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.