Ross and Tom: Two American Tragedies
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 in time. Oxford students commit suicide twice as often as those at Yale. In our country, old invalids are often praised for ending a life that has grown burdensome to their children, and white psychiatrists are thirty times as suicidal as black housewives.
Of course, invitations to suicide are nearly always refused. But the stigmata of those inclined to accept have been catalogued. Suicides are often people who cannot bear to lose control of their destiny. They are not fired from jobs but quit them. If they feel death is near, they wish to fix the hour. Lockridge gave up a teaching post at Indiana University when he got a fellowship at Harvard. He abandoned his studies at Harvard to teach at Simmons; and he resigned from Simmons (against the advice of a close friend) when his book was accepted for publication. Heggen quit his earliest job (setting type) because he disliked his boss. He quit his next job, as a waiter in a fraternity house, because he fell out with the man who arranged it for him. He held on to his first professional position, as an editor for the Reader’s Digest, because it was interrupted by his naval service and other leaves; but he disliked it and finally quit when the success of his novel was established.
No portent of suicide is more widely recognized than a long stretch of emotional depression. Melancholy, non-specific illness, and a sense of isolation captured Lockridge in the summer of 1946; his book did not appear for another eighteen months. Heggen’s gloom began in mid-adolescence. As he grew older, it was compounded first with a bitter resentment of authority, then with alcoholism, and finally with an addiction to barbiturates. The imminence of suicide is often heralded by a false dawn, when the depression seems to lift. Both Lockridge and Heggen were thought to have taken a clear turn for the better shortly before they died (one week for Lockridge, three weeks for Heggen).
On the contrary, their creative energy was released under what were, for them, bright auspices. About the time the war in Europe broke out, Lockridge began composing a long narrative poem which Houghton Mifflin rejected early in 1941. Superficially undismayed, he then undertook to write a colossal novel, on which he made swift progress. Lockridge was tempted by military service; but the draft board rejected him on account of an irregular heartbeat. Around VJ Day he completed all but the details of his vast design; and the end of the war nearly coincided with the end of his creative flood. Heggen was seldom (if ever) so happy as while he served on an attack cargo and troop ship in the Pacific, during the last year of the war. That was also when, after a two-year writing block, he produced the bulk of the stories that went into Mister Roberts; and he went on to complete the book (apart from revisions) by the end of 1945. So it looks as if both men did their best work when they were least depressed and their countrymen were full of purpose.
Both men’s depressions seem to have sprung from troubles not usually called artistic—although they did fit their literary careers (like most of their occupations) into the syndrome. Lockridge very early formed the habit of treating all his serious pursuits as competitions. He paced his studies by the clock, was a champion typist, and had immense powers of concentration. The reward for his many triumphs was his parents’ admiring love. Healthy, bright, good-looking, and remorselessly cheerful, he would dismiss a lost contest as one that did not matter, or else he would reinterpret it as a hidden victory.
In his second year at Indiana University, Lockridge won a scholarship that gave him a junior year in Paris. Even the dedicated grind normally treats such a prize as the chance to taste foreign cultures and to live in the great world. Lockridge made it an academic steeplechase. With only two years’ study of French to start him against rivals from twenty countries, he galloped in eight months to first place in the Cours de Civilisation for foreign students at the Sorbonne. How many other students soberly competed for the honor we do not know. But then, instead of enjoying the summer that remained, and touring the continent for pleasure, Lockridge dismissed the delights of Europe just when he was free to embrace them, and returned nonstop to Indiana. He never saw Europe again, and seldom employed his mastery of French.
The following autumn, Lockridge applied for a Rhodes scholarship. At Indiana University he was soon to take his AB degree with the highest grade-point average recorded for an under-graduate. But in the Rhodes competition he gained only an alternate’s place and never received the scholarship. While his girlfriend wept, Lockridge himself seemed unmoved. He had another career in mind—authorship. Yet he soon felt ill; and instead of taking the symptoms seriously, he treated them with vigorous exercise. A medical uncle finally intervened, to find that the young man had ignored a case of scarlatina, and the overexertion had injured his heart. It took eight months for Lockridge to recover from the strain—three of them spent in bed while his mother nursed him. One is tempted to speculate that so far from ignoring the loss of the Rhodes scholarship, he took that failure as a sign of worthlessness and punished himself by refusing to accede to the demands of a simple, physical disease.
