized novel Shadow Country).

Screen Shot 2013-11-05 at 4.20.50 PMWhether he’s writing for Harper’s or in the pages of his books, Delbanco approaches the process of creation with a careful understanding of its nuances and pitfalls that only a practiced scrivener can appreciate. His critical works include Group Portrait, The Lost Suitcase, Anywhere Out of the World, and Lastingness, which all ruminate on the nature of the writer's craft.

Now joining them is The Art of Youth, which looks at three talents whose art (and lives) ended early: Stephen Crane, Dora Carrington, and George Gershwin. The book is enjoyed a favorable critical reception (for more information, go to the links at the end of this post), and Nick generously agreed to provide some insights into his book, and its subjects, in the following exchange for Call of the Siren.


There are so many young artists to choose from--how did you finally arrive at a book that tells the tragic stories of Gershwin, Crane and Carrington?

I did spend a lot of time trying to narrow the field and to pick those artists on whom I wished to focus.  There are some creative personalities who died so famously young it seemed redundant to write about them; others have done so before.

Like who?

Think of Mozart, Mendelssohn and Schubert as musicians, Byron, Rimbaud, and Shelley as writers, Raphael, Giorgione and Caravaggio as painters—and you’ll see what I mean.  All of them were major players; none of them reached forty—but I’d have little new to say about those old young masters.

Crane and Gershwin are scarcely unknown, and—even in the case of Dora Carrington, the least celebrated of my figures—there are first-rate biographies.  Yet I did feel I could add to the store of knowledge or opinion about my particular subjects.  Too, I wanted to write about people who are of our time though not precisely in it, and where we have the advantage of hindsight.  Between the three of them they seem to me to cover the terrain.

George_GershwinThere's so much brightness around your portrait of Gershwin, but not around Carrington and Crane.

Gershwin's the only one who really seems to deserve the question "what if" if he had lived. In fact, in your book you share that sentiment when you write about him: 

"one cannot help but wonder what would have happened next. The upward thrust of his career seemed, in effect, unstoppable--or, rather, what stopped him was death. What if, what else, what next?"

What makes him so different from the other two in his arrested artistry--was it because he didn't sabotage himself the way Carrington and Crane seemed to do?

As I say in The Art of Youth, there are three major categories or subsets of the field.  The first—as in the case of Gershwin—is when an accident (a bullet, a car-crash, in his case a fatal brain tumor) cuts short both the life and career.  It seems as though the trajectory was otherwise “straight up.”

The second is when the artist him-or-herself does so—and is, as in Carrington’s case, a suicide.

And the third, as with Crane, has to do with a lingering illness.  Like that of his great predecessor, John Keats (who died at 25 though Crane made it to the ripe old age of 28) the career was cut short by consumption.  What he might have achieved in his thirties is impossible to know.

StephenCraneFor Crane, there was no long apprenticeship. When you write that "we're in the presence of an artist at work at the top of his bent," he was only in his twenties. How do you explain his stunning, rapid maturity as a writer, his rise to write a book that even Civil War veterans acknowledged approvingly?

Crane was, to an important degree, self-taught—and stunningly precocious.  It’s hard to comprehend that he could write so persuasively about a war which was, for him, imagined; he became a war correspondent only on the strength of The Red Badge of Courage, and saw his first battle thereafter.  (Too, his real familiarity with The Bowery came after he had written, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.)  And there was a lot of hack-work; it’s as though he wrote for cash with his left hand, for cachet with his right.

My best guess is that he was still an apprentice, though world-famous, at his death—and would have continued, had he attained maturity, to hone his art.

dora-carringtonYou make an intriguing point about Carrington--that "one cannot escape the suspicion that this particular visual artist displaced her own early ambition and allowed it, finally, to fade." Her paintings are so vigorous and glorious--why did she allow her art to fade? Why couldn't her youthful energetic art fill the void after Lytton Strachey's death?

Carrington is the most puzzling figure to me—given the great attainment of her early work.  In part, perhaps, because of her gender—she lived in a period when women had to struggle mightily to have their art acknowledged—she was full of self-loathing, self-doubt.  But she also had very high standards and was her own harshest critic; in her case, the “best” was the enemy of the “better,” and that self-censoring habit ran, in the end, amok.  We can only wish she’d found more consolation in her talent for expressiveness and had not fired the gun...

There's also a dashing young fellow, pictured with dark wavy hair on a beach at Martha's Vineyard, who enters near the book's end. Your voice, and the story of your early literary success, provide a sense of fulfillment and continuation that the other artists' stories don't have.

I’m grateful that you found the memoir-component of this meditation welcome.  Again, I thought long and hard about whether to include those pages of personal history, or whether it would seem self-vaunting and self-indulgent.

Without it, I think we'd end your book in gloom and despair. The elements of memoir that you give us there are wonderfully instructive. And hopeful.

