Breath of Art

The Dead Girl

by Melanie Thernstrom
Pocket Books, 431 pp., $19.95

The portrait of the artist as a young man is by now a classic literary theme, given its generic title by James Joyce’s half-ironic, entirely serious, narrative of his self-invention. What happens when the artist is a young woman? A young woman’s search for an authentic life is not a particularly new theme, but in the literature we have she often finds herself through an adult choice of vocation, as Jane Addams did in Hull House. An artist’s vocation, however, is given from the start by the peculiar conjunction of flayed sensibility and talent. I don’t mean anything emotional by “flayed”—I mean only being unable to bear a sound off-pitch, or an ugly combination of colors, or unctuous language. A young artist cannot help wincing, and he or she is also likely to be exaggeratedly grateful for the slightest relief granted the flayed sensibility. This gratitude is natural to the young artist who finds at last the singer whose voice does not offend, the teacher whose methods do not irritate, the friend who is also writing poetry, the editor who is an artist manqué.

In every historical period, the young woman, like the young man, will probably encounter harrowing difficulties on the way to an artistic vocation, since relatively few families think of art as the family work in which the children are to join as by dynastic succession. Most families are taken aback by the embryonic literary artist in their midst, hardly knowing what to do with the cranky child whom nothing satisfies. Precocious musical or graphic talent is easier to deal with, because it can be immediately set to training. There are no academies for the infant literary artist, mostly because acquiring the expressiveness of adult language is necessarily a slow process, and because the emotional maturity necessary for literary achievement comes, if it does, only after puberty.

In the meantime, the juvenile writer-to-be is likely to hang about, watchful, critical, demanding, rebellious, supercilious, melancholy, diligent and indolent by turns, passionately loving and passionately hating, literally incomprehensible to the more phlegmatic or orderly members of the household. The young artist seems on the one hand needlessly cruel (Joyce is haunted by having refused his dying mother’s pleas that he take the sacrament) and on the other hand needlessly sensitive, the princess of the household who flinches at the pea no matter how numerous the intervening mattresses. Families may tolerate this behavior better from young men than from young women, of whom more submissiveness is expected, but for the most part they don’t warm to it in young men either.

But if the first self-liberation of the young artist happens within the family, equally significant subsequent ones must take place. Both young men and young women must strenuously define themselves against their peers (as Stephen Dedalus decides against staying in Ireland with the young nationalist writers, but decides equally not to be a “west Briton” writer who would take his cue from England). Young women artists must, it…

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