The Radiant Force of the Incline

Meara Sharma
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About five winters ago, I spent a lot of time wandering around London’s cemeteries. Not so much the famously occupied ones, with their hulking tombs and majestic statues, like Highgate, where Karl Marx and George Michael share soil, or Westminster Abbey, a real who’s who of Western achievement, housing everyone from Isaac Newton to Charles Dickens to Stephen Hawking. No, I preferred the ordinary, scraggly cemeteries, tucked into the outer boroughs, where crooked, ivy-choked gravestones teeter atop earth that buckles and splits from the creeping roots of trees, and people have names like Elswyth Wivelsfield.

I had recently left New York City, where I’d had a steady day job in journalism, a steady side hustle with a literary magazine, a steady relationship, and a steady social network. When I moved to London, I had none of those things—by choice. After years in a cocoon of stability, it was thrilling to shed it all, to expose myself to the elements. Colors shone brighter, rain felt fresher. Any sense of a predetermined future fell away, and in that empty space was possibility. I was ecstatically free. But I was also painfully lonely, sharing a basement apartment with a moody seventy-three-year-old theater director and struggling to meet people and find work in an unfamiliar city. My neighborhood was gushing with attractive, artsy young souls who all looked like they could be my friends, but they weren’t. I was floating. Cemeteries were, quite literally, grounding.

I suppose, in the absence of living pals, it was nice to be among past lives. There was no pressure to introduce myself. All encounters were speculative, subject only to my own whims. And in a moment when I was meant to be figuring out what to do with my life, when the paradox of choice was often crippling, there was something reassuring about a cemetery’s capacity to distill a life to its basics. All you really need to know is right there. Here lies Heremod Shipley, cherished father of Holly and James, beloved husband of Philomena. Lovella Moresbeth: She truly loved her family. Lives rendered in brief, appropriately and pleasingly mundane. It can be simple, in the end.

So there I was, one winter afternoon, in North London’s Abney Park cemetery, doing my thing. Erasmus Septimus Eyre sounded like he got up to something shady in the colonies. Isabella Titmarsh fell asleep at age thirteen; I wonder what happened? Edwina Thimbleby drowned while rescuing her sister! But overall, everyone was a good parent, a treasured sibling, an upstanding neighbor—with a cozy English name to boot. I was comforted by the platitudes, the predictability, the homeliness of it all, the refreshing absence of angst and uncertainty and regret. Until I came across a gravestone with a different sort of declaration.





At the top of the stone there was a semiabstract carving of a figure standing behind an oversize book and quill. And then, in stocky block letters, the sparse epitaph. No reference to a doting spouse, a brood of children, a military legacy. Just… the author of a single titillatingly titled book. It struck me as confident as well as tragic; brazen, yet somehow defensive; amusing, but also haunting. Who was this man, this writer, who wanted to be remembered like this, free of family or place or God’s love, but for one and only one work? The emphasis implied an absence, an obfuscation. A story.

As I stood before the grave, a quick google revealed some basic facts. Eric Derwent Walrond passed his childhood in British colonial–era Guiana and Barbados and canal-era Panama, before moving to New York City in 1918, at the age of nineteen. There he got a job with Marcus Garvey’s newspaper and became friends with writers and artists who would go on to define the Harlem Renaissance, including Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Zora Neale Hurston. At age twenty-eight, in 1926, he published a short-story collection titled Tropic Death, among the first works of American fiction to unspool Caribbean lives. The book was fervently praised by major critics and thinkers, including W.E.B. Du Bois. Walrond was anointed a rising star, a key figure in the New Negro literary movement, and was given another book deal. The next year, he won a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Then the details start to dwindle. Walrond left New York just as fame and fortune beckoned. He traveled around the Caribbean and lived briefly in Paris. Then in London. Then in the rural southwest of England. Years elapsed. His writing output became sporadic: a story here, an essay there, a bit of this, a bit of that. He fell out of touch with his New York friends and fellow luminaries. He took on work as an accountant, and in factories. He spent some time as a patient at a mental hospital. He died of a heart attack in 1966, at the age of sixty-­seven, alone on a London street. He never published another book.

It’s a bleak narrative. Exceptionally promising young person from immigrant background loses his way and fails to live up to expectations, while his friends become household names. I thought of the many brilliant people I know who are struggling to find their place. I thought of talented friends whose stars were rising—would it last? I thought of myself, my own French exit from literary New York City in my late twenties. I, too, left the promised land right when opportunities to further my career seemed to be opening up, right when my contemporaries were beginning to make inroads. I, too, chose to relocate, somewhat inexplicably, to the nation that had colonized my ancestors (for I, too, originate from a place once ruled by the British: India). Was moving to London a huge mistake? Am I squandering my potential? Will I die alone here, on a smog-choked street? Get me back to the dutiful Christians and the stalwart spouses, the lives that shut cleanly like a box. I sped along to more reassuring terrain. Here lie the bodies of Herbert and Henrietta Hudson, finally together again, too well loved ever to be forgotten. Existential crisis averted, order restored.

