The Immortality Stakes
Allegoria dell’immortalità, Giulio Romano, c. 1540
From The Chronicle Review:
Cicero thought superior writers, or their souls, would survive death and enter an eternal realm “where eminent and excellent men find their true reward.” Ovid assured his wife that she would “live for all time in my song.” Horace, proud of his reputation as a lyric poet, bragged that he was “pointed out by passers-by.” His friend Virgil, however — if we trust Suetonius — ducked into buildings to avoid fans.
Despite Virgil’s presumed ambivalence, the notion that all literary writers crave fame — the contemporary kind, the immortal kind, or both — remains a cultural cliché. It’s one that H.J. Jackson, professor emerita at the University of Toronto and distinguished scholar of 18th-century and Romantic British literature, places at the heart of Those Who Write for Immortality, her spirited and always enlightening meditation on literary fame that cites the pros and cons above.
Although she opens the book by declaring “desire for fame” among writers “ubiquitous,” Jackson soon distances herself from that. And so she should. In the course of her study, she cites a number of writers who denied a desire for fame — Blake and Wordsworth among them. A reader might add others. Solzhenitsyn, to take one example, wrote for reasons of ideological and ethical commitment. Kafka, it might be said, wrote out of internally directed psychological need. Or did Kafka, in asking for his works to be burned, seek immortality?
What Jackson cares more about, and analyzes provocatively, is how literary fame happens, and particularly how it greeted or eluded figures in the Romantic period in which she specializes. Against the poet Donald Justice, who suggested in an essay that the “randomness” of literary fame “approaches the chaotic,” Jackson counters that while it may not operate by scientific law, it is not “absolutely chaotic,” and yields “patterns” that the diligent scholar can uncover.
Why, then, did Wordsworth win what Jackson cheekily calls the “immortality stakes” while Robert Southey, whom mutual contemporaries considered “as likely a prospect for immortality as Wordsworth,” plummeted so far that the most recent Norton Anthology grants him zero pages, compared with Wordsworth’s 131 and Byron’s 135?