Last Friday, I wrote about the importance of solitude in an artist’s life. Today, I’m following up with a similar theme based on a review of H. J. Jackson’s, Those Who Write for Immortality. (”Immortal Beloved,” by William Giraldi, The New Republic, March 2015, pgs. 66-69.) The question under consideration is whether or not it’s best for a writer to be popular in his or her time or to be discovered posthumously as a literary genius? Earlier, I raised and answered this question for myself. (Blog 5/25/11). My response today remains the same. I’ll take the champagne now, please.
William Giraldi’s review of Jackson’s book poses the interesting dilemmas of courting success either alive or dead. If alive, the danger for an author is that he or she will seek approval from a public inclined to prefer novelty over Olympian greatness. According to some critics, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway were writers of genius who were debauched by catering to their admirers. (Ibid, pg.66) On the other hand, to be discovered after death is tricky. What a dead author requires is an on-going cheering section — friends and family dedicated to keeping the literature work alive. That means these cheerleaders will write articles for newspapers, encourage college professors to include works of the writer in question within the curriculum, and they will strive to convince critics that “Uncle Amos was a genius overlooked by his epoch.” Jane Austen was one whose circle of support was enviable. Besides her devoted family, her admirers grew to include Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster and Henry James. Herman Melville had his cheer leaders, too, as did John Keats, who died at 26 and had little time to promote himself. (Ibid 69)
Granted, to attract attention, alive or dead, one has to be a damned fine author. At least, that’s Giraldi’s opinion. Like cream, brilliance rises to the top. But is the reviewer correct in his thinking? Would anyone describe Twilight or 50 Shades of Grey as the cream of literature? In the 21st Century, what is the gold standard? Giraldi has written that “dignity of telling counts above all else.” (Ibid. pg 68.) I haven’t the foggiest notion what that means, but I’d be willing to bet that neither Keats nor Austen would have a large voice today if they hadn’t been immortalized by university academics. Would Woolf have survived if she hadn’t been made the darling of women’s study groups? Other greats haven’t been so lucky. Their cheering sections have dwindled along with studies in the humanities. Already, critics are ringing the death knell for Henry James, a man who was once thought to live among the immortals. And Walter Scott? As Giraldi asks, who is the last to have read Ivanhoe?
I do align myself with Giraldi on one point; “Literary immortalizing is a fickle, fickle business, folks.” (Ibid pg. 60.) And I’ll go further. Courting fame posthumously is an ambition dreamed up by an idiot.
At the risk of suffering the ills of Hemingway’s popularity, I say debauch me here. Debauch me now.