Great Depression

Ross and Tom: Two American Tragedies

by John Leggett
Simon and Schuster, 447 pp., $10.00

The theory that art thrives on neurosis was elegantly exposed by Lionel Trilling when he argued that if any component is health-giving in a writer’s nature, it is his creative power. Sickness, like war, may easily provide the chaos for genius to shape. It cannot supply genius. There are seasons when readers wish to hear about Bull Run, and there are seasons when they want accounts of melancholia, loneliness, and Bellevue. Expert witnesses to those matters can then get attention that would be withheld from connoisseurs of childhood or savings banks; and the writers who come forward to quench the popular thirst will often be qualified by personal experience to give authentic details of the phenomena. But the ability to convey their experience, to give it depth and color, is something else. Genius always stands ready to supply the omissions of experience, as Anna Karenina and other masterpieces demonstrate.

During the past twenty years some acute critics have sharpened the theory of art as neurosis and tried to link suicide (supposedly dependent on mental illness) with literary talent. Several well-known authors killed themselves in that span and seemed to produce the data for macabre generalizations. In an age when the creative imagination has been exalted to enormous heights, one can understand why critics should be exploring its vulnerabilities. Yet a glance at some common symptoms and social aspects of suicide (which has been a hobbyhorse of sociologists since Durkheim) may turn the problem around. Ross Lockridge and Thomas Heggen—subjects of a deeply sympathetic and tactful double biography by John Leggett—represent strong evidence to support Trilling’s position, because so many of their pathological features seem distinct in origin from their literary bent.

Statistically speaking, a war lowers the rate of suicide, and the return of peace pushes it up. In our country the rate fell steadily during the Second World War and rose abruptly in the years that followed, reaching a high, rough plateau in the years 1947-1950, after which it fell again. Lockridge died in 1948, Heggen in 1949. Suicide rates are seasonal, dipping in the winter and climbing in the spring; December and May are the poles. Both Lockridge and Heggen killed themselves in the preferred season—Heggen in the preferred month. The suicide rate is higher for men out of work than for those with regular employment. Both Lockridge and Heggen had no job at the time of their deaths, and neither was engaged in a literary task.

These are crude, external tokens, more exciting to actuaries than to men of taste. But they illustrate the principle that suicide is to some extent invited by society. A nation may honor widows for refusing to survive their husbands, or it may expect defeated generals to execute themselves. An elderly French duke, whose social circle made potency the gauge of manly excellence, died when he tried to induce an erection, for the service of a young mistress, by half-hanging himself; she did not free his neck …

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