'Lastingness': The Creative Art Of Growing Old Claude Monet, William Butler Yeats, Giuseppe Verdi and Georgia O'Keeffe created some of their great work late in life. In his new book, Lastingness, Nicholas Delbanco explores the work of creative artists who worked into or past their 70s.
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'Lastingness': The Creative Art Of Growing Old

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'Lastingness': The Creative Art Of Growing Old

'Lastingness': The Creative Art Of Growing Old

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

And while Nicholas Delbanco arrives at no simple sweeping judgment, he reminds us of how many creative artists defy the limitations of old age and sometimes transcend them to achieve new levels of creativity. Mr. Delbanco himself has been teaching and writing for over 40 years. And he joins us now from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Welcome.

NICHOLAS DELBANCO: Thank you. Good to be here.

SIEGEL: You write near the beginning of "Lastingness" about your own writing. I can remember when each morning seemed a burnished, shining thing, when every afternoon and night brought with it the possibility of something or someone not known before. Today, there's very little new beneath the fictive sun. So this is an inquiry that begins, really, with your own experience of writing and reaching the ripe old age of 68.

DELBANCO: Yes, I think that's true. It's not the sort of book I would've been interested in writing, much less reading, 30 or 40 years ago. But for obvious reasons, since you've named my present age, the business of old age is of incremental interest to me. And though I used as a kind of cutoff point the age of 70 and wrote about artists who at least maintained and, in some cases, as with Yeats, advanced - they are past the age of 70. That's no longer such a distant prospect, and I found myself staring at it.

SIEGEL: I think one of the most wonderful stories you relate here about an artist in old age is the story of the painter Claude Monet. I want you to tell us the story of Monet and the water lilies.

DELBANCO: Well, he became fixated on - compelled by the gardens of a house that he bought, about 20 miles outside of Paris, called Giverny. And over the last 20-plus years of his life, he painted almost exclusively the natural world. In fact, he painted almost obsessively up until he died at 86, and his habit of inward focused concentration is almost characteristic of the artist in old age.

SIEGEL: One thing about old age in the story of Monet is that in his 80s, he wasn't as mobile as he was when he was a younger man. He was sedentary because he was an old man, in part, and therefore, his universe had shrunk physically, no?

DELBANCO: Very definitely. I mean, the notion of those impressionists in winter, if you will, the ones who went out and stood in the snow and the ice with a little charcoal brazier...

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

DELBANCO: ...to keep them warm and stayed there for hours, that's not something that an octogenarian would do.

SIEGEL: That's a young man's ways.

DELBANCO: In Monet's case, I think, more importantly, even than his physical agility was the threat to and in the end the wreckage of his eyesight.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

DELBANCO: So Monet focused on the visible world in very different ways in his older age, yes.

SIEGEL: And the works of his old age today are regarded as...

DELBANCO: As the masterpieces.

SIEGEL: The masterpieces.

DELBANCO: Right.

SIEGEL: "Lastingness," your book, is - this is not a journalistic or an analytic effort, and you write that a big part of your very limited investigation was sending the late John Updike a set of questions, written questions that he answered. And I especially liked his answer to your question: How have your aspirations changed?

DELBANCO: Oh, he was marvelous. I must say, Robert, that John's letter was an exception that proved the rule. He was so eloquent.

SIEGEL: Yes. He said, the aspirations have not been dulled, but after years in the mines, I am aware that my major veins have probably been dug out, and the urgency of my youthful, quote, "news" presses less groaningly. And he goes on from there.

DELBANCO: That's true, but it's also fair to say that he was always disparaging his own energy, his own enthusiasm, his own ability. I never, frankly, knew how far his tongue was in his cheek...

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

DELBANCO: ...but he was declaring himself finished in his late 20s, which was when I first met him.

SIEGEL: There's a natural tension here when we address the subject of artists being old. On the one hand, we associate old age with wisdom and experience and some knowledge about the world. On the other hand, it's the young artist who's seeing it all for the first time, who's capable of the truly novel first impression. And in a way, it's a lot less surprising to think that young people produce brilliant pieces of art.

DELBANCO: Well, I think that's true. And indeed, if one could do such a statistical analysis, it's probably the case that most of what we construe to be masterworks of our culture have been produced by people under the age of 40, only because very few people live past that...

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

DELBANCO: But in terms of the subject matter, and on the face of it, there's no intrinsic reason why an artist couldn't grow with age. But it happened so relatively rarely that I thought I would puzzle it out in this book.

SIEGEL: Nicholas Delbanco, thank you very much for talking with us.

DELBANCO: You're very welcome. It was a great pleasure.

SIEGEL: Nicholas Delbanco's new book is called "Lastingness: The Art of Old Age."

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