We know the story. Van Gogh died having only sold one painting during his lifetime. He was a mad creative genius — our favorite kind — cutting off his ear and giving it to a prostitute. Then, tragically, a suicide, perhaps bereft at the cold reception his work received, so that he never knew how the world would come to embrace him.
- The Late Lord Byron by Doris Langley Moore. 544 pages. Melville House. $18.95.
- Monopolizing the Master: Henry James and the Politics of Modern Literary Scholarship by Michael Anesko. 272 pages. Stanford University Press. $35.
Solar Dance: Van Gogh, Forgery, and the Eclipse of Certainty by Modris Ekstein. 368 pages. Harvard University Press. $27.95.
We know the story because after he died in obscurity, he quickly became the most overexposed painter in the world. In Philadelphia, where I find myself, the Museum of Art is currently exhibiting a special Van Gogh show, and they’ve installed a special Van Gogh gift shop to accompany it. There you can get “Starry Night” on a T-shirt. “Starry Night” on a coffee mug. “Starry Night” on a magnet. “Starry Night” on a cheap poster. “Starry Night” on an umbrella. I mean, why even bother spending $25 on the exhibit ticket when you can go into the gift shop and buy a Van Gogh of your very own for $8.99?
So what exactly happened in that gap between obscurity and ubiquity? The afterlife of the artist is a tricky thing. Some bestselling writers seem to be forgotten mere seconds after their deaths; others aren’t truly appreciated until decades into their posthumous career. Many artists and writers are subjects of campaigns to re-establish their place in the canon. A few take, but most fall back into oblivion until someone else takes up the cause 10 years later. In the last couple years alone, efforts have been waged to rehabilitate Stefan Zweig, Irmgard Keun, W. Somerset Maugham, Mina Loy, H.D., Heinrich Böll… but none of their sparks ever lit a conflagration.
It comes as something of a surprise, given his current ubiquitous status, that Henry James was ever the subject of such a campaign. Today he is The Master. He is the source of dread for AP English students everywhere, with his syllabus-ready, 600-page novels where all that happens is a woman crosses a room. And yet near the end of his life, his novels were not selling so well. Edith Wharton had to pay his publisher to pay James an advance, as he was considered such an unmarketable writer. And after his death, his books were almost entirely out of print in the U.K., and only available in the U.S. as an absurdly expensive set. If you wanted one James book, you had to buy them all — and the man was astonishingly prolific. Thus it remained for decades, until a post-World War II revival.
In his book Monopolizing the Master: Henry James and the Politics of Modern Literary Scholarship, Michael Anesko details this lull time in James’s afterlife. Problems arise immediately following the death of a genius. As uncomfortable as the juxtaposition of the corporeal and the eternal can be — the artist so often gets in the way of his own work, as James did when he decided in his old age to revise and “improve” his earlier novels — when the work is unleashed from the human form, things can get even more confused. The artist might not always know what to do with her or his own output, but less likely to know is the artist’s descendants. Often it’s the disappointing son or brother or friend left in charge of the great artist’s legacy, and so very, very often, they screw it up.
Because the descendant sees the corporeal before they see the divine. The estate of Henry James was left in the hands of his sister-in-law and nephew, although Wharton schemed hard to dominate. The worry, of Wharton and others in James’s social circle, was that the estate would be “botched” by the descendants, and in Anesko’s telling they were “suspicious of the Jameses’ provincial limitations.” Henry left in charge Alice and Harry James, the wife and son of his brother William. William rather notoriously did not “get” his brother’s writing, thinking it overly verbose, overly poetic, overly just about everything. And here they were, supposed to be guiding the great writer’s landing into literary history. The Jameses first order of business was essentially to restrict any access to Henry’s estate, particularly any of the letters that might have shown him to be a snob, a bore, or sexually confused. They locked up everything and kept his private life a secret for decades. That effort took a much greater priority for the family than, say, making sure people could find and buy and read James’s books. Perhaps they thought his image would be easier to control if no one knew who he was.
The problem with leaving a family member in charge of an estate is, of course, that they know you primarily in human form. Whether or not you created works of unparalleled genius, you still sat across from them in the morning with your hair a mess, slurping oatmeal. They want the world to think well of you, to remember you as airbrushed and always well put together, not dribbling oatmeal down the front of your nightgown. And that protective quality leads to some shocking behavior, like the time the Lord Byron’s inner circle decided to burn the only copy of his memoir after his death. Almost none of those behind the burning had bothered to read it; they just assumed it would be shocking and embarrassing and would ruin his reputation. According to Doris Langley Moore’s examination of the creation of the legend of the Romantic poet, The Late Lord Byron, they feared that Byron had for some reason revealed to the whole world that he had slept with and impregnated his own sister. Everyone panicked, and the literary world is poorer for that decision.
These actions have consequences. The Jameses were so worried that readers of Henry’s letters might construe that he had been gay — “I have been so taken up with living in the future and in the idea of answering you with impassioned lips… I can with utter ease procure myself to be transported. I shall come…” he wrote to Arthur Benson — and refused to address his sexuality at all, so that everyone now just assumes that he was gay. In Byron’s case, by refusing to allow Byron himself to tell the story of his life, everyone who hated him, held a grudge, or had a story to tell was suddenly able to rewrite his biography, flooding the market with distorted tales of who Byron had been. (Although in that particular case, it may have increased his longevity. Had we known Byron for his poetry alone, and not for his scandalous lifestyle, we might have collectively decided to forget him entirely.) And truly, the story about him sleeping with his sister ended up coming out anyway, as usually happens with the truth about these kinds of matters.
Who knows how many times such behavior prevented a creator’s revival. When it comes to explaining why some stay in the rut of obscurity while others are able to transcend, the process remains mysterious. A vague sense of the world catching up to the art, or a momentum reached that carries the earthbound high into the sky. In Anesko’s telling, it’s just coincidence. Magic. The world finally coming to its senses.
In Solar Dance: Van Gogh, Forgery, and the Eclipse of Certainty, Modris Eksteins credits a descendent for rehabilitating the poor, mad painter: his sister-in-law, Johanna van Gogh. Johanna seemed to have no qualms, no squishy emotions about the painter-as-man, nothing she felt the need to hide. She simply packed up the huge mass of more than 600 paintings and set up shop outside Amsterdam, determined to break through the art world by hand. She arranged a tour of the paintings, put them in the hands of the influential, and oversaw the publication of Vincent’s letters to her husband, Vincent’s brother Theo. But the element of luck is still present, of course. The world responded to Van Gogh because of the mad energy of the work, but also because of the life story of the underdog and suffering artist — storylines we love and respond to so well. Had Johanna been at all cagey or hesitant to expose her brother-in-law’s less charming characteristics to the world, it might be another artist altogether on all of those coffee mugs.
The stars of our geniuses keep transiting, even after their deaths. Perhaps James will fall out of favor again. Maybe we’ll look back at those people lined up for the Van Gogh exhibits and wonder what they ever saw in that art. And maybe, just maybe, someone will attempt another Irmgard Keun revival, and that brilliant writer will find her ascendancy as well. • 11 April 2012