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Do We Romanticize Writers Who Die Young?

Sunday 22 November 2015

NOV. 10, 2015

Each week in Bookends, two writers take on questions about the world of books. This week, Dana Stevens and Benjamin Moser discuss how we view authors who die before their time.

By Dana Stevens

What would “The Trial” have read like if Kafka had put the fragments in the order he wanted them?

If by “we” you mean “I,” then yes, probably. The propensity to spin mythic tales about those figures in human history who have proved themselves most capable of, precisely, spinning mythic tales may be one of the few unchanging features of the literary landscape. Nearly 50 years after the death of the author (remember when that happened? #RIP), individual authors who died before their time retain their seemingly ­undeconstructable glamour. Just as a long-dead movie star can still seem to reach off the screen and pull the viewer in, an even-longer-dead author can draw the reader into the vortex of the page. But a movie star leaves behind only an image, the insubstantial imprint of a body. A writer leaves behind trails of words, which, if they’re the right words, can seem to transport us directly into the living matter of another mind (or in the case of poetry, to open our own minds to new possibilities of language).

When we mourn the early death of a writer who was just beginning to find his or her true voice, we’re also mourning, by implication, every work that author never finished, or never started. What would Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” have read like if he had put the surviving fragments in the order he wanted them, then written the connecting bits? Can you imagine Sylvia Plath’s follow-up to “Ariel” — the book she might have written if she had lived, brought up her children and eventually gotten over Ted Hughes? Would a midlife slump have slowed the breakneck momentum of John Keats, who faux-modestly wrote his fiancée, a year before his death from tuberculosis at 25, that “if I had had time I would have made myself remember’d”? Keats’s small body of lyric poetry, dismissed by many critics during his lifetime as vulgar fluff, has since ascended to the peaks of the English Romantic canon.

Writers don’t tend to be the most durable of human specimens. Oscar Wilde lived to be 46, the same age at which ­David Foster Wallace would take his life 108 years later. Jane Austen was 41 when she died of undetermined causes, her writing career at full tilt; Poe was just 40 when he fell, possibly drunk, into his last Baltimore gutter. None of the Brontë sisters survived past their 30s. There are no real conclusions to be drawn from this anecdotal correlation between short lives and long-lived literary influence. The fact of dying young and under tragic conditions is certainly not a cause of great writing (nor could it be said, even in cases of addiction or suicide, to be that writing’s result). It seems intuitively sound to suppose that the inward-looking, depressive types who tend to be drawn to writing might also have weaker constitutions (or a lower resistance to addictive substances) than their sunnier counterparts. But there’s no question that figures who embody this quasi-­sacrificial ideal of literary purity — writers who bloomed early, produced a relatively small quantity of superior work and died young with their record unblemished — retain a lasting cultural power, even sometimes for people who have read little or none of what they wrote.

Maybe idealizing the work of brilliant authors who died too young isn’t the worst thing in the world, as cultural practices go. After all, it wasn’t just these people’s writing careers that were cut short by the cruelty of fate. It was their lives, their collective earthly shot at love and failure and awe and laughter and rage — all the experiences that, with their gifts, they might or might not have gone on to turn into great literature, but that would have been worth having anyway. They didn’t get that many days on earth, and they chose to spend some number of them putting down words that have found their way — in some cases through the centuries — into the minds and hearts of those who came after.

Dana Stevens is the film critic at Slate and a co-host of the Slate Culture Gabfest podcast. She has also written for The Atlantic and Bookforum, among other publications.

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By Benjamin Moser

Like any other talent, the talent for not dying is distributed undemocratically.

“Lack of talent,” scoffed the Dutch novelist Harry Mulisch, when talking about writers who die young. Mulisch himself lived 83 years and wrote almost half as many books. He was a paragon of persistence who always maintained that whatever his physical age, his “absolute age” — the age in his head — had stubbornly remained a mere 17. And he had no truck with those who tried to sneak offstage before the curtain fell.

“Why should you get run over by a tram when you’re young,” he asked, “or get struck down by a meteor? What’s the point? There are people who are depressed and scared of the future, but I am not one of those people. And dying: No, that’s just not for me.” By the time he issued this defiant growl, he was already an old man. But he had lost none of his Olympian vigor, nor his awareness of what real talent consists of: not ­giving up.

Like any other talent — for singing, for dancing — the talent for not dying is distributed undemocratically. Not everyone can dance, and not everyone can grow old. But as with any other talent, inheriting propitious circumstances is one thing. Bringing a natural ability to full flower is something else entirely. For that, only the rarest genius can dispense with the artist’s most essential talent, which is the capacity for relentless work.

Relentless work can be admirable in many ways. But it will never be romantic. In this respect, it resembles money. In the present, money and work are simply, boringly useful. In the past — money once it is lost, work once it is done — they can lend themselves to a story. And stories can be made romantic: the plantation recalled beneath the peeling wallpaper of the boardinghouse, the creator in thrall to the muse. But to get through life, writers need the same ­unromantic qualities everyone else requires to get through theirs.

As a young woman just arrived in the big city, The New Yorker’s Joan Acocella fell in with a group of artists “so brilliant, so bold” that she naturally looked forward to seeing what would become of them. Over the years, though, one after the next failed to live up to their promise. “Bad divorces, professional disappointments, cocaine” peeled them off. “The ones who survived combined brilliance with more homely virtues: patience, resilience, courage.”

These vices and virtues are hardly the stuff of romance. We cannot know what might have been. Perhaps Byron’s and Shelley’s and Keats’s genius for expression would have been overwhelmed by their conspicuous lack of the unglamorous qualities Acocella described. Perhaps, like Rimbaud, they died having said what they had to say.

Would that be so terrible? Athletes and dancers accept that their careers will be short. But — rightly or wrongly — we think of writing as a spiritual exercise, a project coextensive with the writer’s life. When such a project is cut off early, it will always feel incomplete, a glorious cathedral nonetheless missing a spire. The idea, like the image, is itself highly romantic. But it might help explain what is so poignant about a dead young writer.

A dead young writer is, above all, a dead human being. And for any human being, early death is a hideous reality. It is no more romantic than tuberculosis or syphilis, diseases once thought to confer a sexy allure on their victims. And the fine line that separates romance from treacle is the same that divides mourning from kitsch; to cross it is to glorify a heart-rending death instead of remembering the achievements of a life.

There is something grotesque about finding romance in drug abuse, or car crashes, or venereal disease. Far better to admire the writer’s real talent: for getting up every morning, going back to the desk, keeping at it, not dying. Writers, like anyone else, never lack for reasons to give up. And if we remember a writer, it should not be for his death — for what he might have been — but for what he was, for what he managed to become.

Benjamin Moser is the author of “Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector,” a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award, and the general editor of the new translations of Clarice Lispector at New Directions. A former New Books columnist at Harper’s Magazine, he is currently writing the authorized biography of Susan Sontag. He lives in the Netherlands.

A version of this article appears in print on November 15, 2015, on page BR31 of the Sunday Book Review.

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