Although the mirror no longer reveals it, I was in fact once young—and one of those fortunate children whom America enables.  I published my first novel at the age of 23, and it was well and generously received.   So I thought, at a certain point in the research on those other artists (though I’m not of course comparing my own achievement to theirs) that—if only by adjacency I could include a fourth figure.  Myself.

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Finally, about the title, The Art of Youth. We can create art in our youth, but your title seems to say (to me, at least) that we can also realize that same youthful creative vision at any age -- there's an art to it that isn't dependent on fitting into a certain age category. It also seems to point us towards your other book, Lastingness, on artists whose powers grew brilliantly in their later years.

Yes, I think of this as a kind of “prequel” and certainly a companion-text to Lastingness: The Art of Old Age.  There I wrote about musicians, painters, and writers who at least maintained and in some cases advanced their art past the age of seventy.  Here the average age of my artists at death was thirty-five.  A lot of this has to do with actuarial tables; it’s only in our recent history that thirty-five seems young.

And in some sense the question has more to do with how near the artist is to death than how many more years or decades he or she has left to live.  So I found myself asking if the career-trajectory was similar or different and, if so, in what ways.


Eden and immortality: new in bookstores

Just another day in Eden; credit:  Țetcu Mircea Rareș Man, Adam and Eve had no idea how lucky they were. No botox, no mortgage, no shame, no global warming. You name it. This summer, the superb publishing firm Palgrave MacMillan is bringing us two books that illustrate in dramatic, sometimes bleak terms what we've lost (besides Paradise) and what the future holds for us in terms of ourselves and our environment.

First, some myth-inspired longevity numbers:

--Methusaleh was 969 years old when he died -- Moses was 120 years old when he died -- "Twilight's" Edward Cullen is (I think) 17 on the outside, and  (I think) about 105 or 106 years old on the inside

Alex Zhavoronkov's new book "The Ageless Generation: How Advances in Biomedicine Will Transform the Global Economy" suggests people today are doing fairly well when it comes to longevity. Soon, he suggests, you won't have to be a legendary biblical figure -- or a teen vampire -- to make it well into the triple digits.

ageless generation coverJust consider a couple of facts, courtesy of the author. A hundred years ago, in 1913, life expectancy was the age of 47. And what about prehistoric man? 22 years!

What's helped us today, says Zhavoronkov, who heads a bio-gerontology research institute, are many things, including: the rise of democracy, the concept of retirement, the information age, medical advances. All of these have fostered new possibilities for the elderly.

If your uncle or grandma complains about their Medicare coverage, you might remind them, as he says, that "the medical advances of the twentieth century dramatically increased life expectancies the world over."

What are some of these advances?

Thanks to potential new methods to regenerate tissue and address organ failure -- man-made stem cells and artificial organs are two of several subjects he surveys in his book -- we might all have a better shot at Methusaleh-dom one day. It requires a massive shift in world views about aging and medicine, but Zhavoronkov sounds an optimistic note as he asks all of us to join him, via social media and the internet, in a campaign to raise awareness about the possibilities ahead:

"By New Year's Eve 2099, many of the promising breakthroughs discussed in this book will be ancient history. Some will have been surpassed by even more exotic life-extension therapies. Extreme longevity will be common throughout the developed world. Millions of healthy, active centenarians will celebrate the arrival of a new century. I plan to be one of those healthy seniors. Choose to join me. There are dark clouds on the horizon, but the distant future promises to be bright."

At first, it's harder to hear the optimistic note -- or see the bright distant future -- in Amy Larkin's "Environmental Debt: The Hidden Costs of a Changing Global Economy," but it's there. The author, a former Greenpeace activist who now runs a consulting firm called Nature Means Business, provides us with precious information about what's going on at the front lines of the global environmental debate.

environmental debt coverThe title of her book points to her main argument: Pollution shouldn't be free. Why not? The future cost and damages of pollution -- in other words, the environmental debt -- is "just like any other debt, at some point the bill will come due." Her book looks at ways of making business and government more accountable by connecting "the profitability of business with the survival of the natural world."

Like Zhavoronkov, she's arguing for a massive shift in public understanding, especially when she says, for instance, that the fossil fuel industry  should embed the costs of its pollution "in its profit and loss statements."

Larkin's book supplies an intriguing overview of the issues and arguments, along with some openminded efforts by some corporations -- PepsiCo, for instance,  which has worked on improving sustainability practices at its factories, and McDonald's. In the past decade, in fact, the Golden Arches worked with Greenpeace on a moratorium for soybean production on deforested Amazon land (in case you didn't know, soybean is fed to all those chickens turned into six-piece and 20-piece orders of McNuggets).

I know both books certainly don't fit under the category of "easy beach read," but if you're interested in updating yourself on such issues this summer before the fall begins, both are an excellent place to start.

They'll remind you, as they did for me, that we really don't have the opportunity of sailing off, like King Arthur or Frodo Baggins, to Avalon or Valinor to find our Paradise. It's here, it's now; we have to work with the world we've got.