How much accomplished, how well, in how short a life? Those are the yardsticks in Nicholas Delbanco’s meditation, “The Art of Youth,” and we borrow them as we read to measure not only his subjects’ success but our own in comparison. American author Stephen Crane (1871-1900), British painter Dora Carrington (1893-1932), and American composer George Gershwin (1898-1937) all died before reaching 40, in what Delbanco sees as the first act of their lives.
“As with so many men and women cut off in their early prime,” Delbanco writes, “one asks the unanswerable question: What more might they have done?” Jeff Greenfield’s “If Kennedy Lived,” which imagines eight years in the White House for President Kennedy, is fresh proof of the irresistibility of that line of speculation. It is, after all, the sense of prodigious talent stemmed that lies at the root of our mourning.