“The Art of Youth: Crane, Carrington, Gershwin, and the Nature of First Acts” by Nicholas Delbanco (New Harvest / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 224 pages, $25)
“There are no second acts in American life,” F. Scott Fitzgerald observed acidly in his unfinished final novel, “The Love of the Last Tycoon.” It is, of course, an ironic statement, for “The Last Tycoon” was nothing if not a second act sort of project – or would have been, had Fitzgerald lived.
“The older and embittered author wrote books of an order of magnitude greater than that of the Jazz Age icon swallowing goldfish and jumping fully clothed into the fountain of the Plaza,” notes Nicholas Delbanco in “The Art of Youth: Crane, Carrington, Gershwin, and the Nature of First Acts.” “His first act brought success; his second brought lasting achievement, though he felt both infirm and ignored.” And yet, Delbanco continues, “ours is a culture committed to youth. We fear decline; we praise aspiration, the American dream consists of the future, not past.”
Such a tension, between precocity and experience, instant gratification and a sense of what lingers, occupies “The Art of Youth,” which uses the lives of three artists – writer Stephen Crane, painter Dora Carrington and composer George Gershwin – to make its points. That all three died early (Crane at 28, the others at 38) is key to Delbanco’s argument. As he writes, “Young Icarus, who flew too high … is an emblem both of youthful aspiration and the risks attached.”