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Late Style Posted on December 5th


I have always been a lover of things on the brink of obsolescence. My car is certainly one example, as is my fascination with abandoned houses. What an old object loses in function, it gains in aesthetic power. Something on the edge of going under is always well worth watching–hence the draw of sunsets.

So it is no surprise that I am particularly interested in the late style of artists, writers and thinkers. The phrase “late style” itself is evocative–ostensibly it means the artists’ style late in their lives, but it could also mean that the artists are keeping Death waiting. Death waits, drums his fingers and checks his teeth in the reflection off his scythe while the late artist rudely insists on finishing just one more work. Think of how inconsiderate Emily Dickenson was, forcing Death to stop for her!

John Updike wrote a great article on late style, and there’s a fascinating book called On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain that was, in fact, written as the author was dying. Late style intrigues me for a few reasons. First, it is of course worth seeing how an artist or writer addresses death when it become immanent. How does their work acknowledge the inevitable? Secondly, “lateness” seems to reveal much about the character of the artist. There are writers like Truman Capote who simply fade away as get older. There are writers like Arthur Miller who rewrite weaker and weaker versions of their best work. There are writers like Hawthorne who seem to lose faith in their creative abilities, and there are writers like Melville who become increasingly obscure as they age.

It is my feeling that lateness is the ultimate test of an artist. It’s easy enough when you’re young to be full of ideas and energy–death seems far off, and so much is still untried. But for an older artist, creation is no small feat. There’s the demoralizing specter of death, and the challenge to remain original after a lifetime of art-making. On top of that, there is the public’s expectations–an older artist will always be compared to their younger self, and often the mature version is found lacking (whether deservedly or not).

Beyond that, an older artist has to contend with the same struggles any older person has–infirmities, loss of energy, and the cynicism that is the natural result of simply observing the world long enough.. Artist or no, some people become duller and duller and increasingly fixated on minutia, while others retain their wit and interest in the world. Anyone who remains spirited into old age is deserving of admiration: plucky old ladies who still live on their own, old men who still drive fast etc. Artists, however, must “rage, rage against the dying of the light,” yet still not deny death to the point of turning away from it in their work.  Art has to somehow address death if only to return the favor: art wouldn’t exist without mystery of death, and the transience of life is what gives us a faculty for beauty.  If an artist is going to keep Death waiting, the courteous thing is to at least give him a good excuse (I.e good art) for the lateness.

I’ve been interested in the late output of many writers and artists, and heartened by the work of Edward Albee (see this glowing review of a play he wrote in his 70’s) and of Picasso, whose delightful suite of sketches “The Artist and his Model” both acknowledges the absurdity and mirth that comes from a lifetime of making art. Of course, the figure that I’ve studied the most is Hawthorne, and I’ll close this post with a brief sketch of the “late Hawthorne.”

By all accounts, Hawthorne was dying when he worked on his trio of aborted novels: Dr. Grimshawe’s Secret, Septimus Felton, and The Dolliver Romance. It seemed that late in Hawthorne’s life, he was less able to decide on a theme or plot, and therefore all of these novels consist of unconnected scenes or reworkings of an idea or passage. The Dolliver Romance was the last novel Hawthorne worked on, and at the time of his death it was being serialized in the Atlantic with the expectation that the full version would be published. Some of Hawthorne’s most telling views on his “lateness” come in the form of his excuses to his editor about why he couldn’t finish it.late late style

Hawthorne describes his life and output as “much smolder and scanty fire”–implying that his writing thus far had fallen short of what it could have been. This attitude is self-critical, but it is valuable for lateness–Hawthorne felt there was more “fire” than what he had produced thus far. Perhaps this is better than the other view: that all the fire had been used up in youth and all that was left was smolder.

The general criticism on these unfinished novels was that Hawthorne’s creative powers were wavering. Part of this impression no doubt comes from Hawthorne’s increasingly negative views on his own ability–he describes his own mind as losing its “fine edge and temper.” But while these novels are certainly scattered, they are remarkably powerful in the way they address death. All three of them are about eternal life. Yet this choice of topic is far from death-denial in Hawthorne’s case. He explores the subject of eternal life to debunk any notion that it would be attractive. He also, in the course of these works, details why any afterlife would likewise be undesirable. Basically, Hawthorne sees that both eternal life, and heaven are too different from our earthly life to be considered a worthwhile extension of it. Hawthorne used his last works to defend the necessity of death, even as he himself was dying.  (There’s lots more Hawthorne/death talk in McFawn’s archives for the rare person who would be interested!)

One could easily see Hawthorne’s fanatic revisions of his last works not as proof of his failing powers, but as proof of how great  these final novels aimed to be.  He was trying something beyond anything he had done, and the fact that  he felt he was falling short only illustrates the extent of  his ambitions.   Hawthorne had little time left and more than a lifetime of things left to say–this may be sad, but an imagination running out of time is far less tragic  than an imagination running out.    

Such stuff might be grim, but lateness is well worth thinking about even as a young artist. What will I be like as a late writer? What ideas of mine will end up being personal cliches? Will I look back on this post and see the smolder or fire? Will I feel as if I’ve exausted all my creative powers?   Or will I still feel like I have yet to begin? 

Will Death thank  me for my promptness or admonish me for my lateness and my lame excuse:  that I still had something I wanted to write?

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Some Responses to “Late Style” :

  1. “Late style” is when the artist has gained so much experience that he knows how to go about making his (or her) art. The quality of the art is not a function of all that experience — it can be good or bad. Work from a late style is not necessairly on the verge of obsolesence, though it is on the verge of extinction. Late Rembrandt was not bad at all, late Picasso was as vapid as it gets. Ironic that late Picasso put a lot of emphasis on “discovery” and “invention”, while late Rembrandt could give a shit.

    Commented catfish on December 6th, 2007.
  2. Picasso, by the way, remained good in his drawing and printmaking until the end. Painting was a different story. In it, he “raged” against the dying of the light, I guess, even though it had died decades ago.

    Commented catfish on December 6th, 2007.
  3. I’m glad you drew the distinction between “extinction” and “obsolesence”–the two may not happen together. There are artists who die on the cutting edge, and there are artists who start out obsolete.

    I also think your point about “knowing how to make his or her art” is critical. So much time is spent early in an artist’s career just trying to find his or her style and be competent in it. Once “late,” they have all the ability they need–now what? Inexperience is tough, but experience can be just as daunting: what should be done with all this skill? Where do you go once you’ve “arrived?”

    Commented admin on December 7th, 2007.
  4. Late style doesn’t really mean arrival, just an intuitive understanding ofhow to proceed. So you just keep going.

    Commented catfish on December 15th, 2007.
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