Cultural Comment
April 17, 2015
The Bizarre, Complicated Formula for Literary Fame
By Joshua Rothman

William Wordsworth died a hundred and sixty-five years ago next week, on April 23, 1850. Why is he still so famous? The obvious answer is that he was a genius. But genius isn’t, in itself, enough to guarantee the sort of lasting, exalted fame that Wordsworth enjoys. Every year, about seventy thousand people visit his home, Dove Cottage, which is maintained by an organization called the Wordsworth Trust. John Dryden was a genius, too—of his role in English poetry, Samuel Johnson said, “He found it brick, and he left it marble”—but very few people visit the prosaically named John Dryden House, which is maintained by the Northamptonshire County Council. Only graduate students read Dryden. Of his fame, we might say that history found it marble, and left it brick.

H. J. Jackson, an emeritus professor of English at the University of Toronto, has written a book about fame’s injustices. It’s called “Those Who Write for Immortality: Romantic Reputations and the Dream of Lasting Fame,” and it’s not a polemical “takedown” of the canon but a thoughtful, elegant, and subtly humorous exploration of the specific circumstances that enable literary reputations to flourish over the long term. Jackson never denies the excellence of Wordsworth’s poems, or the brilliance of the novels of Jane Austen, whom she also writes about. But she does show, convincingly, that a number of other factors, some of them quite bizarre, help literary fame to endure.

Take Wordsworth: it helped, Jackson shows, that he wrote so many different kinds of poems. During his lifetime, people enjoyed reading long, philosophical poetry, and many readers, including Wordsworth himself, assumed that poems like “The Excursion” would insure his fame. Later, though, when tastes in poetry changed, it was the shorter poems in “Lyrical Ballads” that kept his readership from dwindling. It was another stroke of fortune that Wordsworth happened to write poems suitable for children; they could be included in textbooks, gaining him new generations of fans. Many of his poems take place outside England, but, early on, Wordsworth became associated with the Lake District; as a result, for hundreds of years, tour guides, travel writers, and other people interested in the cause of Lake District tourism have kept him in wide circulation. Moreover, because his poems contain so much vivid nature imagery, they lend themselves to illustration. Illustrated books tend to sell well. (Jackson is too serious a scholar to mention the perfection of Wordsworth’s name; I, unencumbered by scholarly sobriety, will note here that it’s a perfect advertisement for his literary greatness.)

Truly long-term literary endurance depends, Jackson writes, on “regular reinterpretation,” and, for that to happen, your writing has to be rich and multi-dimensional. That doesn’t mean, though, that other factors can’t help it along. Thanks to Wordsworth’s liberal, politically active youth, biographers were able to keep discovering previously-unknown political episodes in his early life; that allowed them to keep publishing controversial biographies, which kept him in the public eye long after his death. That distinction between youth and age was also useful for professors: it allowed them to keep arguing over who was better, the “early” or “late” Wordsworth. Even without all these factors, Jackson concedes, Wordsworth’s poetry would still be read today, especially in universities—but academic study alone could never have given him the high cultural profile that he enjoys now. “To sum up,” she writes, Wordsworth’s fame “is due to a concatenation of circumstances, most of which Wordsworth himself could not have foreseen, most of which he would have objected to if he could have foreseen them, and most of which had little to do with the communication of eternal truths.”

From the examples of Wordsworth and a few other writers—Austen, Keats, and their almost-forgotten contemporaries, Mary Brunton and Barry Cornwall—Jackson derives a “checklist” of fame-enhancing characteristics. The first step, of course, is to be a talented writer, although you don’t have to be transcendentally great (“Longevity sets a high standard,” Jackson writes, but it’s “not stratospheric”). Once that’s out of the way, it helps to get along with your extended family, since, after you die, it’ll be your nephew who assembles your “Collected Poems.” It’s also a good idea to leave something artfully unfinished or unpublished—letters, a diary, half of a novel—so that your descendants can dig it up and, by publishing it, renew interest in you. (Don’t leave too much behind, or you’ll bury the good stuff.) She finds that a “shrine,” if you can manage it, is also a plus: “Choose a pretty place to live (or die) in,” Jackson writes, and “die young.” All these occurrences contribute to a compelling “personal myth,” which is worth a hundred good reviews.

If, in the end, your life doesn’t follow this pattern, all is not lost. Some neglected authors, such as William Blake, have gone on to achieve large-scale fame after being recovered from obscurity. Still, Jackson asks, “Why torment yourself and perhaps write against the grain?” Better to acknowledge, with Marcus Aurelius, that the quest for fame is “wholly vanity.”

“Those Who Write for Immortality” is part of a larger genre of literary criticism. It’s sometimes called book history, or (if we’re being formal) the history of the book. Sometimes, book history focusses on the physical aspects of reading. Often, though, the history of the book is actually the history of the people who work with books—publishers, editors, reviewers, booksellers, librarians, and so on. Literary fame, Jackson writes, is not a disembodied process; it’s created by people who, sometimes without knowing it, coöperate across time in a vast reputational enterprise. By describing those people—Wordsworth’s friend William Howitt, for instance, who wrote travel books about the Lake District, in which Wordsworth figured prominently—she provides an alternative to the usual way of talking about fame, which is, she writes, “deeply invested in supernaturalism,” with its metaphors about immortality and the afterlife. She hopes that a more realistic idea about how reputations are formed could encourage readers and teachers to be more adventurous in their reading. Why not seek out some of the non-famous Romantic poets? They might change your life, too, despite their lack of nephews.

Jackson is right, of course, to say that it’s good to read outside the lines. At the same time, she’s a realist: she knows that the usual, “faith-based” way of thinking about literary fame isn’t going away anytime soon. That’s because there really is something uncanny about the literary afterlife. Literary “immortality” first became a thing, she explains, in ancient Rome, around the first century B.C. (Up until then, immortality had been a boon reserved for monarchs and military heroes.) Writers soon realized that theirs was a “distinctive kind of fame.” “Literary fame is not wholly of the past, as other celebrated achievements are,” Jackson writes. “If the works continue to be read, they continue to leave a mark on their readers…. Great deeds, no matter how meritorious, can never be experienced at first hand again, but thoughts can.” Achilles triumphed only once, but Homer triumphs again and again, whenever we read him. There’s a reason, in short, that we’re drawn to the idea of “immortal” literature. You can demystify the processes behind literary fame, but the act of reading itself remains slightly mystical.

All readers, I suspect, have felt that supernatural thrill. As for writers, after I finished Jackson’s book, I thought about all the living ones I know. A lot of them, for obvious reasons, want to be famous. But are any of them thinking in terms of “posterity,” or, God forbid, “immortality”? If they are, they’d never admit to it. The aspiration to everlasting fame is too remote from the everyday—too absurd—to be worth thinking about. It’s enough to survive another week of the writing life, putting one sentence after another.