Before long, this brief encounter with Walrond faded from view. And years elapsed. Eventually I made living friends in London and therefore stopped walking in cemeteries. I toyed with unfamiliar worlds and communities, enjoying the peripheral vantage point of an expat (a word that, I like to think, derives not just from the Latin expatriatus, meaning “gone out from one’s country,” but also from exspatiari, meaning “to move beyond one’s usual bounds”). While forging a new life, I lost touch, inevitably, with many people from my old one. But reinvention afforded me a sense of artistic freedom I hadn’t felt in the United States, and I began to focus on writing creatively, something I had long wanted to devote myself to. My output was sporadic—a story here, an essay there, a bit of this, a bit of that—and I was unsure where it might lead, but I was content, happy in the searching.

And then, in 2023, as I was preparing to uproot again, this time for Scotland, I found myself back in a cemetery. Perhaps, in the face of imminent change, I was drawn, unconsciously, to well-trodden ground. Wandering the muddy paths, thinking of arrivals and departures, losses and gains, decisions to leave, decisions to stay, I suddenly remembered the young man from the Caribbean who, for a time, was destined for greatness. The arc of his story—not quite a rise and fall, but a rise and fizzle. How he kept leaving: leaving the Caribbean, leaving New York, leaving Paris, leaving London. What his friends, like some of mine, might have said: Here you go again, jettisoning a world you’ve built, choosing uncertainty over continuity, choosing to disperse rather than concentrate, to scatter rather than root. At what cost? In the shadow of my own departure, the silhouette of Eric Walrond’s story pressed up from the depths, and this time it firmly took hold. This peripatetic, largely forgotten writer started to become not merely a cautionary tale but a kind of mirror image, a screen and a surrogate for my own questions about artistic success, and failure, and the gray area in between.

The specter of failure, of course, looms large over creative people, whose identities are particularly bound up with their work; the stock character of the tortured artist dates back to Plato. Culturally, we tend to romanticize grandiose failure—artists who toiled in bitter agony or isolation or with complete lack of recognition their whole lives, only to become demigods after death (van Gogh, Emily Dickinson). In an essay in Boston Review, the critic Tom Bissell considers how fragile the phenomenon of writerly success is, exploring how names that are iconic and enduring today, like Herman Melville and Walt Whitman, could easily have been long lost, had it not been for an assortment of arbitrary occurrences: “Remaindered copies bought from book peddlers. A man, sitting at his desk, an oxidized copy of a forgotten novel beside him, cobbling together an essay with no idea of what it would accomplish.… Essays published at the right time, in the right journals or books, noticed by the right people.” The reasons many famous writers of yore continue to have star status has little to do with fate, Bissell writes, but rather with “the stagecraft of chance.” He quotes Melville—notoriously unsuccessful in his lifetime, writing to a friend in 1849 upon the flop of his novel Mardi. “[It] may possibly—by some miracle, that is—flower like aloe, a hundred years hence—or not flower at all, which is more likely by far, for some aloes never flower.”

A lifetime of failure and then posthumous success is one thing. It’s a more movie-friendly narrative arc. But what do we do with the stories of people, like Walrond, who were poised to take off but never fully did? Who didn’t lose the game but didn’t quite win, either, in life or in death? Whose aloes might have flowered a little too soon, and then—slowly, unceremoniously—withered on the vine?

I soon discover that since Eric Walrond’s death, in 1966, there have in fact been a couple of attempts to resuscitate his story and reappraise his work in the context of his era and contemporaries. The first is a 2013 reissue of Tropic Death from Walrond’s own publisher, Liveright (then Boni & Liveright). The edition declares the short-story collection a “lost classic of the Harlem Renaissance,” one that was endorsed by Langston Hughes for its “hard poetic beauty.” Deeply informed by Walrond’s upbringing in Guiana, Barbados, and Panama in the early twentieth century, the book is a stunning immersion in the struggles of poor Black and brown people in the Caribbean, whose lives are marked by disease and death, oppressive foreign influence, and the tyrannical force of the sun, which blazes on almost every page (“O tireless, sleepless sun! It burned and kissed things”), as well as a throbbing determination. As Arnold Rampersad writes in his introduction, “Life is both effulgent, in that it reflects tropical richness, and also stringent, pinching.” Walrond’s language is sensuous, hallucinatory, dense with modernist innovations as well as dialect-rich regional voices. As in “Drought,” when a father overhears a doctor inspecting his dead child:

