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.

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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.

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8 responses to “Literary exits: Nicholas Delbanco on artistic lives cut short

  1. Interesting topic, Nick. I don’t know much about Crane, but I’m wondering from the the information presented here, why he was considered self-sabotaging? And why, if he would have continued to hone his art, he doesn’t get the “what if” treatment like Gershwin?

    This topic also makes me think even more about the entire generation of artists we lost to AIDS. Lots of “what ifs.”

  2. Thanks Jil, it’s a terrific book, especially in the portrait of Crane (who also appears in Delbanco’s earlier critical study “Group Portrait”). The self-sabotaging has to do with all the hackwork Crane did and how it got in the way of his art.

  3. Great post, Nick. There is so much to take in and mull about. There are so many meanings in two tiny words: “what if”! These are the few whose talent managed to shine, even though they died young and could have probably proceeded to produce so much more. But how many more undiscovered talents are there in the world who will never shine? Do we, as a society, do enough to plug talent where there is even a drop showing through? Or does society have nothing to do with it, and if talent is there it will emerge no matter what and no matter for how long?
    Very interesting. Yet another good book on my list!
    OG&B

  4. I find myself more intrigued by “Lastingness”, no doubt because I started my own messing about with words so late in life. Also: one of the most common forms of self-sabotage for me and for some of my friends who’ve come to writing late in life is the temptation to tell ourselves we don’t have enough years left to do anything substantial.

    As for lives cut short – this reminds me of the 27 Club, that group of musicians whose lives ended at age 27. Bluesman Robert Johnson, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison are all part of that unfortunate group.

    As so often happens, I’ve not heard of Mr. Delbanco. Now, his books are on my list.

  5. I’m glad, Shoreacres, to introduce you to Delbanco’s work. I feel like my blog has performed the best service if I can do that from time to time. Lastingness is a great book — together, his new book and that one form a very effective diptych on the creative process.

  6. Thank you OG & B — your questions are so important, and I think in many ways our blogosphere helps thank goodness to alleviate some of the obstacles. If we can’t shine on the bestsellers list, at least we have a small constellation in social media where people will be able to mark what we’re doing and offer some encouraging applause. It’s interesting, in Delbanco’s work, how the portraits of at least 2 of the 3 — Crane and Carrington — show that they were never really secure in their art even though they managed to shine. So much doubt and insecurity, even though posterity has blessed them as great artists!

  7. Aha! Thanks for the clarification. Gotta add this to the list! Along with “Lastingness.” But I’ll probably read “Lastingness” first for reasons similar to Shoreacres.

  8. I know what you mean — my book list grows longer too. I think reading the two books in whatever order doesn’t change the impact. Just great overviews of two different times in artists’ lives!

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