Why you should care
Great art often comes from great suffering, but some artists suffer more than others.
Writers are an odd and often long-suffering bunch. Most of us know all too well the tales of psychological turmoil and depression affecting some of literature’s biggest names, from Virginia Woolf to Sylvia Plath and James Baldwin to F. Scott Fitzgerald. And, naturally, some of history’s most accomplished drunks were also scribes, like William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemingway. But less discussed are the number of well-known authors who endured chronic physical illnesses — ailments that had a notable impact on their writing and the course of their careers, sometimes spurring them to embark on their paths to becoming literary legends.
Let’s start with asthma. “[A]sthma often correlates, sometimes fatally, with high literary achievement,” John Sutherland quips in Curiosities of Literature: A Feast for Book Lovers. And when you start down the list of literature’s great asthmatics, it’s hard not to agree: John Updike, Dylan Thomas, Edith Wharton, Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli and Marcel Proust, among many others. Was this just the byproduct of so many future writers being raised in overly sanitized upper-middle-class worlds? We now know that children with low exposure to infections are more likely to develop asthma.
Edith Wharton fits this mold: She was tutored in her wealthy family’s New York home after a bout of typhoid fever as an infant. The wheezing Proust was also educated at home, with any “outings in the air” minimized — a lifestyle that might have contributed to the later writer’s reclusive nature. On the other hand, the asthmatic Charles Dickens labored in a filthy factory as an impoverished child and lived most of his life in London, a city where soot often fell from the sky like snow. Incidentally, Dickens is thought to be the first novelist to introduce an expressly asthmatic character into his works: the shopkeeper Mr. Omer in David Copperfield.
Another famous British writer with chest problems — and often bleak works — was George Orwell. Orwell suffered from damaged bronchial tubes as the result of a childhood bacterial infection, and he contracted tuberculosis as an adult. His final and fatal attack of TB came while working long hours on his masterpiece, 1984, a book that grew darker the sicker Orwell became. “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness,” Orwell himself once reflected. “This was intended as metaphor,” says John J. Ross, a physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and the author of Shakespeare’s Tremor and Orwell’s Cough, “but was literally true of 1984, which was written by a man who was coughing up blood, struggling for breath, wracked with fever and wasting away.”
Many writers emerge as heroic and inspiring figures who overcame astonishing obstacles.
John J. Ross, author of Shakespeare’s Tremor and Orwell’s Cough
Sometimes a physical ailment, however, can push a budding writer in a new and positive direction. “Literature owes an enormous debt to Henry James’ bowels,” the literary critic Peter Kemp once observed. The young James suffered from chronic constipation, and so his parents sent him on a grand tour of Europe in an effort to help with his “hideous repletion.” The future American novelist began writing lengthy letters to his family while traveling, making observations about his journey. “Rippling through these letters,” said Kemp, “are the first imaginative stirrings of one of the greatest fiction and travel writers in the language.”
Eye problems have also afflicted many famous writers. John Milton went blind in middle age, likely from a detached retina, and experimented with all manner of unproven remedies, from cat ointment to “mummy” (ground-up human bones), in a failed attempt to improve his vision. James Joyce began having eye problems after undergoing a radical treatment for gonorrhea at the behest of his doctor. He would later suffer through 11 surgeries in an attempt to save his vision. “Joyce and Milton produced some of their best work when they were legally blind,” says Ross, who points out that “many writers emerge as heroic and inspiring figures who overcame astonishing obstacles, and were often poorly served or actively harmed by their physicians.”
Finally, some of the literary world’s biggest figures had to overcome multiple physical and psychological ailments. For example, in addition to likely suffering from bipolar disorder, depression and alcoholism, Herman Melville endured chronic pains in his joints, back and eyes, symptoms consistent with ankylosing spondylitis, an autoimmune disease. “His depression and physical illness fed on each other, and he struggled to complete his subsequent novels [after Moby-Dick], which were weird, bleak, brilliant and commercially suicidal,” says Ross. “His mental and physical breakdown finished off his career as a professional writer.”
Great art may be possible without great suffering, but for many of history’s greatest writers, the two go hand in hand. “Perhaps it’s good for one to suffer,” the English novelist Aldous Huxley once wrote. “Can an artist do anything if he’s happy?” Huxley himself had wanted to be a doctor — a dream he had to abandon in favor of literature after a childhood illness left him partially blind.