Delbanco (English/Univ. of Michigan) must have intended this as a bookend to his earlier study, Lastingness: The Art of Old Age (2011). Through a selection process that seems arbitrary, he focuses on (in chronological order) author Stephen Crane, painter Dora Carrington and composer George Gershwin.
“I wanted figures close to our own historical moment yet sufficiently removed so perspective can be gained,” writes the author. “[T]hey are of our time and place, though not precisely in it, and we have the advantage of hindsight when assessing their careers.” Plenty of others could have made the cut, but these three in particular are distinguished more by their differences than what they have in common: two Americans, one Brit; one suicide, one dead as the result of ill health, one blindsided by a tumor; one extremely well known: “As a songwriter, composer, performer, Gershwin has few if any equals in this nation’s history,” one very little known: “the most neglected serious painter of her time” though one who “accomplished so little and is so little known,” one who is mainly known for one novel, though he preferred his poems and was a masterful writer of short stories. Each has a chapter, which is mainly a biographical sketch with some criticism of their work interwoven, and each inspires the sort of what-if conjecture, that can never be answered or supported, concerning the artistic progression of such artists if they had lived through a second act. As Delbanco writes of Gershwin, “It’s hard to guess what would have happened had he progressed to middle or old age….Maturation takes time.” He later suggests that “the art of youth” is “best summarized by a single word: ‘energy.’ ” A coda covers the author’s own experience, with a first novel that earned prominence that later fiction didn’t sustain.
A study that belabors the obvious and provides little illumination.