The Chronicle Review

How Literary Fame Happens

Martin Leon Barreto for The Chronicle Review

August 24, 2015

The pros and cons of literary fame date back to antiquity. 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.

Jackson is less interested in yanking down established reputations than in recovering worthy works that fell by the wayside.

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? Why did Jane Austen rise to literary immortality and mass fame while her almost exact contemporary, the novelist Mary Brunton, disappeared despite enjoying a place "higher than Austen’s," in Jackson’s judgment, for "the first half of the Victorian period"? Why did Keats eclipse Barry Cornwall?

Jackson offers plentiful answers — innate literary merit is not one of them. She rejects the Romantic cult of literary genius that she ascribes to Wordsworth: belief in "the autonomous genius who generates works of overwhelming intrinsic merit and wins readers one at a time until the enlightened audience achieves critical mass." In reality, Jackson argues, only "threshold competence" is necessary to start on the race for literary fame.

Examining such long-distance losers of her period as George Crabbe, Robert Bloomfield, and Leigh Hunt, and marathon winners such as Byron, Wordsworth, and Keats, Jackson cites multiple aids to, and drags on, their reputations.

As the "wider public for the most part lost interest in long poems during the Victorian period," she writes, and inclusion in a prestigious Victorian poetry anthology became crucial for continued prominence, Southey and Crabbe lost ground, and those whose corpus included shorter lyric poems gained. "Suitability for children" also mattered as the teaching of poetry became key for sustaining reputations, as did "susceptibility to pictorial illustration" in an era when publishers sought to improve poetry’s market share through visuals.

Zeroing in on other overlooked practical contributions to literary fame, Jackson asks, "Did a society emerge to look after the writer’s interest?" She makes clear that a writer such as Brunton, who lacked one, and whose fiction was too gamey for children, suffered for that. Best thing of all, Jackson explains, was to be blessed with a major biography, as Blake was by Alexander Gilchrist and Keats by Richard Monckton Milnes. It also didn’t hurt to die young, like Keats, she adds, rather than live till 86, like Cornwall, who by 1870 could barely recognize lines he’d written as a young man.

She convincingly shows that "fame now" can never guarantee "fame forever."

Along the way, and true to her eminently sensible search for patterns, Jackson offers cautious generalizations. The observation that "revival of a once celebrated name is a harder sell than rediscovery of an unknown one" is a truth that forces itself, she believes, on any scholar paying attention to how the canon develops. Illustrating the syndrome are the enormous swings of reputation of, for example, Sir Walter Scott — once a star, now a sunken stock — and William Blake — once a nobody and "madman," now a presumed immortal.

Ultimately, Jackson asserts, "No dead author’s work can be sustained without a convergence of audiences," which she separates elsewhere into four types: "other writers, literary professionals, lay readers, the general public." The upshot, for Jackson, is that "aesthetic judgments are provisional, not absolute. … There are no ultimate standards, only evolving (and revolving) ones. … There is no Olympian view of literary merit. There never will be."

Consistent with that view, Jackson admits that she’s less interested in yanking down reputations of figures, such as Keats, whose fame she plainly finds adventitious — we’re too "historically invested" in them, she writes — than in urging critics and scholars to engage in "recovery projects" that reconsider writers who fell by the wayside. Nervy in her judgments, Jackson contends that Hunt "produced a sufficient number of exceptionally good poems to have held his own with Coleridge, Keats and Shelley," and that Cornwall, too, "is still worth hearing."

An intriguing theme that Jackson revisits throughout is the connection between contemporary fame and immortal fame. The latter is best revised to "fame centuries after one’s death," since Jackson convincingly shows that "fame now" can never guarantee "fame forever." Horace thought contemporary renown was a prerequisite of immortal fame, which built upon it. Wordsworth considered the two logically distinct and almost always irreconcilable — contemporary popularity for him evinced banal alignment with status-quo values that would bar immortal appreciation. History, as the author shows, offers both sorts of cases.

Jackson makes it abundantly clear, all told, that an appetite for literary immortality, like the desire to read one’s obituary, poses sufficient challenge that a writer should concentrate on other goals. If you don’t have time to read her iconoclastic book, at least enjoy a limerick by William S. Baring-Gould, foisted on Jackson by a mischievous friend, that sums up much of it:

A goddess capricious is Fame.
You may strive to make noted your name.
But she either neglects you
Or coolly selects you
For laurels distinct from your aim.

Carlin Romano is the author of America the Philosophical (Knopf, 2012) and a professor of philosophy and humanities at Ursinus College.