If fame belonged to me, I could not escape her—if she did not, the longest day would pass me on the chase—and the approbation of my Dog, would forsake me—then. My Barefoot-Rank is better.
letter to Thomas Higginson, June 1862
Some people are better forgotten: Ron Jeremy, for one. But for every overweight porn star who deserves oblivion and may not get it—at least in the short run—there are many people whose names deserve remembering yet who have vanished from common memory. Winning isn’t everything, Vince Lombardi famously said, it’s the only thing. And that’s why Jeremy is almost a household name right now. Paid to get laid, he’s something of a winner. Yet he’s not such a Goliath-like celebrity that onlookers want to bring him down with an almighty schadenfreude-inducing bang. That’s the fate reserved for bigger winners, like Michael Jackson. In the words of Knute Rockne, another legendary football coach: “Winning too often is as disastrous as losing too often. Both get the same results: the falling off of the public’s enthusiasm.”
The overmastering public is fickle, always has been. The difference between now and any then you choose is not that our time is more infatuated with fame, celebrity and scandal—think of Alexander the Great or the supposedly sex-mad Byzantine empress Theodora—but that we feed this deathless infatuation on the grandest scale possible: 24/7 and globally. That was already Joni Mitchell’s point when her once free man couldn’t go back to Paris because of the work he’d “taken on / Stoking the star maker machinery / Behind the popular song.”
But this is supposed to be a meditation on the unfairly forgotten, and here I am fixated on the famous. The truth is, I can’t help it. There’s no discussing the forgotten without the remembered. If infamy is the flipside of fame, oblivion is its opposite. In the original Latin, “fame” meant all the public chatter that goes into reputation-making, laudable or scandalous, and such chatter cannot possibly be about everyone worthy of attention; some people have to be ignored, wilfully or not. Fortunately for the unjustly overlooked, oblivion is not always total. The forgotten sometimes hang around under the surface until a later generation turns the tide of reputation-making and tosses them ashore again, washing the formerly famous back out to sea, de-faming them. The early-twentieth-century rise in the value of John Donne’s stocks, for instance, came about not only because culture brokers like T. S. Eliot talked them up, but also because they talked John Milton’s down. Eliot’s role here was only partly that of the disinterested critic righting a cultural wrong; he was also clearing space for the kind of poetry he wanted to write, and for that he needed Donne as a precursor. Reputation, then, no less than the love of a dog, can depend on the self-interest of those involved in making it.
That’s hardly the whole story, though, for not everyone who wins renown deserves it, nor does everyone who achieves oblivion deserve his or her fate. One person’s failure may be another’s success. The standards are not absolute. Still, if defining the laws that govern reputation-making is harder than defining those of planetary motion, we can always ponder case studies in the vagaries of fame, misfortune and neglect.
To fill the vacancy of the ensuing page, I have here added a decimate of the centesme of the Inventions I intend to publish…; most of which, I hope, will be as useful to Mankind, as they are yet unknown and new.
—Robert Hooke, A Description
of Helioscopes, 1676
Take the case of Robert Hooke (1635-1703). A gifted “natural philosopher,” inventor, surveyor, architect and engineer half-remembered as Newton’s pigheaded nemesis, Hooke is now rising from obscurity on a tide of favourable talk. Besides his role in Neal Stephenson’s elephantine Quicksilver, Hooke has starred in several recent biographies: Stephen Inwood’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (published in the US under the title The Forgotten Genius), Jim Bennett and others’ London’s Leo-nardo and Lisa Jardine’s The Curious Life of Robert Hooke.
All are well-written and informative books. London’s Leonardo is a specialists’ coffee-table book and The Man Who Knew Too Much a year-by-year survey of Hooke’s doings, while The Curious Life recreates its subject impressionistically in cultural history. Jardine’s is the best choice for the general reader, but the other two are better on the science. All three show why Hooke deserves more than obscurity, while also depicting him as an utterly human creature whose diary records even such minutiae as digestive failure or sexual success: “cheated of a shitt,” he complained after a laxative didn’t work; “Played with Nell—i [the Pisces symbol, Hooke’s code for orgasm]. Hurt small of Back.”