Certainly, Lockridge had never learned to accept failure or to tolerate emotional slumps. One suspects that the mere existence of a period of depression or insomnia would produce guilt and a deepened depression. Lockridge deferred easy pleasures and lived ascetically; his wife and children made do with the small wages he got as a teacher at Simmons College 1941-1946, while he gave his entire leisure to the poem and the novel. Just as Lockridge had evaded Paris, so he evaded Boston. Writing to a close friend the summer after he resigned from Simmons—about the time his melancholy began—Lockridge said, “In a way I never really lived in Boston.”
What celestial ransom could possibly pay him for the worldly sacrifices he had endured? The boon he always sought was the admiration of his family; and one of his panics while the novel went through the press was that his mother or father might be offended by the coarse sexuality of some episodes. When he returned home, the summer after the book was accepted, he learned that his family and he had grown too far apart, and their approval hardly thrilled him.
Heggen, like Lockridge, had no early training in the economy of gloom. He was a bright, charming, undersized child, bumptious, witty, and frail, overprotected by his mother, much loved by two pretty sisters. His friends were older, taller, stronger than himself. To make his way, he came to rely on a polemical wit; and one suspects that he felt impatient with his puny body. Looking back, one sees an attractive, well-dressed mother, worried about her darling’s health, and a pair of outgoing girls, much sought after by beaux. The sisters seemed devoted to the boy—a middle child; but as the mother stood by the self-contained and laconic father, and as the girls went out with their older, taller boyfriends, did the dependent kid feel they had enticed and deserted him? All his life he wanted good-looking women to yield to him and then to suffer humiliations at his hands. Once his hold was secure, Heggen lost interest in a woman. Maybe he was looking for revenge.
Young Heggen’s humor and ebullience depended on a mock-revolt against authority. His father was a remote, steady, uncommunicative man who lived in compartments: work and home. Mr. Heggen tended his business with care but left the children to his wife. In 1934-1935 the business collapsed; and although Mr. Heggen landed a respectable job with the government, this required him to dislodge his family from comfortable, congenial surroundings and move them 600 miles to an alien milieu, painfully inferior to the home they left. The sisters made an easy adjustment, but the usually stoical mother showed her disappointment; and the uprooted boy, now sixteen, sank into a moodiness that he never lost. Again, speculations haunt one. After enjoying the normal, adolescent feud with his father, did the boy feel guilty to learn that this rival was indeed ruined? Was he unable to forgive the father for letting the family down? Did he hate himself for harboring resentments against a defeated victim?
Celebration and self-mutilation were joined in Heggen’s character. As an undergraduate he organized a riotous “Copyreader’s Ball,” to which he wore a swallow-tailed coat. While Heggen danced with Max Shulman, another friend snipped off one of the tails with a pair of long shears. Hearing the shearsman swoop on the second tail, Heggen flicked his left hand back and lost the first joint of a finger. When he picked the missing inch of flesh off the floor, he said ironically, “This is the most significant moment of my life.”
A couple of years later, he was in the navy and his ship made a stop in Bermuda. Heggen celebrated with an alcoholic spree that ended when he almost cut off his right hand on the broken glass of a cab window. About a year later, he was on another ship in the port of San Francisco, where he was about to enjoy a week’s shore leave. Starting the party early, he got furiously drunk in his stateroom and took a hot shower so scalding that he collapsed under the stream, had to be rescued, and narrowly escaped terrible burns. A year later in Minneapolis, he was staying with his family when he completed the only book he was ever to publish. Wishing to celebrate, he borrowed the family car and smashed it up. Heggen’s drunks surely released an impulse to punish his body.
Weighing these and many other facts, one must conclude that if Heggen, like Lockridge, chained his literary career to his suicidal despair, that despair was not caused by his talent or success. Mr. Leggett hints at another judgment, but he faces few of the issues I have raised. It is a pseudo-Romantic error to believe that only corrupt writers love success, and that only the saintly kill themselves. Neither Raintree County nor Mister Roberts has many readers today. It would be too bad if we tried to thrust importance on them by setting up their authors as martyrs to the American dream. A final question therefore remains: why should critics insinuate that the value of a literary life is authenticated by an act of self-destruction?