Literary Jerks

Did you know that many of the “great” male authors were also jerks?

I learned this while reading a poignant piece on motherhood and art called “Mother, Writer, Monster, Maid” by Rufi Thorpe. It explores the price of both being an artist and being a mother and how women may or may not be able to reconcile those roles and identities. In examining her own struggles as a mother and a writer, she mentions the latitude many male writers have had, but at the expense of their families. Here are some examples from Thorpe’s article.

*On her twelfth birthday, Faulkner’s daughter asked him not to get drunk, and he refused, telling her, “No one remembers Shakespeare’s children.”

*Tolstoy’s wife wrote in her journal:

“How little kindness he shows his family! With us he is never anything but severe and indifferent. His biographers will tell how he helped the porter by drawing his own water, but no one will know that he never once thought to give his wife a moment’s rest, or his sick child a drink of water. How in 32 years he never once sat for five minutes by his sick child’s bedside to let me have a rest, or a good night’s sleep, or go for a walk, or simply sit down for a while and recover from my labours.”

*Mark Twain: “Everytime I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”

*Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate, which seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in their wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and narrow. … All that interests in any character [is this]: has he (or she) the money to marry with? … Suicide is more respectable.”

Carl_Van_Vechten_-_William_Faulkner

These stories and quotes change my perceptions of those literary greats.

I feel inclined to worship them less and pity them more.

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44 thoughts on “Literary Jerks

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  1. Why am I not surprised? It is sad, but kind of laughable, because it seems that no matter the intelligence level, they will just never seem to ‘get it’! Nice short read and very insightful. I’m with you on admiring them less and pitying them more.

      1. I tend to do that too, but I also tend to hold back on looking into the person behind the art. This is also the case with the other art forms, and yes, it’s sad, but there are still those who are inspired ONLY on those sweet little things in life, and I have to hold to that belief!

        Anyway, I liked the way you posted on this topic, and I wholeheartedly agreed with your perspective at the end, but sometimes the jerkish disposition can make for some decent art ;)..

        Peace ✌ 🙂

  2. Nooooo. Not Tolstoy! This brings up a dilemma I had recently last month with an artist that I really loved. I loved this artist a lot, because I connect immensely with the stuff he writes. Then a moment came were I read in the news something this artist did which I did not connect with at all. I won’t go into the details, but I will say that he did something to a fan at one of his concerts that was not very agreeable to my moral liking, and I even found myself infuriated that my beloved artist would do such a thing. It was conveyed clearly by many fans that his actions did indeed make them lose faith and followers over this incident. Even people who never listened to his music were taking the time to write that they would never listen to his stuff. I ended up being one of those fans who questioned if I could still continue listening to his stuff after learning about his personal opinion and actions in relation to others.

    So I had to ponder hard to myself, could I still be able to enjoy his music or the music of many others that I loved knowing that I don’t agree with their personal politics, lifestyle, decisions, opinions, etc. So I thought about it seriously. Yes, I did, silly I know, but I found myself truly conflicted that I loved his music so much, but was bothered with how his action didn’t align with the high regard I held him in.

    To make a long story short, I came to the conclusion that yes, I can still appreciate and listen to his works. I can separate the man from the masterpiece. Although, we cannot take away from the fact of the influence the man had on the masterpiece he created, it can still be magical to us in a sense where the masterpiece’s influence on my personal experience is still or could still be felt. If that makes sense? So I determined that I can apply the same thing here when coming across literary jerks. I refuse to be robbed of my transcendence experience when I listen or read an artist’s great piece of work! I also try to practice some compassion knowing that even the best humans of all time weren’t always perfect or kind to others and that everyone is entitled to their “jerk” opinion…and when it comes down to it, just like you said, I do pity these “jerks” more and worship them or their character less. I have loss some respect for them, but to lose respect for their works that inspire me…well, let’s just say that I refuse to let the ugly side win over the good. So, yes you are a jerk Tolstoy for neglecting your family in such a way, but damn, Anna Karenina rocked my world when I first read it in a fragile time of my life as a youth! So thank you Tolstoy for letting me know that I was not alone in my confused and deep endeavors to find meaning to where I fit in life with God and society, etc. With that said, I still think you are jerk for how you treated your family. Ha!

    Okay, I am sorry I digressed a bit here. It never fails with me, but overall, in the end I agree with you! More pity, less worship! 😉

    P.S: For the record, I still remember Shakespeare!!

    1. Chanelle, you bring up a really good point here. I remember how absolutely crestfallen I was when I learned that Wallace Stevens was racist…used the N word in one title of a poem. I love his poetry. It’s a decision one has to make at some point. Do I choose the work over the author, and as you did? The answer is “YES.” I too pushed myself past the author’s limited attitudes towards “the other” and moved on.