These books also reveal why this myriad-minded man will probably never become a household name like Newton, or even Leeuwenhoek. In part, it’s because there is nothing iconic about his major achievements, which include the universal joint, the iris diaphragm, his Micrographia (1665)—a stunning study of “minute bodies” observed under the newly invented microscope—and his rebuilding of London, in collaboration with Christopher Wren, after the Great Fire of 1666 (Hooke designed Bedlam, the famous madhouse). Unlike other innovators, Hooke can’t be summed up, however reductively, in a potent image: Newton and the falling apple, Leeuwenhoek and the slide full of sperm. No such image attaches itself to Hooke, who could not mathematically formulate his pioneering investigations of celestial mechanics, whose inventions are hidden inside later machines and whose famous engravings in Micrographia are of fleas, flies, cork and the “gravel” in his urine.
Also mitigating against Hooke were his professional circumstances, his range of scientific interests and his sometimes combative personality. There was almost nothing that Hooke didn’t take an analytical interest in (including watch springs and longitude, human flight and comets), but his poorly paid position as the first Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society required him to pursue too many things at once. So too did the necessity of working under others for most of his life.
Hooke liked to begin studying a new subject, grasp intuitively at its significance, then leave it for something else while claiming credit for priority in the discovery. Science is collaborative, but its famous advances—Archimedes’ screw, Newton’s laws, Darwin’s (not Wallace’s) theory of natural selection, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle—are usually remembered as the product of solitary genius. Genius was something that both Newton and Hooke had, but Hooke lacked Newton’s discipline, his ability to work problems through to their solutions. In any case, the insight commemorated in Hooke’s Law—“the Power of any Spring is in the same proportion with the Tension thereof”—just doesn’t catch imaginative fire. It’s too small, too technical. It also didn’t help Hooke’s reputation that he crossed swords with Newton, who waged a remarkably effective campaign to blacken his adversary as “a man of strange unsociable temper.”
One of Jardine’s persuasive claims is that Hooke, though admirable and sometimes even likeable, was his own worst enemy, not merely because he was intellectually combative, but also because hypochondria turned him into a crank. Prodigious in everything, Hooke monitored his bodily functions scrupulously, dosing himself daily for headaches, constipation, lethargy and the like with every available remedy, including “bangue” (marijuana).
Indeed, Jardine argues that in an ill-conceived program of medical research, he unwittingly turned himself into a toxic time bomb. Many of the substances he took stayed in his body and built up to mood-altering levels, causing him to become increasingly volatile in his later years; the resulting “strange unsociable temper” eventually helped explode his reputation, and he died alone, intestate, his estate quietly pilfered. Not even a dog was there to approve him in the end, perhaps because of his experiments in canine vivisection. Jardine’s seems a just conclusion, and the three lives do a fine job of piecing together Hooke’s scattered, often dishonoured remains so as to restore his reputation, if not quite to its mid-seventeenth-century glory, at least to a fitting glow of mottled brilliance. Newton remains the winner, but Hooke is no longer a mere loser.
When I was a kid I played clarinet, and my first influence was Artie Shaw…Then I saw a picture of him. He was going with…a movie star. She was beautiful. He seemed very glamorous to me and I thought, “Wow!” and I saw an opening for me at nine, ten years old…I never doubted for a second that I could be as great as Artie Shaw.
Straight Life, 1979
Another brilliant man who almost destroyed his reputation through relentless self-medication—with heroin, methadone, alcohol and cocaine—was the American alto sax wizard Art Pepper (1925-1982). In 1951, before his addictions took their toll, a reader’s survey in the jazz magazine Down Beat gave Pepper 945 votes for best alto sax player against Charlie Parker’s 957. Nowadays, though, the mention of “Bird” doesn’t conjure up Pepper. Alyn Shipton’s nine-hundred-page New History of Jazz pairs the names only once, and that passing flash of the spotlight is all Pepper gets, despite a mid-career resurrection and the late-life publication of a searing memoir.
Unlike Hooke, Pepper didn’t have to wait three centuries to be rehabilitated. This musical prodigy, lifelong junkie and natural-born ladykiller was also a first-class bullshitter; recognizing his verbal gift, his third wife Laurie lovingly taped, typed and edited his memoirs while he was still alive. Straight Life, the Peppers’ collaborative memoir, tells its story so compellingly that it recently sent the lesbian cultural critic Terry Castle into a swoon in the London Review of Books: this is “the greatest book I’ve ever read,” she cried. Infatuated as she is with Pepper—she describes him as “a deliriously handsome lover boy in the glory days of his youth” who was also “a lifelong dope addict of truly satanic fuck-it-all grandeur”—Castle may not be the most reliable judge, but there’s no denying the power of Pepper’s self-obsessed, self-serving, self-excoriating, high-octane and sometimes pornographic Straight Life.
