The actress Rachel Roberts wrote in her memoirs that everybody has a story and a scream. The Italian novelist Cesare Pavese said, No one ever lacks a good reason for suicide. Both Roberts and Pavese killed themselves.
What Mark Seinfelt has done in his new study is to give us the stories, the screams, and, inasmuch as they can be determined, the reasons for suicide of 50 celebrated writers of the past 100 years. Defining his parameters, Seinfelt notes that suicide was a rare phenomenon among writers and artists before 1900. In Greek and Roman times, when self-murder was often viewed as a noble way to defy persecution or stand up for one's principles, such figures as Socrates, Cato, and Seneca chose suicide as a virtual affirmation. But in our century, only a few ideologues have deliberately sacrificed themselves to a cause, a protest, or a dogma. In the literary world, Yukio Mishima is perhaps the most striking example of such martyrdom.
Sometimes it seems that once Freud unlocked the subconscious and he had several writers as analysands a Pandora's box of suicidal impulses was opened among the literati. Chronic depression, madness, alcoholism, drug addiction, existential despair, inconsolable feelings of worthlessnessÐall these things had plagued writers in earlier epochs. Yet suicide, once considered the gravest sin, was usually held at bay. Only in a century of unprecedented martial slaughter, nuclear holocaust, and genocide has it become a near-commonplace of intellectual life. For the Dadaists (whom Seinfelt does not address), it was the only act that made sense in a world in which reason played no part. It is not Seinfelt's intention to illustrate theories or put the suicides he recounts into an overarching historical/psychological paradigm. His approach is that of the mini-biographer, with each writer's life story discretely sketched, his or her career outlined, and the events leading up to suicide summarized. The chapters, one per writer, are often meager on analysis but are satisfyingly generous on vital detail. About a few of the most famous authors, such as Hemingway and Virginia Woolf, Seinfelt is both short-sighted and uninspired. But with writers less read, like Hart Crane (the subject of his longest chapter) or Stefan Zweig, he performs a more valuable service than merely rendering a downward spiral: He makes you want to read their work.
Final Drafts is an intriguing bedside-table book, better for dipping into than for reading at a stretch. The stories are necessarily grim and disturbing, but the subjects rarely fail to fascinate.
Randall Curb writes for The Oxford American, Southern Review, and American Scholar.