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.
For Delbanco’s artists, because death intervened, there was no second act, but the work they left was considerable and enduring: Crane’s classic Civil War novel, “The Red Badge of Courage,” written at 23; the long overlooked canvases of Bloomsbury Group intimate Carrington, whom the art historian John Rothenstein called “the most neglected serious painter of her time”; and the voluminous Gershwin catalog.
“When I asked [Pulitzer Prize-winning composer] William Bolcom . . . to name a great American opera,” Delbanco writes, “he said there were six of them. And their names were ‘Porgy and Bess,’ ‘Porgy and Bess,’ ‘Porgy and Bess,’ ‘Porgy and Bess,’ ‘Porgy and Bess,’ and, finally, ‘Porgy and Bess.’ ” Not bad for an artist in his 30s.
Delbanco chose his three subjects, he explains, because “[t]he world they worked and played in is a world not all that separate from the one we at present inhabit, and the issues with which they were wrestling remain with us today.” In his evaluations of Crane and Gershwin, that reasoning holds true. But for a young female artist, the contemporary world is dramatically different from the one in which Carrington lived.
As Delbanco notes, “at the start of the twentieth century it was unusual for female artists to be taken seriously,” but he doesn’t acknowledge how formidable and entrenched an obstacle to success that was. He calls Carrington “ambivalent — never quite insisting on the professional importance of what she made and never quite consigning her own work to irrelevance,” but doesn’t consider how cultural dismissiveness might have engendered her diffidence.
He refers to “the veiled condescension attaching to ‘the fair sex,’ ” but there was nothing veiled about it. It wasn’t until 1928 that women in England even won equal voting rights. In art school, Carrington’s male lover pressured her to learn to cook, and when she settled down in an otherwise unconventional household with her friend Lytton Strachey and her husband, Ralph Partridge, oversight of the home fell to her. Delbanco blames Carrington’s perfectionism for her failure to create a larger body of work, and that may be, but what of the harm to artistic focus caused by domestic intrusions?
“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?”
There is also the matter of fecundity, which for women is a condition of youth. Carrington fell in love with people of both sexes — including Strachey, who was gay — and Delbanco highlights her refusal to have sex with various interested men. What evidently does not occur to him is that terror of pregnancy might have been a factor. Reliable contraception was decades in the future, and a serious risk of death for the woman accompanied either abortion (she did have one) or childbirth. To safeguard her life, both corporeal and creative, she had to have reproductive control over her own body.
For Carrington, the rules and the costs were not at all what they were for her male contemporaries. To downplay that is to fail to understand the scale of her achievement in a too-short life. Thinking more deeply about what the pursuit of creativity must have been like for Carrington and her female peers would have resulted in a more finely shaped portrait of the artist as a young woman.