by Kaulie Lewis
While Walt Whitman’s publication history doesn’t qualify him as a true Bloomer—his first book, a temperance novel, was published when he was 23—his life at 40 was nothing if not still budding. As reported in Justin Martin’s Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians, Whitman spent his 39th year living with his mother in a tiny Brooklyn apartment, the first two editions of Leaves of Grass having proved critical and commercial failures. But his is a story of stamina and constant reinvention: he of course went on to become the godfather of American poetry, which should encourage all struggling writers, regardless of age or Brooklyn residency.
Michel Faber’s writing career is following a nearly opposite trajectory, and this seems to be largely by choice. After publishing his first story collection at 38 and achieving international literary fame at 42 with the release of The Crimson Petal and the White, Faber, now 54, is retiring from writing. “I felt that I had one more book in me that could be special and sincere and extraordinary, and that that would be enough,” he told The New York Times. That work, The Book of Strange New Things, was published this month. It’s hard to know precisely what moral to glean from Faber’s story—perhaps “Bloom in your own time, for your own time?”
That Bloomers’ creative lives average considerably more than 12 or 14 years is difficult to prove but seems highly likely. Consider the case of Penelope Fitzgerald, who our own Evelyn Somers has written about for this site. Fitzgerald was 61 when the publication of The Bookshop truly launched her writing career, and she produced 12 full-length books between the ages of 58 and 83. Hermione Lee has written the first biography of Fitzgerald, and James Wood reviewed the book for The New Yorker. The article’s title? “Late Bloom,” of course. As Wood puts it, “the story that Lee’s book tells . . . is not about patience on a monument but about talent buried under a heavy plinth, and discovered only just in time—the late achievement less a measured distillation than a lifesaving decoction.”
For a different perspective on the “lifesaving” but emotionally costly work of writing and publication, particularly when the book in question is a woman’s account of an abusive childhood, look no further than The Butter’s conversation with Elly Danica, who published her memoir Don’t at 41. The piece explores how critical responses to women’s memoirs are often simplified and the texts dismissed as victim stories without concern for literary merit or craft, and considers the high cost of vulnerability. It’s also a lesson in persistence, revealing the work that goes into telling a necessary story—Danica worked for 11 years on Don’t, refining the final book down from a lifetime of journaling. “I decided when I was nine years old that I would try to find a way to tell the story of what happened to me,” she says. “It took me until my late 30s to find my voice, but the promise I made to my nine year old self was the driving force all these years.”
Bloom readers will no doubt appreciate The New York Times Magazine’s feature on “Old Masters,” individuals over 80 who are still accomplishing amazing things in their field. Among those profiled are Carmen Herrera, a painter who sold her first piece at 89 and now has paintings in the MOMA and the Tate Modern, and Roy Haynes, 89, who released his most recent jazz album in 2011. In an essay introduction to the feature, Lewis H. Lapham wonders why, for these masters, “love’s labor is not lost but still to be found. Why do they persist?” After considering the lifelong work of Sophocles, Hokusai and Johnson, he comes to the conclusion “that the tree of knowledge and the fountain of youth are one and the same.”
The “Old Masters” feature provides a rare but welcome counter to the ever-popular “20 Under 40” lists. Joanna Walsh sums up the trouble with these pieces in an essay for The Guardian: “Is writing a beauty contest? Is it a sports competition? Beauty and sporting achievement might be associated, in our culture, with youth . . . but there’s no reason this should go for the written word too.” We couldn’t have put it better ourselves.
Kaulie Lewis lives and writes in Texas, interns for The Millions, and tweets at @kaulielewis.