It came to Coggins in swirls. Autopsy. Noise comes in swirls. Pounding, pounding—dry Indian corn pounding. Ginger. Ginger being pounded in a mortar with a bright, new pestle. Pound, pound. And. Sawing. Butcher shop. Cow foot is sawed that way. Stew—or tough hard steak. Then the drilling—drilling—drilling to a stone cutter’s ears. Ox grizzle. Drilling into ox grizzle…

“Too bad, Coggins,” the doctor said, “too bad, to lose yo’ dawtah…”

With its commitment to local modes of speech, the book belongs, Rampersad argues, “with a number of key books by authors who practically revolutionized the idea of regionalism in America and elsewhere,” namely Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Dubliners, and The Sound and the Fury. But Walrond’s “life of vagabondage and exile” has long left Tropic Death underappreciated.

The other significant effort to revive Walrond comes in the form of a 2015 biography by James Davis, professor of American studies and English at Brooklyn College. Eric Walrond: A Life in the Harlem Renaissance and the Transatlantic Caribbean, published by Columbia University Press, is an ambitious and sensitive attempt to trace Walrond’s itinerant existence, critically assess the scope of his work as a Caribbean diasporic writer, and flesh out the struggles and motivations that shaped him. Through correspondence, mentions in essays, newspaper articles, and other scattered appearances, Davis pieces together the twists and turns of Walrond’s life and his abiding dedication to writing—an impressive feat, given that a cohesive stash of Walrond’s papers doesn’t exist. Davis quotes Saidiya Hartman: “The archive dictates what can be said about the past,” and his book is a moving attempt to write Walrond firmly into the archive and, indeed, recast the tale of his life as one characterized by ongoing courage and perseverance rather than simply unfulfilled expectations.

Walrond was descended from an African slave and a Scottish planter, and as such, from childhood his life was defined by movement between places and worlds, disorientation, paradoxes, and code-switching. When he was a young boy in British colonial Guiana, his family strove for middle-class respectability (his father was a tailor) amid labor unrest on sugar plantations. Then, in Barbados, his starched collars and genteel British education—Latin and Greek, a schoolyard laced with Union Jacks—contrasted with the impoverished, drought-plagued neighborhood in which he lived. As Davis writes, Barbados deeply informed Walrond’s later writing, becoming “his muse, color palette, and mental grammar, cultivating an exuberant and promiscuous lexicon, a knowledge of formal and folk speech, and a Victorian sensibility toward public and professional life.”

When he was in his early teens, he and his family migrated again, to the swampy, pulsating Canal Zone of Colón, Panama, a transnational mash-up of West Indian, Asian, Spanish, North American, and Indigenous people. Walrond lived in a West Indian slum with his family, and the pestilent underbelly of the city became his playground. He also confronted the American import of Jim Crow segregation and the flattening racial category of “Negro,” which, naturally, politicized him. But despite being denied access to an education on par with that of white children, he was able to continue his schooling through private tutors, and his linguistic abilities and sheer determination ultimately landed him a job at the Star & Herald, a major Latin American daily. When he was eighteen, his beat consisted of “brawls, murders, political scandals, voodoo rituals, labor confabs, campaigns, concerts, dramatic affairs, shipping intelligence…” Before long, the ambitious young writer “got to the point where I thought I must be moving out into a bigger world of endeavor. So before I knew it I was on my way to America!”

He arrived on Ellis Island in June 1918, at age nineteen and a half, and moved in with his aunt in the Caribbean enclave of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn—a place that felt at once familiar and strange, like home and also foreign—before packing up and moving to Harlem. While negotiating a series of odd jobs, from porter to dish slinger to longshoreman, Walrond wrote a few essays inveighing against colonialism and racism. Then a speculative short story about a successful back-to-Africa movement he’d penned for a contest attracted the attention of Marcus Garvey and landed him a job at Garvey’s newspaper, Negro World.

