by Kaulie Lewis
“Conventional wisdom holds that if you do not write your A Farewell to Arms, paint your “Starry Night,” start the next Twitter or climb Mount Everest by young adulthood, or at least middle age, then chances are you will never do it. But that idea is becoming increasingly outdated as people are not only having successes later in life, but blooming in areas they never expected. Maybe they are not making millions, or wielding a brush like Rembrandt. Still, many people are discovering that the latter part of their lives can be just as (or even more) rewarding creatively, emotionally and spiritually.” So writes Abby Elin in an article on creative, productive retirements for The New York Times. We couldn’t agree more. Elin goes on to profile a number of individuals who found success well after 40, including Lucille Gang Shulklapper, who’s published four chapbooks of poetry and a children’s book since she turned 60. Elin also interviewed a number of experts in various fields who are beginning to speak out against the “wunderkind” model of creativity. “We absolutely have to revamp this idea of a linear pattern of accomplishment that ends when you’re 50 or 60,” says Karl A. Pillemer, a professor at Cornell University. “There are simply too many examples of people who bloom late, and it’s the most extraordinary time of their life.”
Of course, we have some examples of our own. There’s Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, an Iranian artist who, at 91, is seeing her art in a U.S. museum exhibition for the first time, though she’s been producing drawing and mirrored works for many years and knew everyone from the Shah of Iran to Andy Warhol. New York Magazine interviewed her during a recent trip to the Big Apple for the opening of her show at the Guggenheim, and she shared a little about her current work schedule in Tehran: “I have no social life. I don’t need anything. At ten o’clock in the morning, I go into the studio. And I go home at three. I like it because I can create there.”
And then there’s John Darnielle, the frontman and lyricist for The Mountain Goats, who published his debut novel last year at 48. That novel, Wolf in White Van, was longlisted for the National Book Award in fiction and has drawn considerable praise. In a wonderfully meta Bloomer moment, Darnielle recently talked with Electric Literature about E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros, which was published when Eddison was 40, and about reading and writing in the fantasy/sci-fi genre: “Magic I think for me is kind of personal. Like, as soon as magic is in play, then I am given permission to imagine a different world, one in which magic things might happen—one where maybe I get some magic to wield if I’m lucky. Where cool stuff might happen at any given moment, cool stuff you wouldn’t even guess at. And for as long as the story holds, I’m kind of living in that world.”
Though artist Tom McCarthy is not technically a Bloomer—his first novel was published when he was 36—his career and art also belie that problematic “linear pattern of accomplishment.” He recently talked with Frederic Tuten for BOMB Magazine about his youth as a visual artist, the connections between art and literature, and his eclectic reading list. Chief among the books discussed is, appropriately, James Joyce’s late-life masterpiece Finnegans Wake. Also discussed: the fate of the novel, which McCarthy argues “is and always has been dead, and this is the very precondition of its perpetual regeneration. Don Quixote is a novel about how novels don’t work (the hero tries to enact all these episodes from books, as though to test their propositions, and he, they, flunk each time); about a fundamental, systematic dysfunction written right into the medium’s core. And that’s more or less the first major novel! It’s a peculiarly zombie art form.”
Fittingly enough, Cervantes and his famous Don Quixote have been much in the news this month for a “peculiarly zombie” reason: the body of Cervantes has just been rediscovered. Buried in a convent 399 years ago, his remains were in a grave so poorly marked that no one was quite sure where they were. All that changed this week when a team of archaeologists positively identified his bones, and there’s been considerable excitement about the discovery. Not everyone is overjoyed, however. In an essay for the New Yorker Ilan Stavans argues that “frankly, there is something creepy about bringing Cervantes back from the dead,” and that the renewed interest in Cervantes may damage his reputation, as little-known but rather unsavory biographical details come to light. One of the biographical details we’re perfectly happy to accept, though, is Cervantes’s Bloomer status: the first part of Don Quixote wasn’t published until the author was 58, and it took another ten years for the second half to be released. The first modern novel, then, was written by exactly the kind of late-in-life creative the New York Times is now choosing to celebrate—very modern indeed.
Of course, there are times when a writer blooms late due to tragedy and injustice. This month we have an example of that, too: The Guardian reported on the short stories of Russian writer Varlam Shalamov, who spent much of his life imprisoned in the Kolyma gulag. He began writing stories about the camps when he was 47 and finished more than 140, though their publication was scattered and the stories weren’t available in Russia until after his death. Though they were the product of 17 years of abuse and hard labor, Shalamov considered his stories “a truthful but not despondent or cynical testimony . . . [of] the victory of good, a slap in the face of evil.” His words offer an inspiring perspective on the power of late-blooming literature.