Early literary deaths vs. long careers: which is better?






Apologies if this is a bit of a grim subject for a Friday, but as I was reading Nicholas Roe's excellent new biography of John Keats, due out this month, I was struck again (as readers of Keats's life must always be) of his horribly early death - he was only twenty-five when he died of tuberculosis. What have we lost, what great poems have never been written, what great joy might he have given?...we can't help asking ourselves. It's so painful that we even feel the need to imagine an afterlife for him, as Andrew Motion did in his novel, The Invention of Dr Cake. Like rock stars and film stars who die young, those literary stars who burn out too soon quickly become iconic, take on semi-mythical status. Like so many of the Romantic poets (Shelley who died at 30 from drowning in an ill-fated sea voyage on the way back from Livorno, or Byron at 36, whilst arming himself against the Turks in Missolonghi), he 'lived fast, died young', or so the myth tells us. And in living fast and dying young, he has robbed literature of great work.

Or so it seems. But does it necessarily follow, that had Keats and Shelley and Byron all lived, they would have produced more works of genius? Genius can wither with age - Wordsworth is notorious for 'falling off' in the latter part of his life, producing far inferior work compared to his early days, and Thomas Hardy, who wanted to be remembered for the poetry he produced later in life, is hailed for his novels, written when he was young. Mary Shelley, who outlived her husband by over thirty years, never again reached the heights of Frankenstein, written when she was just nineteen. although she did make her living from writing for several years after Shelley died.

So I thought, just to continue the general morbidity of it all, that I'd do a short roll-call of those who have died young, and the list is astonishing. Katherine Mansfield, like Keats, had contracted gonorrhea when she was younger, according to her biographer, Claire Tomalin. She, too, died of tuberculosis, at the horribly early age of 35.  Both Roe and Tomalin speculate that the contraction of gonorrhea made their subjects, Keats and Mansfield, less able to fight the effects of TB. Although it was incurable then, recovery wasn't completely impossible. But you had to be strong, and you had to be fit. D H Lawrence, perhaps not given the best start in a miner's cottage in Nottingham, although his devoted mother made sure he never went hungry, went the same way as Keats and Mansfield at the age of 45, dying of TB in Mexico. All three writers died far from their homelands, desperately and futilely seeking the warm weather which was supposed to help offset the effects of the disease. They met horrible ends - TB is a vicious thing, and Roe's descriptions of Keats' final weeks are not for the squeamish. I doubt very much that Keats, Mansfield or Lawrence "left a beautiful corpse", that last element of the "live fast, die young" mantra. Their deaths were lacerating and appalling.

Others we lost too soon are all three Bronte sisters, of course - Emily died of TB when she was thirty; Anne of the same disease at 29. Charlotte, of course, died at the age of 39 (some accounts list the cause as a chill caught whilst pregnant, some blame a miscarriage for killing her). And Jane Austen succumbed at the age of 41 (I remember deliberately delaying reading Persuasion for years, because it was the only novel of Austen's I hadn't read, and once I'd read it that meant I'd read everything she'd written, there would be nothing more to discover). It wasn't all nineteenth-century Gothic early-death - Lawrence and Mansfield have already been mentioned, but F Scott Fitzgerald died at the age of 44 of a heart attack exacerbated by alcoholism. Sylvia Plath killed herself at the age of thirty-one, and Anne Sexton when she was 46. Jack Kerouac ran out of time when he was 47.

Is a tragically early death enough on its own to ensure immortality? Or do writers only need to produce one classic, as Emily Bronte did, to ensure their reputations will live on, no matter how long their lives? Are we simply sentimentalising, when we sigh over the early deaths of Keats and Mansfield? Surely the long-lasting careers of Dickens, Edith Wharton, Henry James, Wilkie Collins all contradict the notion that you have to die young to make sure the world remembers your name.

There are some surprises, though - I always had the impression that wonder-woman Elizabeth Gaskell, mother of several children and author of many novels and biographies (including one mammoth one of Charlotte Bronte) lived to a ripe old age, like the kind of fond old aunt and grandmother you might find in the pages of Lark Rise to Candleford, but in fact she died when she was only 55. Henry Fielding, another writer I imagined living a long and possibly disgraceful life, died at just 47. On the other hand, Dostoyevsky, who I was sure must have died in his forties at least, made it (just!) to his sixtieth year. And Emily Dickinson, who I thought was dead before she reached 30, was 56 when she died.

I'm not sure which is worse - dying young and never knowing that you achieved such immortality, or living to a ripe old age and seeing your literary reputation slipping away? Shuffling off this mortal coil when your best work is done, or tainting your early work with duds from later years? I suppose it's the fantasy of what-more-might-have-been that proves the real lure, even when works of genius have been accomplished. I'll always wish for more Katherine Mansfield short stories, and more Bronte novels.



Comments

  1. I say the trick is to do our writing without investing in ego-rewards, and just live our lives. The writing will take care of itself, and to attach to it is a recipe for misery.

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  2. I wonder if ego can be left out of it though, Barry? Writing is a very individualistic, and egotistic, thing to do, in many ways (never mind what's increasingly involved in promoting it, etc).

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  3. I think that if the writer can't leave him/herself out of it, it's likely to handicap the writing and certain to bring suffering to the life. Here's something I scribbled about it a while ago:

    There are many stories of artists who have been destroyed by addiction to alcohol or other drugs. There is another kind of addiction that rarely gets mentioned, though it destroys a far greater number of artists, usually - but not always - without killing them.

    The addiction to ego.

    I know people of real talent who can never move into the space of genuine creativity because they can’t get past themselves (or their selves). They create their work with the audience in mind, or, like one friend of mine, they begin a piece of work and then freeze, afraid that no one will like it, that people will think less of them because of it.

    It’s simultaneously comical and depressing to see artists spending hours, days, months and years worrying about their art, instead of simply going ahead and creating the art.

    To create anything worthwhile, you have to get rid of you. You don’t matter; it’s the art that matters. Nothing of value can be produced by the ego. Even when the art is autobiographical - especially when the art is autobiographical - it’s useless to come from a place of ego.

    Quivering insecurity is no different than swaggering arrogance - both are ego trips. Both are about the artist, not the art.

    In the real act of creation (whether what you’re creating is a piece of writing, a piece of music, visual art or a performance), the ego dissolves. The self falls away like a heavy coat you don’t need to wear.

    You have to be fearless, but not arrogant. Fearlessness sees all danger and pain, and refuses to run away or look away. Arrogance is blind and stupid, and dooms you to failure, because it is deluded and, ultimately, believes only in failure.

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  4. That's really interesting - I agree about 'in the real act of creation the ego dissolves' - absolutely. But I was struck by a conscious sense of identity as a poet that Keats had, that Roe talks about in his biography. Stating, 'I'm going to be a poet/I am a poet' etc. And if you're coming from a place of oppression, whether that's because of your gender, race, class, whatever, you bear those things in mind - lots of politically-inclined poets, novelists etc, are very conscious of exactly who they are because they're opposing something.

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  5. I agree, but I think that's why most political art succeeds better at politics than at art. A major part of my deciding to leave Scotland was that, even though I'm a very political animal, I resisted buying into Scottish identity politics because I saw how it handicapped the work of so many of my contemporaries. I also think that whatever we write in opposition to ipso facto controls us.

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