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The Artist in Isolation; Boo-Hoo Books

June 10, 2011 | by

In a 1974 interview with The Paris Review, Archibald MacLeish adamantly insisted that the writer must engage with the world around him in order to create art, not act as a mere outside observer commenting on the play at hand. “The subject of art is life. You learn by living it. And you don’t live it alone ... You live it with and by people—yourself in your relation with people, with and by living things, yourself in your relation to living things.” I wholeheartedly agree with MacLeish but have plenty of writer-friends who insist on separating themselves from the world around them, alone and misunderstood by everyone else. What’s your take on the romantic notion of the artist in isolation? Is a Henry David Thoreau laughable in this day and age? —Kate

Of course writers need solitude—that’s where the writing happens—but I’m with MacLeish: if you’re going to have anything worth saying, you’d better start by taking an interest in other people. That means living among them; sexting doesn’t count. The two big dangers for contemporary fiction, it seems to me, are people not reading enough and people not hanging out enough. These dangers were unimaginable in Thoreau’s time. His solitude is full of remembered texts and remembered conversations. His clean slate is a palimpsest. But to spend your days alone and online isn’t just bad training, it also makes for lousy material.

So, I’m curious—what was the last book that made you cry?

I got prickly-eyed last night over a history book, of all things, by our sports correspondent Louisa Thomas. In Conscience, Thomas writes about her great grandfather and great uncles, minister’s sons who wrestled with the question of whether to fight in World War I. (The most famous of these brothers, Norman Thomas, later became a hero of the Socialist party.) The moral seriousness of Norman and his brother Evan, in their letters and speeches, is wonderful, at times even preposterous—and those are exactly the moments that get me.

But if you mean crying like boo-hoo, and if you don’t count King Lear (which came to town last month with Derek Jacobi), I think it may have been rereading Mrs. Bridge. Boo-hooing and laughing at once.

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  1. Stella | June 10, 2011 at 9:19 am

    And of course Thoreau was never a hermit. He had lunch with his friend Emerson and his mother frequently, received visitors at the cabin such as Ellery Channing, his mother did his laundry, etc etc.

  2. Goneril | June 10, 2011 at 9:20 am

    That would be “Jacobi”.

  3. Thessaly La Force | June 10, 2011 at 9:31 am


  4. aging lit major | June 10, 2011 at 9:44 am

    Stella is right on. Thoreau belonged to what Susan Cheever called the “American Bloomsbury.” Productivity in isolation is the exception rather than the rule, though too much reliance on community produces workshopped-to-death prose and poetry. It’s a matter of striking a balance. Most successful books these days have long lists of acknowledgments, though the authors may have spent some quietude in a secluded office or at Yaddo or another colony to get the job done.

  5. pd mallamo | June 10, 2011 at 4:56 pm

    The recently-published diaries of Christopher Isherwood (Katherine Bucknell, ed.) reveal a successful mid-century writer with such rich social/cultural connections that it boggles the mind – rich, poor, famous, common, brilliant, ridiculous. If ever there was an author who lived what he wrote, it was Isherwood, and his art was the richer for it. I doubt the word “isolation” was in the man’s vocabulary. A must-read, esp. for young writers.

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