Even when showing Pepper at his worst—in the introduction to the 1994 reissue of Straight Life, jazz critic Gary Giddins calls him “proudly homophobic, murderous on the subject of informers, indifferent to the outcome of [his] crimes, vain, and convinced of [his] own courage and moral impunity”—the book oozes the dubious charm that has kept Pepper’s fame from either withering away or growing beyond a small circle of enthusiasts. The handsome, debauched, ruthless face on the cover of Art Pepper + Eleven (1959) invites you to come closer and run away at once, and a single listen makes you wonder how such a hellish man could make such musical beauty. Very few, I think, could resist the translucently warm embrace of his playing on “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” (Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section, 1957).
Resisting the book is a little easier, because, unlike musical notes, words cannot fly in under the potentially censorious radar of the moral intelligence. But it would be wrong to resist it entirely. Nearly five hundred pages long, it feels short, and justifies its Ezra Pound epigraph: “What is the use of talking and there is no end of talking, / There is no end of things in the heart.” What the reader learns from Pepper’s jazzy talking is very little about music, but a great deal about living with a damaged heart. His dazzling monologue, occasionally intercut with commentary from those who knew him, feels driven by a ruthless honesty—which is not the same as factual accuracy. Pepper’s account of recording with the Rhythm Section, for example, recalls a moment of heroic musical genius—he claims he was so strung out he hadn’t touched his broken horn in six months—but the Discography at the back of the book reveals that Pepper had been in the studio at least fifteen times during that period. The truth of Straight Life exists not in its fidelity to an actual score, but in its sordid, gloriously improvised solos.
“Living without love is like not living at all,” Pepper told an interviewer in 1958, and his relentless fast-talking makes the claim seem as almost-believable as the close of Philip Larkin’s “An Arundel Tomb”: “Our almost-instinct almost true: / What will survive of us is love.” Pepper’s monologue, like his music, grew out of love; his is the work of a great front man well backed by others, and it ought to last. It’s hard to say why neither the book nor the music is more widely known, but it may have something to do with Pepper’s much-interrupted career, with his being “merely” second best in a celebrity-loving age and perhaps even with his having been too productive. Despite the ravages of drugs and several prison stays, Pepper recorded for forty crammed years as both sideman and front man, making many fine records, but there is no epoch-making moment, no genre-defining innovations such as Charlie Parker introduced. Perhaps Pepper played a kind of Hooke to Parker’s Newton?
[Robert Bloomfield] is the most original poet of the age and the greatest Pastoral Poet England ever gave birth to…but it is no use talking…neglect is the only touchstone by which true genius is proved.
—John Clare, letter to
Thomas Inskip, 1824
Unlike Pepper and Hooke, the English poet John Clare (1793-1864) never had to dope himself to death to go on living; he went mad instead and spent his last twenty-six years in asylums, often convinced that he was somebody else (Lord Byron and Admiral Nelson were two of his favourite personas). In the 1820s, though, when Clare was a young man, he found fame as a “Pastoral Poet,” better known even than his contemporary John Keats. The two benefited from a boom in the early-nineteenth-century poetry market, but the boom went bust shortly after Sir Walter Scott gave up narrative verse for the novel; Clare (unlike Keats) had the ill-luck to live a long life and to keep writing poems, and so met much the same neglected end as his admired Robert Bloomfield.
Like Pepper, though, Clare was lucky enough to acquire a biographer. This labour of love was posthumous, undertaken by the unlikeliest of candidates: a Berlin-born Jew called Frederick Martin. Martin was nothing if not quick off the mark: his Life of John Clare appeared in 1865, barely a year after Clare’s death. Jonathan Bate, the Pastoral Poet’s latest biographer, took some five years to produce his genial 2003 work, John Clare: A Biography, and the longer gestation has resulted in an almost too full account of Clare—it is as generous about Martin’s success in laying out “some of the key truths about Clare” as it is critical of his responsibility for “the enduring myths.”
