Walt Whitman remains a fine riposte to all the ‘best writer under 40’ lists

When, at the age of 36, the poet first self-published the collection for which he would become famous, it received just two reviews, both written by himself under a pseudonym, but otherwise fell stillborn from the press.

Only now is Walt Whitman generally recognised as the artist who invented American poetry and gave his people an authentic lyric voice with Leaves of Grass as surely as Mark Twain created American fiction with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The mystery of Walt Whitman, explored in the latest New York Review of Books, goes deeper still. Until Leaves of Grass (1855), Whitman was heroically unpromising – a carpenter, a schoolteacher, a printer and journalist, and the author of a “temperance” novel. In the words of one critic, until well into his 30s, “Whitman was a non-poet in every way, with no mark of special talent or temperament”.

In the absence of an explanation for Whitman’s creative leap forward – was it, perhaps, the fruit of his service in the civil war as a hospital orderly working in terrible battlefield conditions? – most biographers have retired, baffled. Even Whitman’s champion, the sage of Boston, RW Emerson, seems to have understood that this extraordinary new voice had undergone a mysterious and secret gestation. “I salute you at the beginning of a great career,” wrote Emerson, acknowledging Leaves of Grass, “which yet must have a long foreground somewhere.”

There are so many approaches to the mystery of creativity. For the New Yorker, which has just published another top 20 list of “most promising novelists”, it has become slick, modish and briskly packaged for the impatient consumer. “Under 40” is its dominant criterion, pioneered by Granta as long ago as 1983. Inevitably, there have been some unconvincing copycat lists. Leaving aside the taxonomic difficulties of cramming the next generation into a straitjacket, there are larger issues here.

“Under 40” recognises the truth that this column has addressed before: most successful writers have made their mark before their fourth decade. Tolstoy? 35 (War and Peace). Dickens? 38 (David Copperfield) Fitzgerald? 29 (The Great Gatsby). Naipaul? 29 (A House for Mr Biswas).

But the ruthless cut-off of 40 does not address the complex trajectory of creative growth: for every novelist or poet who explodes skywards with a first or second book, there are many who only achieve mastery as they reach the shady side of the slope. The onset of middle age, or the approach of oblivion, is perhaps as sharp a spur to literary effort as the intoxicating self-belief of youth.

Daniel Defoe completed Robinson Crusoe just before his 60th birthday, after a turbulent life as a journalist. Mark Twain published Huckleberry Finn aged 49. Dostoevsky wrote Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov in his mid-40s. Closer to home, Mary Wesley launched The Camomile Lawn at 70. Karl Marlantes, author of Matterhorn, this year’s American literary sensation, a Vietnam novel of astonishing power and insight, worked on his manuscript for 33 years and finally saw it published in his 60s. He now enjoys rather more recognition than the Oxford poet Craig Raine, who has just published his first novel, Heartbreak, aged 65.

The artistic provenance of these late bloomers will be as complex as Whitman’s, but I think Dr Raine’s title gives a clue to one common thread: these books are invariably love stories, in the broadest sense, inspired by a person or a memory – in Twain’s case, of the Mississippi – for whom the writer calls up one final surge of creative energy.

On the very short list of timeless themes, “love” must come near the top. Books with “love” in the title are often winners. Experience, plus maturity, mixed with love, can sometimes achieve the most astonishing results. There can be something poignant, even elegiac, about such novels. Huckleberry Finn is hilarious, but its closing pages might move you to tears. “If I’d a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book,” writes Twain, “I wouldn’t a tackled it and ain’t agoing to no more.” That’s the true voice of the over 40s. I wonder which literary magazine will first have the nerve to publish a list of the top 20 grown-up novels?

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds