Six years ago, during one of my summer writers’ workshops, I found myself presented with a young man who was already (at the ripe age of 12) a world-renowned pianist and composer, a frequent guest on “The David Letterman Show” and a full-time Ivy League undergraduate student in music and science. He was also, as it turned out, a most charming and delightful human being and story teller, but I spent an inordinate amount of time wondering, back then, how the years would treat him and if he would survive – if he would grow beyond his early fame into a more mature and still fecund version of himself. His was a candle already burning bright. Who, or what, would further coax and sustain the flame?
Nicholas Delbanco would apply the term “lastingness” to this query. It’s the word that frames his twenty-fifth book, the trigger for the question: “…what does cause some artists just to fade away, and why is it that others soldier on?” Delbanco is concerned with the lastingness of the artist as well as of the artist’s work. He wants to know how and why some writers, musicians, and visual artists transcend earlier versions of themselves, despite the encroachments and physical limitations of age. What, if anything, do Georgia O’Keeffe, William Butler Yeats, Guiseppe Verdi, Giuseppe de Lampedusa, Grace Paley and Francisco Goya have in common? How did they avoid the traps of complacency and endless self-repetition? What kept them in their studios, or at their desks? Were their late works their greatest works? Did they understand the source of their own ambitions?