Convinced that “Clare is the one major English poet never to have received a biography…worthy of his memory,” Bate adds much vivid detail to Martin’s compelling sketch of how Clare was marketed as “‘the Northamptonshire Peasant’ and ‘the English Burns’, ‘was duly petted, flattered, lionized, and caressed—and, of course, as duly forgotten when his nine days were passed’, after which ‘poverty, neglect, and suffering broke his heart’.” These stories gave Clare a mythic quality: here was a country earth-crawler who, by sheer force of desire, had lifted himself into the wider air as a butterfly, yet was only briefly noticed by the fickle public. Clare’s own autobiographical sketches contributed to this myth and prove its underlying (if not always its factual) truth, as do the ten-thousand-odd unpublished manuscript pages that he left behind at his death. He was a man with a gift and a calling and an unstoppable will. He published four books in his lifetime, each better than the last, and each less popular.
If Clare is indeed a major poet, as Bate’s book and recent essays by Seamus Heaney and Tom Paulin argue, it is because his poetry is so deeply rooted in its local place and speech. Clare’s early fame—his first book, Poems,0Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820), appeared when he was only twenty-six—was in great part due to his status as a peasant poet, for such was the ticket when it came to selling a new poet. But as Bate shows, being a peasant did not mean being an illiterate clay-booted boor whose “native woodnotes wild” were good only for giving the urban literati a brief frisson. Clare’s world was no shallow backwater; it had a deep, rich oral culture and was open to metropolitan as well as cosmopolitan influences. What was on offer was in fact richer than what Art Pepper would find in the southern Californian white-trash wasteland of his blighted childhood. It was Clare’s genius to absorb what he wanted from the wider world—he briefly rubbed shoulders with William Hazlitt and with Henry Cary, the first English translator of the Divine Comedy—without ever cringing at his own inheritance. “Spring and Summer my assistance was wanted…in the fields…which was a delightfull employment,” he says in his autobiographical Sketches, “as the old womens memorys never faild of tales to smoothen our labour, for as every day came new Jiants, Hobgobblins, and faireys.”
By the urban standards of his time and our own, Clare’s spelling tells against him; such “accidentals” were always tidied up for publication, and often still are (as the quotations cited here reveal, modern editions vary widely in the degree to which they tidy up Clare’s writing). Nor has his penchant for long poems, overlooked places and local idioms worked in his favour. Since Eliot, the taste in poetry has been for an unlocated lyric intensity in a common vernacular. “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” Keats sang “To Autumn.” Clare could sing like this too, if not quite with Keats’ caressing lushness: “The garish summer comes with many tribes / Of gay and gaudy flowers” (“Spring”). But Clare’s growing reputation rests more on his idiosyncratic, locally idiomatic and closely observed ecological poems. “Emmonsails Heath in Winter,” for example, opens with a plainspoken assertion—“I love to see the old heath’s withered brake / Mingle its crimpled leaves with furze and ling”—and ends by noting how the “coy bumbarrels twenty in a drove / Flit down the hedgerows in the frozen plain / And hang on little twigs and start again.” The unselfconscious record of a sharply seen moment on a local heath cannot compete with the calculated global flash of Janet Jackson’s boob, though it certainly has affinities with the best of poets as different as Al Purdy, Mary Oliver and Tim Lilburn.
For many readers nowadays, there are just too many poems recording the overlooked with a loving idiosyncrasy, too much else demanding attention. Like Pepper and Hooke, Clare is partly the victim of his own prolific intensity, but he is also a casualty of drive-by sightseeing. His are poems for those who walk the same small places again and again, to no grand purpose, yet with the pleasure of knowing them better and better in their ceaseless changes—or in a different metaphor, poems for lovers who return over and over again to the same partner’s body with ever renewed wonder, knowledge and delight. More to the current taste are Clare’s poems of alienation and madness, and there is no doubt that the best of these are great, speaking directly to us in an age of instant celebrity and global oblivion. This excerpt from “I Am” makes a fine epitaph for all the undervalued who know little more than the approbation of their dogs:
I am—yet what I am, none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:—
I am the self-consumer of my woes;—
They rise and vanish in oblivion’s host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes:—
And yet I am, and live—like vapours tost
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,—