    2. Well said, Chanelle! I think you have the right approach. Art is still art whether or not the person who created it was a gigantic jerk. I like hearing your experience with the musician. I think I’ve done the same thing. I think we even do this with each other. We have to learn to forgive and look at the good qualities alongside the bad in order to maintain any relationships!

  3. Everyone’s a jerk at some point or another; you know what they say – “Never meet your heroes.”

    Even modern writers can be jerks, too.

  4. Oh yeah, I remember reading somewhere that Robert Frost was a total jerk of a husband and pretty much treated his wife like a maid. I also could not finish Carson McCullers’ biography because by the time I got halfway through I absolutely despised the woman. Her husband committed suicide. And one last, supposedly, John Updike was a complete misogynist.

    BUT, just to make things a little better, Walker Percy, author of THE MOVIEGOER, was a wonderful father and husband, who refused to go off on literary jaunts so that he could spend time with his wife and children. And of course my own hero, Anthony Trollope, who agreed with his wife not to have any more children after their third child. He didn’t want to lose her in childbirth–a common means of death for thousands of Victorian women. He was also a very attentive father.

    1. You have redeemed literary greats! I guess it is easy to think that because some of them were jerks, what are the rest of them hiding? They are humans, and humans are good and bad and in-between. We are all of these things all at the same time. I’m sure some of these guys I mentioned above had some sort of redeeming qualities. Let’s hope so! I’ve never read McCullers’ biography. I can’t believe her husband committed suicide. That is terrible. Are you suggesting he did so because of her?!?!

      1. It was a long time ago when I read her bio. but I so strongly remember how much I disliked her. Her husband started off as a would be writer. He published a story or something and seemed to be on his way as a writer of talent. Then the war came along. He was a Ranger and participated in very dangerous missions including behind the lines D day operations. He came back home and Carson’s writing career took off as his declined. What upset me so much was her attitude towards her husband. She just didn’t care. He was crumbling and she was having a great time. His suicide was perhaps a result of his inability to cope with a failed writing career, a distant wife, and being an unsung hero from a war that everyone wanted to forget. So I can’t say she alone pushed him to his final act, but I don’t believe she did much to assuage his overwhelming sense of failure.
        I agree with you that many of the jerks were not so all of the time. Faulkner drank heavily and we all know the results of that sort of habit. His marriage wasn’t a loving marriage. Years ago I visited his home in Mississippi. He worked and slept in his own room. He was a solitary man. But as I said, I try to look for the good spots, but sometimes they are very difficult to locate!

        1. Yes! They are difficult sometimes! Thanks for sharing more about McCullers’s husband. What a sad story. It sounds like he could have used a better partner to care for him.

  5. Wow, those quotes are so nasty. I know it’s not unusual (particularly in the past) to hear the misogynistic outpourings of great novelists but still, it’s a shock. I find whether or not we can separate the artist from the art, a very difficult conversation to have. Some of Hemingway’s work I’ve really enjoyed but reading about who he was as a person taints the experience a bit.

    I read a book a while ago called Difficult Men’. it was about the explosion of ‘difficult’ characters in modern TV but also showed how the show runners for these programs were also jerks. However, the author also suggested that Vince Gilligan (of Breaking Bad fame) is a basket of kittens.

    I guess a person’s temperament and artistic genius are not correlated.

    Also, @paulabroome427 – nice to here the other side of things – that Trollope was an attentive husband and father.

    1. Yes, Hemingway was a gem, wasn’t he? I read his work first, and I have parts of it that I like, but I’m not a die-hard fan. When I read the biographical stuff, it sort of fit with his fiction. But good example too!

  6. Sadly true. Charles Dickens is another, for his treatment of his wife,with whom he had a dozen children, after he decided he preferred the young actress Ellen Ternnan…Then, John Steinbeck forced his first wife to have an abortion , as a result of which she became sterile. I could go on, but it’s too dismal!

  7. I had an opportunity to be part of a small group lecture led by Kurt Vonnegut, whose boredom and impatience was tangible. An asshole of spectacular proportions, he became a bit of a hero to me for his utterly honest lack of social niceties.

  8. It makes me laugh (and sigh) to think Emerson so completely missed the point of Jane Austen’s work…

    *sigh*

  9. That’s kind of sad, but I guess writer’s are human too…Of course as readers we don’t really know about their real personalities. It does kind of make me like them less knowing they are jerks.

  10. Wow. Just… wow. Thanks for sharing! Made me think about those authors in a new light. We so often focus on the work that we forget the lives and opinions of those greats.

  11. Men did not (and some still do not) like women being successful at what they did. It shows their immaturity and lack of self esteem. I was watching the movie “Suffragette” with my wife the other night and kept thinking “what are the men so scared of?”

      1. Emily, wasn’t it sad? When I saw Mark Twain’s remarks about Jane Austen, it made me sad, as I held him in higher regard. It wasn’t much before that Mary Ann Evans felt obligated to write as George Eliot to be heard. I wonder if Twain raved about Eliot. Keith

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