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Solitude and the Creative Life

by Fenton Johnson

Pub Date: March 10th, 2020
ISBN: 978-0-393-60829-8
Publisher: Norton

A memoir of the author’s life and a study of solitude in highbrow modern culture.

Like Thoreau and many other creatives before him, Harper’s contributor Johnson (English/Univ. of Arizona and Spalding Univ.; Everywhere Home: A Life in Essays, 2017, etc.) would prefer to be alone. “To use the term favored by the Trappist monk and mystic Thomas Merton,” he suggests the socially uninclined be referred to as “solitaries,” and he strives to reframe their stories (and his own) under society’s critical eye. “Solitude and silence are positive gestures,” he writes in defense of those in the world who would prefer to live alone and aim “for the cultivation of an interior life.” While reminiscing on his own past, Johnson explores notions of solitude as seen in the writings of a pantheon of exalted literary and creative figures. Poems by Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, along with reflections on the lives of Paul Cézanne, Nina Simone, and fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, help shape this unconventional lifestyle into a “personal, particular spiritual philosophy” that will be recognizable to even the most skeptical of readers. “In the silence of my solitary walks I hear the voices of the trees. I hear them singing of a solitude that admits no loneliness,” writes the author, seamlessly integrating a wealth of source material from his diverse and multifaceted cast of saintly solitaries. Beneath his scholarly efforts (and the occasional curmudgeonly aside), a tender memoir appears in pieces, delicately woven into his artists’ profiles. A monastic, transcendent visit to Cézanne’s studio in Aix-en-Provence suggests that particular emotional experiences can only emerge during an independent sojourn. Memories of Johnson’s childhood and parents as well as stories of friends and old lovers surface during bouts of quiet research, growing from well-chosen poems, letters, and interviews into rhapsodic recollections of a profoundly full life.

An erudite lesson in embracing aloneness.