From there Walrond’s star quickly, astonishingly rose, as he wrote his way beyond Black periodicals and into the mainstream. “Within four years,” Davis writes, “he would be dining downtown with Alfred and Blanche Knopf, James Weldon Johnson, Carl Van Vechten, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, and other literati. He would take them to A’Lelia Walker’s parties, heir to the fortune of the first African American millionaire, and dance the Charleston until the early morning in the gin-soaked cabarets of Prohibition-era Harlem. It was a vertiginous ascent from which he would not soon recover.” Thanks to the support of a patron, Walrond received free lodging and a stipend, allowing him to work on the fiction that would go on to become Tropic Death. He was constantly being called “promising” and “brilliant,” and seemed adept at harnessing his enviable combination of intellect, ambition, and charisma—but his private letters, as Davis unearths, also reveal struggles with depression. “This high-strung, unnatural, morbid, discontented state of mind,” he wrote to a friend. “I am such a furiously emotional creature.… in this raw, briny, floundering state.” After winning a fiction prize in 1925, he wrote to another friend: “I am particularly depressed these days, that is why I didn’t write you before, and I am actually engaged in the absorbing process of counting the minutes of my existence—as if I were a condemned man.” Nonetheless, a year later, Tropic Death was published to great fanfare, with glowing reviews in The New Yorker, The New Republic, The New York Times, and beyond. Donald Friede, vice president of Boni & Liveright, ordained Walrond “the outstanding Negro prose writer of this country… I believe that his work will in time place him among the important writers in America—both Negro and white.” Scholarships, prizes, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a whirlwind of other opportunities flowed from there.

A more foreboding version of this appraisal of Walrond is echoed in Wallace Thurman’s 1930 essay “This Negro Literary Renaissance”: “None is more ambitious than he, none more possessed of keener observation, poetic insight or intelligence.… His prose demonstrates his struggles to escape from conventionalities and become an individual talent. But so far this struggle has not been crowned with any appreciable success.… Will he or will he not cross the Rubicon? It is to be hoped that he will, for he is truly too talented, too sincere an individual and artist to die aborning.” In fact, Davis points out that at the height of his fame, Walrond crossed a different sort of Rubicon, leaving the United States for Europe: Paris and the South of France, and then the United Kingdom. Why? On the one hand, his movements were in keeping with the patterns of his contemporaries, and with a sort of diasporic circuit; Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes also spent time in Paris. But he seemed to be in search of a mental respite from the yoke of expectation, and a fresh start after negotiations with his publisher about a second book—a history of Panama—humiliatingly fell apart.

On to London, which in the early 1930s was experiencing an influx of writers from the colonies, many of whom Walrond came to know. He wrote on race relations and the paradoxes of colonialism, Englishness, Caribbeanness, and the formation of Black British identity. But by and large, he struggled to find a place for himself in this new milieu, with its own set of politics and idiosyncrasies, and in turn struggled to place his work. A generation later, writers of Caribbean descent would articulate their experiences in the mainstream, but perhaps Walrond was too ahead of his time. Why did he stay in England, then, if it wasn’t quite working out? There were rumors of Walrond planning to return to New York, though he didn’t. Perhaps, as a former colonial subject himself, he felt a complex draw to Britain and a strange sense of belonging there. This is a feeling I have often had, and struggled to articulate, as a person of Indian origin: that postcolonial Britain is somehow more home than America. For the connection between the colonizer and the colonized—however fraught, violent, unjust—runs deep.

Whatever the explanation, he remained in the city, all the while growing increasingly reclusive, and becoming “very successful at dodging people he didn’t want to know or that he didn’t want to talk with.” He was embarrassed, it seems, by his floundering, by his sense of having disappointed people. So inevitably, he fell off the map. Back in Harlem, the refrain What happened to Eric Walrond? began to resound.

A few years later, as World War II broke out, Walrond evacuated London for rural Bradford-on-Avon, where he remained, for the next thirteen years, the only Black man in a town of four thousand. From his small stone cottage, he wrote war reports and the occasional review for an assortment of Black periodicals, worked at a rubber factory to make ends meet, and became ever more isolated and depressed. Very few people in town seemed to know he was a writer, let alone a nearly famous one. It must have been painful to watch from afar as friends from his past life became increasingly public figures. I imagine the feeling might have also been tinged with a kind of bittersweet pride—I was there, at the beginning; it could just as well have been me.

In 1952, at age fifty-four, he admitted himself to the Roundway mental hospital. The place was vast and under-resourced, but the staff were progressive and kind, and helped Walrond find a sense of stability, purpose, and companionship he had long lacked. He even excitedly threw himself into starting a literary magazine, The Roundway Review. Though it was a long way from his glittering days among the New York literati, I was heartened by this turn in Walrond’s tale. The magazine seemed to give him real pleasure; he was its most active contributor, as Davis points out, appearing in forty of the first fifty issues. In this humble journal, he published fiction set in his many homes, from Guiana and Barbados to the USA and England. He serialized a deeply researched history of the French canal attempt in Panama over fifteen issues—the only surviving element of his long-floundering manuscript “The Big Ditch.” “There is something at once wonderful and tragic,” Davis writes, “about the juxtaposition in these pages of some of the earliest Caribbean stories published in England and a startling work of colonial history, alongside other patients’ tributes to the hospital band and reminiscences about a favorite horse at a nearby farm.”

