Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Benjamin John Armstrong

How will you be remembered?

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The Sanders portrait of William Shakespeare

All artists are shaped by the times in which they live, but we don’t always appreciate how deeply their times can be shaped by them—especially once they’re no longer around. To take an obvious example, I don’t think even an educated nonspecialist reader would be able to name such playwrights as Fletcher, Beaumont, John Ford, or even Ben Jonson if they hadn’t lived at the same time as Shakespeare, who stands as the kind of overwhelming figure who brings an entire generation of fellow writers to our attention. (Marlowe, I suspect, is the only one who might be able to hold his own.) I’m not even sure if we’d be as interested in the earlier history of England, or even the Elizabethan age that the poet prudently avoided engaging in his own work, if Shakespeare had never existed. The presence of one major writer may be the only thing that keeps a century alive in our imaginations, and that writer’s identity can often come as a surprise. It’s probably true that we only remember such figures as Oliver Goldsmith and Colley Cibber because of their association with Samuel Johnson, but for a lot of readers, we only know Johnson himself through Boswell.

This is all the more striking in the case of a poet like Dante, thanks to whom countless historical figures—Farinata, Cavalcanti, Bertran de Born—still exist for us solely because they appear in a few lines of the Inferno. Dante, unlike Shakespeare, was aiming for this deliberately: he was keenly aware of how a passage in an epic poem can preserve a name forever, and I’d like to believe, along with Borges, that he wrote the entire Divine Comedy as a way of enshrining a few images of Beatrice Portinari. The earliest function of poetry, at least in its epic form, was to serve as a kind of cultural memory, and it worked; it’s no accident that the oldest historical figure whose name is reasonably known to us is Gilgamesh. The poem remains, even after the civilization and the petty territorial disputes that fueled its indignation have fallen away. To the extent that international readers care at all about the Gulephs and the Ghibellines, it’s because Dante was there at the time. And nothing could have come as a greater surprise to his contemporaries than the fact that they would continue to exist only in the work of a solitary exile.

Illustration by Gustave Doré for Dante's Inferno

Even stranger is the case of the diarist, who, unlike novelists, poets, and playwrights, writes in secret, but whose works can be just as lasting. Countless figures persist only as an offhand mention in the journals of Samuel Pepys, and most of them would be shocked by which details have been passed down to posterity. As W.H. Auden writes in A Certain World:

The historical reputation of a public figure is based upon a large number of known data, some favorable, some unfavorable. Consequently, a single derogatory remark in a contemporary memoir affects his reputation, for better or worse, very little. In the case of an obscure private individual, however, the single derogatory remark may damn him forever, because it is all we shall ever hear about him.

January 3, 1854. In the evening went to a party at Mr. Anfrere’s. Very slow—small rooms, piano out of tune, bad wine, and stupid people.—Benjamin John Armstrong

Poor Mr. Anfrere! No doubt he had many virtues, but to posterity he is simply an incompetent host.

And it’s interesting to see the same process at work in the artists around us. Some authors are deservedly known as chroniclers of their time: in the New Yorker piece I discussed yesterday, Claudia Roth Pierpont regrets that we won’t have a chance to hear Updike or Roth on the age of Obama, thanks respectively to death and retirement. Updike, in particular, was one of our great chroniclers of the everyday, and there are countless scraps of ephemera from the latter half of the twentieth century—advertisements, jingles, products, packages—that live on because they briefly passed through Rabbit’s consciousness. It’s another reason to regret the death of the daily comic strip, which, at its best, preserves this sort of material forever: if I’m aware of such disparate figures as Caspar Weinberger and Jessica Hahn, it’s because of my dogeared Bloom County collections. (The wonderful thing about movies is that they pick up all this incidental detail in the fly, so that time turns the movies of, say, Robert Altman into priceless works of reportage.) We all fight so hard to be remembered, and we think we have a good sense of our achievements, but really, if any memory of us persists at all, it’s likely to be in a form we can’t expect, in the work of someone whose name we’ve never heard.

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