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Literary history and the present are dark with silences: the years-long silences of acknowledged greats; the ceasing to publish after one work appears; the hidden silences; the never coming to book form at all.

What is it that happens with the creator, to the creative process in those times? What are creation’s needs for full functioning? Without intention of or pretension to literary scholarship, I have had special need to learn all I could of this over the years, myself so nearly remaining mute and having let writing die over and over again in me.

Melville’s stages to his thirty-year prose silence are clearest. The presage is in his famous letter to Hawthorne, as he had to hurry Moby Dick to an end:

I am so pulled hither and thither by circumstances. The calm, the coolness, the silent grass-growing mood in which a man ought always to compose, that can seldom be mine. Dollars damn me. What I feel most moved to write, that is banned, it will not pay. Yet altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash.

To have to try final hash; to have one’s work met by “drear ignoring”; to be damned by dollars into a Customs House job; to have only occasional weary evenings and Sundays left for writing — is it not understandable why Melville began to burn work, then refused to write it, “immolating” it, “sealing in a fate subdued”? Instead he turned to sporadic poetry, manageable in a time sense, “to nurse through night the ethereal spark” where once had been “flame on flame.” A thirty-year night. He was nearly seventy before he could quit the customs dock and again have full time for writing, start back to prose. “Age, dull tranquilizer” and devastation of “arid years that filed before” to work through before he could restore the creative process. Three years of tryings before he felt capable of beginning Billy Budd (the kernel waiting half a century); three years more, the slow, painful, never satisfied writing and rewriting of it.

Almost unnoted are the foreground silences, before the achievement. (Remember when Emerson hailed Whitman’s genius, he guessed correctly, “which yet must have had a long foreground for such a start.”) George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, Isak Dinesen, Sherwood Anderson, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, Joyce Cary — all close to, or in, their forties before they became writers; Maria Dermoût (The Ten Thousand Things), Laura Ingalls Wilder, in their sixties. Not all struggled, like Anderson, through the foreground years. Some needed the immobilization of a long illness or loss, or the sudden lifting of responsibility to make writing necessary; others awaited circumstances and encouragement to make it possible (George Eliot, her George Henry Lewes; Laura Wilder, a daughter’s insistence that she transmute her storytelling gift onto paper).

Very close to this last grouping are the silences where the lives never came to writing. Among these, the mute inglorious Miltons: those whose waking hours are all struggle for existence; the barely educated; the illiterate; women. Their silence the silence of centuries as to how life was, is, for most of humanity. Traces of their making, of course, in folk song, lullaby, tales, language itself, jokes, maxims, superstitions, but we know nothing of the creators or how it was with them. In the fantasy of Shakespeare born in Africa (as at least one Shakespeare must have been), was the ritual, the oral storytelling, a fulfillment? Or was there restlessness, indefinable yearning, a sense of restriction?

Rebecca Harding Davis — herself, as a woman of a century ago, so close to remaining mute — also guessed about the silent in that time of the twelve-hour-a-day, six-day workweek. She writes, in “Life in the Iron Mills,” of the illiterate ironworker who sculptured great shapes in the slag, his “fierce thirst for beauty, — to know it, to create it, to be — something . . . other than he is . . . a passion of pain.” Margret Howth in the textile mill:

There were things in the world, that like herself, were marred, did not understand, were hungry to know. . . . Her eyes were quicker to see than ours: delicate or grand lines . . . in the homeliest things. . . . Everything she saw or touched, nearer, more human than to you or me. She never got used to living as other people do; these sights and sounds did not come to her common.

She never got used to living as other people do. Was that one of the ways it was?

From “Silences,” which appeared in the October 1965 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The complete essay — along with the magazine’s entire 164-year archive — is available here.

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October 1965

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