In 1957, Walrond’s stint at Roundway came to an end when he received an opportunity, via one of his old New York contacts, to curate a theatrical program of Black poets in London. He was delighted to be asked, and, after eighteen years away, was quick to pack up and move back to London for the gig, even though the work itself was meagerly paid. He saw the project as a vital and thrilling opportunity to showcase the great achievements of Black artists at a time of increasingly strained race relations. Also, the assignment gave him hope that he had not been entirely forgotten.

While staying in a student hotel and struggling to pay bills he hadn’t had to worry about at Roundway, Walrond passionately immersed himself in research for the program, delving into archives at the British Museum and crafting an ambitious plan for the show, as well as compiling a companion anthology, complete with an original ten-thousand-word essay. Finally, a potential path back into the literary world! Indeed, the work did help precipitate reunions with some luminaries from his past, including W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes. But the project proved complicated, riddled with false starts, funding hurdles, and fickle publishers. It seems Walrond was unable, for whatever reason, to deliver on his grand designs. Maybe it was the scale of the task, larger than anything he’d attempted for a long time; maybe it was that familiar death knell, the pressure to succeed, for this might be his last chance.

Sadly, the plan for the anthology fell apart, and Walrond fell off to the margins of the project. Still, the performance, Black and Unknown Bards, eventually went ahead at London’s Royal Court Theatre, for one night only, in October 1958, as Britain was reeling from the Notting Hill race riots. The press praised its potency and relevance. “At a time when it is particularly necessary to draw attention to the talent, dignity, sufferings and aspirations of the coloured peoples, we have this excellent programme which does just that,” wrote The Daily Worker. Despite the internal difficulties, the production bore Walrond’s imprint. I’d like to think he permitted himself to take pride in it.

It did not, however, secure his place in London’s literary scene. Almost sixty years old by this point, he once again found himself in a financially precarious position, struggling to see writing projects through and despondent as a result. Correspondence from the period reveals that he was trailed by shame and anguish that his life had amounted to far less than what it was supposed to. Desperate for work, he took a job at an export packing firm, while his health deteriorated. In 1966, at age sixty-seven, he met his end—a heart attack on the street, alone. 

Eric Walrond’s life was one of dislocation, movement, and change, churned by the waves of history. Of crossing borders, falling into unfamiliar worlds, falling out of them. Writing boldly throughout, demonstrating, however sporadically, a dedication to his subject and craft, despite having published only one book. Had Walrond not experienced that early, sharp ascent, that flicker of fame, his career might have been considered a modest success. But the narrative of rise and fizzle is limned with tragedy. There are so many reasons why Walrond—labeled “promising,” “brilliant,” and a “genius” by so many—didn’t become a household name, didn’t “live up to” the mandate that he was destined for greatness. Mental health struggles. Racial barriers. Lack of strategy. A volatile personality. Loneliness. Fate. Bad luck. Or perhaps he wasn’t so great, after all. It’s easy to proclaim someone great, but hard to be the person who actually has to achieve greatness. Perhaps, as many of his onetime friends theorized, he undermined himself by leaving New York when he was most successful. He had all the pieces arranged, he was in the right place at the right time—the epicenter of Black culture in America—he’d been noticed, he was poised for liftoff… and he ran away.

Or, he was just doing what he felt like doing. Responding, perhaps, to an inner restlessness, a feeling, forged in his multilocational childhood, of comfort in being on the outskirts, in a place marked by some sort of self-dissonance. In Guiana, a Barbadian. In Barbados, a Brit. In Panama, a West Indian. In New York, a Caribbean. In England, an American. It seemed that the brief window when he was the next big thing in New York, when he had gotten into the in-crowd, was precisely when he started to feel uneasy, to feel a need to flee, seek the edge, seek elsewhere. “What attracts me is elsewhere, and I don’t know where that elsewhere is,” writes Emil Cioran, and I wonder if Walrond felt that too. I certainly do. I find his story compelling because I see echoes of myself in Walrond, and echoes of many people I know, whether or not we published acclaimed books when we were in our twenties. I left a comfortable, supportive milieu because I became restless, because stability wasn’t enough, because—even if it meant a kind of self-sabotage, a casting off of a world that could potentially lift me up—I needed to go in search of that elsewhere on my own.

I often think the world is made up of two types of people: searchers and stayers. Searchers are guided by a fundamental restlessness, an underlying preference for movement over stillness, change over consistency. They tend to continually reinvent themselves, trying on new personas, styles, mediums, jobs, genres, religions, routines, ways of being. They root sideways rather than down, choose breadth rather than depth. I’m not suggesting one is better than the other. Stayers are more likely to commit, to focus, to stick to it and be rewarded for their perseverance. Stayers are perhaps better at sublimating a desire for novelty in favor of throwing themselves wholeheartedly into one thing. Stayers, motivated by concreteness and security, are perhaps more likely to build something lasting. I’d venture to say that stayers write more books.

