"There are no second acts in American life," F. Scott Fitzgerald observed acidly in his unfinished final novel, "The Love of the Last Tycoon." It is, of course, an ironic statement, for "The Last Tycoon" was nothing if not a second act sort of project — or would have been, had Fitzgerald lived.
"The older and embittered author wrote books of an order of magnitude greater than that of the Jazz Age icon swallowing goldfish and jumping fully clothed into the fountain of the Plaza," notes Nicholas Delbanco in "The Art of Youth: Crane, Carrington, Gershwin, and the Nature of First Acts." "His first act brought success; his second brought lasting achievement, though he felt both infirm and ignored."
And yet, Delbanco continues, "ours is a culture committed to youth. We fear decline; we praise aspiration, the American dream consists of the future, not past."
Such a tension, between precocity and experience, instant gratification and a sense of what lingers, occupies "The Art of Youth," which uses the lives of three artists — writer Stephen Crane, painter Dora Carrington and composer George Gershwin — to make its points. That all three died early (Crane at 28, the others at 38) is key to Delbanco's argument. As he writes, "Young Icarus, who flew too high … is an emblem both of youthful aspiration and the risks attached."
The book is a companion to the author's "Lastingness: The Art of Old Age," which came out in 2011 and looks at creativity through the other end of the telescope, invoking Monet, Yeats, Georgia O'Keeffe and Eubie Blake, all of whom kept producing until late in life. As it was there, Delbanco's purpose in this new work is to investigate not only how art gets made but what it says about those who make it: their sensibility and their vision, yes, but also their "energy," their "exuberance" and their "fluency."
Delbanco uses these signifiers to describe Gershwin in particular; he is, perhaps, the one truly unadulterated genius in "The Art of Youth." But they apply across the board because his intent is less to write a set of parallel mini-biographies (although the book also fulfills that function) than to draw out a series of echoes, resonances.
"Although theirs are separate stories," he explains, "certain shared motifs emerge," including "a need to produce that borders on compulsion."
Crane, for instance, became a reporter at 16 and self-published his first novel, "Maggie: A Girl of the Streets," when he was 21. His masterpiece "The Red Badge of Courage" — "together with such titles as 'Moby-Dick' and 'Huckleberry Finn,'" Delbanco writes, "it sits stage center on any shelf of American literature, and has kept its place" — appeared two years after that.
Gershwin famously wrote "Swanee" in 1919 at age 20. Four years later, he composed "Rhapsody in Blue" for Paul Whiteman; written in three weeks, it premiered in February 1925 and changed American popular music for all time.
Carrington remains lesser known, partly because of her own relentless self-criticism and partly because as a member of the Bloomsbury set (she was Lytton Strachey's longtime companion and took her own life less than two months after he died), she was outshone by Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell.
Still, she inspired Aldous Huxley and D.H. Lawrence, and although she became increasingly discouraged as she grew older, her paintings, especially her portraits of Strachey and E.M. Forster, are "masterpieces of psychological acuity," Delbanco tells us, "and they demonstrate an intimate knowledge of the personalities on view."
What makes that more than the stuff of a group portrait is Delbanco's sense of destiny. A professor at the University of Michigan, he is interested in the lines of intersection, how these artists reflect an idea bigger than themselves.
Early in the book, he describes three types of first acts: "A creative man or woman who starts fast and well and is 'cut off untimely' due to circumstance"; "[a] man or woman who starts early and proves self-destructive"; and "[a]n artist who does his or her best work young, then falters." Gershwin, he suggests, falls into the first category, Carrington the second and Crane the third.
And yet, lest this seem reductive, he immediately backtracks, acknowledging that "[e]ven these distinctions … feel ragged-edged, not neat; it could well be argued that each of these brief lives contains a component of all three varieties of a first act. The categories overlap."
This is the thing about art, that it remains fundamentally inexplicable, even to those who create it. What gives us acuity in one area and not another? Why do some, like Gershwin, produce over an extended period, while others, such as Carrington, lose their faith?
"I often hope I shall die at forty," she wrote in 1932, six years before committing suicide. "I could not bear the ignominy of becoming a stout boring elderly lady with a habit of sketching in water-colours." Compare that to Crane, who in addition to his finest efforts, produced a ton of hack work, writing too much too quickly for money, while being eaten from the inside by tuberculosis, like a character from "La Bohème."
In the end, the point is that no one knows, not really; we can conjecture, but only after the fact. "Retrospect is a great clarifier," Delbanco writes, but if Gershwin and Crane — and even Carrington, until she began her slow turn inward — pushed themselves relentlessly, it wasn't because mortality was on their minds. Rather, they were awash in creation, seduced by the possibilities of the work.
"What did they see," Delbanco asks, "this trio of young artists; what sort of vista was opening out, and did they envision a sequel to their auspicious debuts? … I think they must have imagined picture after picture, book after book, and tune after tune. The sky's the limit for each Icarus until wings start to melt."
The Art of Youth
Crane, Carrington, Gershwin, and the Nature of First Acts
New Harvest / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 224 pp., $25
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