Sobre la fama literaria

Martin Leon Barreto

Cicerón pensaba que los escritores superiores, o sus almas, sobrevivirían a la muerte y entrarían en un reino eterno “donde los hombres excelentes y eminentes encuentran su verdadera recompensa”. ¿Por qué Jane Austen ascendió a la inmortalidad literaria y a la fama, mientras que su casi contemporánea, la novelista Mary Brunton, desapareció a pesar de haber disfrutado de un lugar tan alto como Austen en la primera mitad del periodo victoriano? ¿Por qué Keats eclipsó a Barry Cornwall? ¿Por qué Borges y no Alfonso Reyes?, se preguntó Hugo Hiriart en El arte de perdurar.

En su libro Those Who Write for Immortality, según una reseña publicada en The Chronicle Review, la profesora de la Universidad de Toronto H.J. Jackson ofrece variadas respuestas a esas preguntas que poco tienen que ver con el mérito literario. Más bien hay que entrar en la competencia para iniciar una carrera hacia la fama literaria; pero una de las cosas que más ayuda o ayudó a los autores inmortales fue el ser bendecidos con una gran biografía. Ninguna obra de un autor muerto puede sostenerse sin la convergencia de “otros escritores, profesionales de la literatura, lectores comunes, público en general”.

Les comparto una muestra del texto:

The pros and cons of literary fame date back to antiquity. Cicero thought superior writers, or their souls, would survive death and enter an eternal realm “where eminent and excellent men find their true reward.” Ovid assured his wife that she would “live for all time in my song.” Horace, proud of his reputation as a lyric poet, bragged that he was “pointed out by passers-by.” His friend Virgil, however — if we trust Suetonius — ducked into buildings to avoid fans.

Despite Virgil’s presumed ambivalence, the notion that all literary writers crave fame — the contemporary kind, the immortal kind, or both — remains a cultural cliché. It’s one that H.J. Jackson, professor emerita at the University of Toronto and distinguished scholar of 18th-century and Romantic British literature, places at the heart of Those Who Write for Immortality, her spirited and always enlightening meditation on literary fame that cites the pros and cons above.

Although she opens the book by declaring “desire for fame” among writers “ubiquitous,” Jackson soon distances herself from that. And so she should. In the course of her study, she cites a number of writers who denied a desire for fame — Blake and Wordsworth among them. A reader might add others. Solzhenitsyn, to take one example, wrote for reasons of ideological and ethical commitment. Kafka, it might be said, wrote out of internally directed psychological need. Or did Kafka, in asking for his works to be burned, seek immortality?

What Jackson cares more about, and analyzes provocatively, is how literary fame happens, and particularly how it greeted or eluded figures in the Romantic period in which she specializes. Against the poet Donald Justice, who suggested in an essay that the “randomness” of literary fame “approaches the chaotic,” Jackson counters that while it may not operate by scientific law, it is not “absolutely chaotic,” and yields “patterns” that the diligent scholar can uncover.
Why, then, did Wordsworth win what Jackson cheekily calls the “immortality stakes” while Robert Southey, whom mutual contemporaries considered “as likely a prospect for immortality as Wordsworth,” plummeted so far that the most recent Norton Anthology grants him zero pages, compared with Wordsworth’s 131 and Byron’s 135? Why did Jane Austen rise to literary immortality and mass fame while her almost exact contemporary, the novelist Mary Brunton, disappeared despite enjoying a place “higher than Austen’s,” in Jackson’s judgment, for “the first half of the Victorian period”? Why did Keats eclipse Barry Cornwall?

Jackson offers plentiful answers — innate literary merit is not one of them. She rejects the Romantic cult of literary genius that she ascribes to Wordsworth: belief in “the autonomous genius who generates works of overwhelming intrinsic merit and wins readers one at a time until the enlightened audience achieves critical mass.” In reality, Jackson argues, only “threshold competence” is necessary to start on the race for literary fame

About Irad Nieto

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