I believe Walrond is, in many ways, an archetype, with a path shared by many a searcher. Consider, for example, the little-known poet–painter–collagist–novelist–playwright–lamp designer–gallerist–socialite Mina Loy. Born to Hungarian Jewish and English parents in London in 1882 as Mina Lowy (she dropped the w in her early twenties), Loy was a key participant in nearly every major Western artistic movement of the twentieth century, from futurist Florence to Freudian Vienna to surrealist Paris to modernist New York. In expat Florence, she socialized with Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, André Gide. In New York, she was friends with Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Cornell. She designed lamps with Peggy Guggenheim. She acted in plays with William Carlos Williams. Her poetry was admired by T. S. Eliot. In a letter to Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound wrote: “Is there anyone in America except you, Bill [William Carlos Williams], and Mina Loy who can write anything of interest in verse?” So many admirers, so many affiliations with today’s household names, so much praise and promise—and yet she published just two books of poetry in her lifetime. She disappeared to Aspen, Colorado, in her later years. Her one novel, Insel—written in the mid-1930s, about a charged relationship between a German painter and an American art dealer in bohemian Paris—didn’t see publication until 1991, a quarter century after her death, when interest in this largely unknown yet seemingly central figure of the modernist movement started to pick up. Why, having been at the heart of so many scenes, possessing such demonstrable gifts, did she, at least according to a linear rubric of fame, not amount to much? Why does she instead dwell in the category of the “forgotten” or “overlooked”? One explanation is that, not unlike Walrond, she kept leaving the worlds she so easily seemed to fall into. Her voracious creative appetite meant that she kept reinventing her calling, sampling new mediums and identities. And she was doomed to be good at everything she tried. Perhaps she had a kind of addiction to mastering one domain and then moving on, to always being on the verge of novelty, to searching rather than staying. Had she stuck with one thing, maybe her name would be more decisively etched into the canon today. But that would have required her to be a different person.

The life of American satirical novelist and short-story writer Dawn Powell is another version of the Walrond archetype. A transplant from rural Ohio to New York in the 1920s, she found her way into the Greenwich Village arts scene and earned the admiration and friendship of Ernest Hemingway (she was, apparently, his “favorite living writer”) and E. E. Cummings for her comedic and acerbic social critiques, particularly of life in New York (“delicate and cutting—nothing will cut New York but a diamond” is the kind of work she hoped to produce). Though she was widely praised by critics, and continually rubbed shoulders with the literati, she struggled financially and failed to earn a living from writing. She didn’t epically flop or stratospherically succeed; hers was a life lived on that spectrum of winning and losing, of taking off and not taking off. One reason may be that, like Walrond, she was ahead of her time in terms of style and subject matter. During her lifetime, her harsh satires—full of sharp observations and uncomfortable truths, lampooning millionaires and communists alike—didn’t sell well, perhaps because they hit everyone too close to home. But posthumously—with endorsements from the likes of Gore Vidal, Rory from Gilmore Girls, and Tim Page, who called her “one of America’s greatest writers”—her body of work gleams with enduring relevance. Still, she’s more famous for not being famous than for the writing that, for better or for worse, steered the course of her life.

And then there’s Henry Roth, a Jewish immigrant to New York who, in 1934, published Call It Sleep, a novel about a young boy growing up in the bleak environs of the Lower East Side tenements. Cue discussion of the author’s singular gifts, exceptional promise, great potential. Cue critical acclaim from important magazines of the day. Lewis Gannett, writing in the New York Herald Tribune, predicted that anyone who read it would “remember it and talk about it and watch excitedly” for Roth’s next book. What followed, instead, was more than three decades of writer’s block for Roth, during which time he sidled out of New York and worked as a road laborer, a substitute math teacher, an attendant at a mental hospital, a duck and goose farmer, and a precision tool grinder, among other things. Why did his writing fizzle out? Again, the possible explanations are manifold. Perhaps the weight of expectation was too great, crippling any sense of artistic freedom; the longer he didn’t write, the more the ghosts of failure haunted him. Perhaps his personal life was too complicated, his political beliefs too confusing, his mind too mercurial, his childhood too troubled. Perhaps he was predisposed to capriciousness. Perhaps he was just living his life, intuitively and nonstrategically, letting it unfold, as most of us do, in the only way he knew how. In 1964, thirty years after its first publication, Call It Sleep was republished as an overlooked Depression-era masterpiece, and went on to sell over a million copies. This second wave of success helped ease Roth, who was living on a farm in Maine, out of his writer’s block, though it took him a few more decades to complete his second book, a monumental four-volume novel. The first installment of Mercy of a Rude Stream was published sixty-two years after his debut. Would more consistent success have given us a different Henry Roth? “There was another life that I might have had,” Kazuo Ishiguro once said, “but I am having this one.”

