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Tuesday, July 9, 2013


As I have several times reported, the four volume collection of my published and unpublished papers is nearing completion.  As soon as some covers are designed and a few permissions are wrapped up, each volume will be available on as an e-book.  This project, combined with the prospect of my eightieth birthday in the not too distant future, has moved me to reflect, not for the first time, but with a heightened interest, in what an odd thing it is to be a writer -- to define oneself principally through the words one puts on a page and offers to the world.

Being a writer is not really very much like maintaining a blog, despite their apparent similarity.  As a blogger, I write to the moment, and my words, like disappearing ink, evanesce almost as soon as they are composed.  Not even lemon juice or a candle can bring them back.  But as a writer, I compose sub specie aeternitatis.  I write in the hope, with the intention, that my words will live after me and will be read even by those as yet unborn.  Of course, this hope is fanciful, at least for all but a tiny handful of writers, but the act of writing necessarily embodies and gives expression to the hope.  Just as no one sets out to be a bad poet or a mediocre painter, so no one writes with the expectation that the words will die on the page, although all too often they do.

Which makes especially poignant and strange the case of the writer who achieves a succès d'estime early in life and writes little or nothing thereafter.  The most famous example is J. D. Salinger, of course, but Ralph Ellison is also a case in point, and so is Joseph Heller.  I often wonder what it is like, early in life, to write a book that captures universal attention.  At first, one must be delighted by the success, thrilled by the attention, happy to sign one's autograph on napkins held out by strangers at restaurants. One reads the reviews, monitors the sales, lunches with editors offering contracts for the next book.  But though new generations of readers keep discovering the book with delight, time passes, one grows older, and after a while the éclat must fade, the savor evaporate.  Two, three, ten years later, when one gets out of bed in the morning, how satisfying can it be to reflect, "I am the author of Catcher in the Rye"?

In a very tiny way, I had something like this experience.  At the age of thirty-one, I wrote an extended essay that five years later saw the light as In Defense of Anarchism.  I wrote it, if the truth be told, for the $500 advance, which I needed to pay my analyst bills, but by a combination of accidents, it had a totally unexpected success.  It was hardly a succès d'estime, to be sure, inasmuch as everyone who read it thought and said that it was dead wrong.  But it sold a lot of copies, and became something of a staple in advanced college courses on political theory.  In the year after it appeared, I received a hundred speaking invitations.

That was 1970, and forty-three years have passed since then.  Each year, I receive email messages from young people in Australia or Croatia or Hungary or Peru who have come upon my little book in one of its many translations and want to ask me, as though I had just written it, what my response would be to this or that argument that it has provoked in them.  I am unfailingly courteous and do my best to respond, but the truth is that the arguments of that slender volume -- all of which, of course, I consider irrefutably true, hem hem -- have long since fallen out of my active consciousness.  Nevertheless, I feel obligated to defend them, because not to do so would be to break faith with my readers.

[I am reminded of a wonderful story from the time when I was teaching at Harvard, in 1960 and '61.  In those days, there was a very famous literary critic at Harvard named I. A. Richards who, among other things, taught part of an immensely popular General Education course.  A bright undergraduate wrote his Honors Thesis in the English Department on the literary theories of Richards, and the Department, in what I have always thought was an act of gratuitous cruelty, put Richards himself on the committee.  At the oral defense, the student reiterated one of the arguments in the thesis designed to show that Richards was wrong about something or other.  Richards objected, "I didn't say that."  The student, who had come prepared, took out one of Richards' books and quoted from it directly, demonstrating that Richards had said exactly what the student claimed he had said.  "Well," Richards replied with a dismissive wave of his hand, "I don't believe that any more," leaving the student gasping for air.]

Here is something to turn over in your mind.  Most of us think of Salinger, in some obscure way, as a failed writer because he never wrote much of anything after the very early books.  But suppose he had written little or nothing as a young man and then, in his sixties or seventies, had produced Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey.  Wouldn't we consider his career to have been a brilliant success?


Carl said...

"he never wrote much of anything after the very early books."

You don't know that. And I hear otherwise!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

OK, if you say so. I haven't even read CATCHER IN THE RYE! The point I was making remains, however.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

On the other hand, Salinger died in 2010 at the age of 91, and Wkipedia lists just one story, published or unpublished, that he wrote after 1960, so if they are right, for the last half century of his life, he wrote or completed effectively nothing.

Carl said...

Supposedly he hoarded what he wrote after '65 and it may yet come out, though no doubt there are obstacles.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Wouldn't that be a hoot!!! Sort of like Emily Dickinson. I guess we just have to wait and see. My meditation proceeds either way.