A look at artists in their autumnal years
By Michael Dirda
When Philip Roth recently announced his retirement from writing fiction, I was surprised and impressed. After all, one of the great artistic rules, less often observed than it should be, is knowing when to stop. Roth has won all the prizes except the Nobel, and he’s been producing bestsellers and critically acclaimed (and controversial) books since he was in his 20s. Over the past decade the Library of America has been reissuing his complete works in its familiar, stately editions—a nice rounding-off in an enviable career. As Kenny Rogers told us long ago, you’ve got to know when to hold ’em, when to fold ’em, and when to walk away.
Some years back, I happened to interview John Updike and asked him if there would be more novels about Harry Angstrom—perhaps “Rabbit Resurrected”—or any more stories featuring the writer Henry Bech. In essence, Updike said no. Those characters’ adventures were over, and he himself was now largely focused on “clearing his desk.” Updike did keep writing up to the end, but, apart from some moving poetry, most people would agree that his later work added little to his reputation.
Should older writers keep at it until they breathe their last? It’s a hard call. Sophocles supposedly brought out Oedipus at Colonus when he was in his 80s. The elderly Tolstoy turned himself into an Old Testament prophet, producing cranky attacks on Shakespeare and numerous political and religious tracts. Yet he also wrote Hadji Murad, one of his greatest works (and a particular favorite of Harold Bloom).
What must be hard for all established writers of a certain age is seeing the world turn its spotlight elsewhere. Once they were the stars, up front and center, and now other names—sometimes those of their understudies—are in neon at the top of marquee. Gods that survive too long tend to be taken for granted or ignored or even mocked. How many young people still read John Barth? I can remember the excitement I felt over the linked novellas of Chimera, the imaginative experiments of Lost in the Funhouse. But when was the last time anyone opened Giles Goat-Boy? And yet Barth is an absolutely wonderful and astonishing writer. It’s just that the stage now belongs to David Mitchell, Zadie Smith, and the Jonathans Franzen and Safran Foer. But 30 years from now, they, too, will be yesterday’s news.
Still, some lucky writers do manage a late flowering. Philip Roth reblossomed, after a period of relatively minor works, with The Human Stain and American Pastoral (and, a favorite of mine, that harrowing novella, The Dying Animal). In old age an artist, whether in paint, music, or prose, will sometimes cast aside his usual manner and indulge in some playful romp. Mann brought out his lighthearted paean to the counterfeit in Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man; Faulkner producted the rumbustious odyssey of The Reivers, Thornton Wilder reimagined his young self as a kind of amateur trouble-solver in Theophilus North. Matisse, though nearly blind, produced his glorious paper cut-outs. These works are distinctly exuberant, even comic, but other late works show us the artist confronting age, the loss of powers, and death. Just look at the final self-portraits of Rembrandt, or listen to Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs. The rest is silence.
Old men ought to be explorers, said T. S. Eliot. But mainly they’re not. Feckless, irresponsible young whippersnappers break the new paths in art and letters (and in other fields too). As the years go by, aging masters try to explore their own visions ever more deeply, even if the public just wants the mixture as before or really doesn’t care at all what they do. Those big fat volumes called Collected Poems are tombs as much as tomes. Hic jacet.
Mentoring is the last refuge of the older artist. With luck, disciples will keep one’s books in print, one’s reputation alive. Doubtless even the most unassuming poet or novelist can get used to reverence and genuflection. Of course, there remains the possibility of betrayal: Judas writes the biography, that mousey acolyte may turn out to be Eve Harrington (from “All About Eve”). After all, new writers do need to clear a space for themselves, even if it means pushing aside a once-revered elder of the tribe.
And what about “senior” critics? Ah, their fate is the worst of all. They lose touch with the new, start to go on and on about the old days, either turn into literary Kris Kringles or bitter curmudgeons. And then they are, most of them anyway, forgotten altogether. Where now are William Troy and Vernon Young, Orville Prescott and John Mason Brown, Agnes Repplier, Diana Trilling, and even, Mary McCarthy? Once they were powers in the land, their judgments feared and their praise yearned after, but today their names scarcely raise an ironic smile of recognition.
Ah, the House of Fame! Sometimes it is as harsh and cruel a place as Dr. Moreau’s House of Pain. What is the law? Literary generations come and go, and each generation passeth away and is heard of no more. In the end, simply the making itself—of poems and stories and essays—delivers the only reward a writer can be sure of. And, perhaps, the only one that matters.
Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and the author of the memoir An Open Book and of four collections of essays: Readings, Bound to Please, Book by Book, and Classics for Pleasure. His most recent book, part of Princeton’s Writers on Writers series, is On Conan Doyle. Dirda is also a frequent lecturer and an occasional college teacher.