There are lives lived on the verge of taking off, somewhere in the orbit of success and failure, striving, hoping, subject to the whims of all manner of external forces. And then there is the inverse. A friend who used to teach poetry at a prestigious university recently told me about a student of his who, in all his years as a professor, was a singular standout. He was completely blown away by the strangeness and confidence of her language, her phenomenally original voice, her ability to produce, week after week, intricately cut and brilliantly polished gems that left the class speechless, wonderstruck. Just as incredible was this student’s complete nonchalance about her talent. Having seen hundreds of students sail unremarkably through his poetry seminars, my friend was sure he had a genius on his hands, the next Emily Dickinson (who, lest we forget, was unknown in her lifetime), or, at the very least, H.D. (another Walrond-esque case study, who was crowned great when she was young but died in obscurity, only to be canonized later). Anyway, upon this student’s graduation, he urged her to apply for fellowships and MFAs, to submit her work to contests, to frequent certain institutions—to, essentially, do the “right things.” She moved to New York and they loosely stayed in touch. After a couple of years, they met up, and my friend eagerly asked about her writing. “I’ve forgotten how,” she said, without revealing any trace of longing or remorse. She’d taken up a job as a technical writer for a nonprofit; she had a boyfriend. She seemed content.

My friend was stunned, confused, disappointed—how could she not want more, not want to at least try? But maybe she didn’t want to. Certainly there’s something admirable, indeed enviable, about that effortless detachment from one’s gifts. The cool “I’ve forgotten how,” in this instance, makes this young person even more alluring. Not only is she brilliant, she doesn’t give a fuck! She’s not even going to do anything about it! It’s often the smartest ones who don’t. We all know someone like that, the shadow genius, either uninterested in or unable to get their act together, their brilliance amplified by the fact that they’re not utilizing it. Said James Baldwin: “I know a lot of talented ruins.”

I’d like to believe, in the case of my friend’s former student, that her actions reflect a genuine, deep contentment, a Zen-like sublimation of the ego. But that’s only one explanation. Perhaps she is secretly agonizing over what she isn’t doing. Perhaps it’s a defensive posture, a shield against the prospect of future artistic failure. Perhaps it’s her teacher’s benefaction backfiring—in pronouncing her great, he smothered her ability to produce, and she collapsed under the weight of expectation. Perhaps, in five years’ time, or ten, or twenty, she will want more, and she’ll find it harder to get, having missed the earlier boat. The irreverence of “I’ve forgotten how” might be recast as writer’s block; the freedom associated with not doing something you’re good at might, later on, feel like wasted time. Who knows. When you’re young, you can be flippant about your promise, because that’s all you are. Having done nothing, you can enjoy the prospect of anything. But life is often long.

Eric Walrond was not particularly flippant about his promise—he knew he had it, and he wanted to use it—although he did make decisions that, in hindsight, might be described as self-defeating. Why didn’t he ride the wave of attention when he had it? Why did he leave New York, and his milieu of famous friends, at the height of his success? Rather than sink deeper into that world, he rose out of it. He floated across the sea to another place, another milieu, another scene, where he repeatedly created himself anew. He didn’t stop trying, but he didn’t quite find his anchor again. What would have happened had he stayed put?

I think of another friend of mine, a musician from a small Western nation. After playing in decently successful bands in his twenties, he released a debut solo album that was extolled by the press, landed him gigs at significant venues around the world, won him a major national prize, and basically positioned him to do whatever he wanted to do next. Instead, as opportunities flowed his way, he quietly made a second album, which, apart from personally giving a few copies to friends, he chose not to release publicly. “But why not?” everyone pressed. His answer: “I didn’t want to talk about it.” He couldn’t face the prospect of discussing the turmoil that had turned into lyrics, of providing tidy anecdotes to explain his arrangements. Years later, he hasn’t reentered the music world. He is working at a greengrocer. He has become a shadow genius, glorified—whether he wants it or not—by the glow of opting out.

