Sometimes when I doubt my mental acuity or the worthiness of a paragraph slowly taking shape on my computer screen, I think about writers who have stopped writing.
A writer’s creative desert is much in the news now because of the publication of Harper Lee’s old-new novel Go Set a Watchman, which is in fact the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird so that its publication does not truly end Ms. Lee’s streak of not writing.
I first became aware of this phenomenon in college when Henry Roth’s 1934 novel Call It Sleep was re-issued in 1964. When I later became Arts Editor for my college paper, I reviewed the book. I was astonished that the author of so brilliant a book, so joyous in its Joycean delight with language, so able to apprehend a child’s sensibilities, had simply stopped writing. When the novel was re-issued, Roth was making his living breeding ducks and geese and selling their carcasses and feathers. I didn’t find out until much later that Roth’s complaints of a sore elbow or depression or Jewish self-loathing or anti-Semitism or struggles with his Communism were not the sole reasons for his silence. In 1994 he published the first volume of his series with the overall title of Mercy of a Rude Stream. That work contained a revealing tale of incest between the protagonist and his sister, and then his cousin.
Of course I knew that Rimbaud was infamous for giving up poetry at the age of nineteen. But I soon learned of the many other examples of sustained literary silence. In the very year of Call It Sleep’s awakening, Joseph Mitchell, the writer who has my nomination as the greatest article writer of all-time, produced the still-astounding piece, “Joe Gould’s Secret.” After Mitchell published that piece, he showed up at The New Yorker office each day for the following thirty-two years. He was duly given a salary but never handed in another article. As my education proceeded, I encountered a cascade of similar stories. Coleridge’s famous poems were mostly written when he was in his mid-twenties. An opium addiction and some “indescribable Terror” occupied much of the remainder of his life.
I still don’t know what to make of the incomparable American hard-boiled mystery novelist, Dashiell Hammett. When he was in his thirties, he produced four novels in three years. His fifth novel, The Thin Man, was published in 1934, the year Call It Sleep was first published. Hammett was thirty-nine. He lived until the beginning of 1961 managing to make plenty of money in Hollywood, serve as a lover and mentor to Lillian Hellman, endure the McCarthy years, and never publish another novel. Perhaps Cyril Connolly was correct when he said, “Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first call promising.”
Ralph Ellison did not produce another novel after Invisible Man was published in 1952. He died in 1994; his literary executor assembled a one-volume novel out of the writings Ellison left. Juneteenth was published in 1999 to mixed reviews.
Laura Riding, a poet associated with the Fugitives and, by general consensus, the cause of the failure of Robert Graves’ first marriage, published her first book of poems in 1926. She stopped writing poetry in 1941 although she lived for fifty more years.
There are too many others to mention. E.M. Forster, for example, lived for forty-six years after he quite writing. And notice that until now I have not even mentioned J.D. Salinger, the high priest of authorial silence. Like Harper Lee, Salinger’s silence was a perpetual driver of curiosity and fame.
I think of these people when my muse has gone on vacation. But beyond lacking their talent and fame, I also lack the demands of their audiences and publishers and the too often accompanying pressures and self-doubts. My life isn’t convoluted enough to torture me. My addictions are limited to reading, writing, and pizza, not necessarily in that order.
I continue to write even when doubts accompany every keystroke. I identity more with Trollope than the writers who stopped writing. Famously, Trollope got up each morning at 5:30 (here Trollope and I part company) and wrote for three hours. He kept his watch by his side. He wanted to make sure that he wrote 250 words every fifteen minutes. As every would-be novelist already knows, if Trollope finished one novel between 5:30 and his ending time of 8:30, why he simply took out a new piece of paper and started on his next novel. After he finished writing he began his regular job with the postal service. For the record, Trollope wrote 49 novels in 35 years. And some of those novels were substantial. The Oxford University Press edition of Vanity Fair weighs in at 976 pages.
I should keep a picture of Trollope above my computer.