“I didn’t want to talk about it.” Another elegant refusal, akin to “I’ve forgotten how.” What’s with these people? Have they reached enlightenment? I want to think that their inaction speaks to something like that: a deep wisdom, a fundamental understanding that artistic recognition isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, a profound internal peace. External validation is a trap! Don’t you know what happens when you get what you want? You want more. Yeah, yeah, the hedonic treadmill. We all know this, but they really know it. They know that in the end—regardless of how sublime the actual work of creativity is, all the stuff that comes after, if you’re lucky to receive it—all the packaging and performing and selling and feting and traveling and talking just might not be worth it. The poet knew it before she even started. The musician had a taste of it, and then spit it out.

Or maybe there’s something else going on. Maybe they’re afraid. Or lazy. Or boring. Whatever the explanation, opting out is not for everyone. Imagine, one might retort, being so lucky as to be able to turn down opportunities! Check your privilege, you sages.Strivers of the world, unite! Why choose equanimity when you can ride the roller coaster of external validation? The lows are low, but the highs are oh so, so high. Not everyone has to be a Buddhist, right? To each their own.

While writing this essay, an artifact from years ago wandered into my mind: a list I made with a friend in a college dorm room at 2 a.m., circa 2009, titled “Top 25 People You Should Know at [our liberal arts university].” It was our snarky yet studied assessment of the sparkliest people on campus, the experimental thespians and the a cappella divas and the EDM bros and the spoken-word stars, the ones who we thought were really going somewhere. Thankfully, it never saw the light of day, but without much effort, I was able to find it on an old hard drive, tucked between essays on the theatre of the oppressed and transcendentalism.

It is a hilarious document. Instantly, I’m transported back to the college green. Skinny jeans proliferate. Merriweather Post Pavilion drifts through the air. I go down the list and google. One person has become a famous musician. Another, a well-known poet. Another acts in buzzy TV shows. These people have Wikipedia pages. Others indicate occasional creative output—a YouTube clip from a 2013 standup gig, a chapbook prize in 2015, a 2017 personal essay—in and around creative-adjacent professions like brand strategist. A few are employed as therapists and social workers. There are some surprises: a campus heartthrob has gone into medicine; a charismatic dancer has dropped out in South America. In fact, the majority yield very little online. A mention at the end of a parent’s obituary, a password-protected wedding website, a lapsed LinkedIn. Two on the list are dead.

The spread is characteristic, I suppose, of any cohort, any scene, any group of friends. A couple of triumphs, a couple of tragedies, and most everyone else just… swimming along, living lives that are probably some ever-shifting combination of thrilling and repetitive, frustrating and satisfying, quiet and loud, ordinary and extraordinary. Inevitably, disparities of a certain kind of success widen over time; people fall off; the refrain Whatever happened to so-and-so? begins to resound. It happened in Walrond’s Harlem Renaissance–­era crew; it happened in Mina Loy’s downtown scene; it’ll happen to us. We all know people who are slipping through the cracks; maybe we ourselves are those people. Some among us who found early success might struggle, in a few years, to sustain it. Some among us might experience a meteoric rise tomorrow. Some among us might fail spectacularly in three decades. Most of us, though, will probably just keep trying and not trying, hoping and not hoping, changing and not changing, stepping forward and falling backward, somewhere in the vast, variegated experiment that is, simply, life.

Storylines of artistic success tend to adhere to a few templates. There’s the narrative of steady upward movement, the “Sea-to-Summit,” let us call it, whereby talent and perseverance are rewarded with professional acclaim and canonical recognition at a rate that steadily increases over the course of one’s lifetime. There’s a life spent toiling in bitter obscurity, only to score a late break and enjoy a whirlwind third act of glamour and glory: “Waiting for Godot,” but vindicated. Then there’s “Future Queen,” the hermetic, unknown genius whose prolific output is posthumously wrested from the rubble and propelled to household-name status. Or there’s the beloved tale of youthful fame and early, untimely death, the “Rocket to Heaven,” say, its subject forever bathed in the tragic yet ennobling glow of unfulfilled potential. Of course, real lives are never this neat, but these are the cinematic arcs, the ones deemed worthy of biopics.

What we don’t have is a template for an arc like Walrond’s. Someone who could have been any of the above, but who instead meandered, on a rutted, twisting road, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, most of the time inhabiting the space between those reductive poles. Whose trajectory is not linear, not straightforwardly tragic or triumphant, but complex, bittersweet—like most of our journeys are. Trajectories of success, as Walrond’s story demonstrates, are usually at odds with the vicissitudes of life, and the restlessness and changeability that tend to define creative people. In that sense, for me, Walrond is a blueprint for a life lived honestly, vulnerably, on the raw edge of what it means to be human. His choices were intuitive, searching, responsive to the inclinations of his soul. He seemed to follow his heart—however confounding or nonstrategic that might have been. He was unerringly, unapologetically, himself.

One-hit wonder. Fifteen minutes of fame. Flavor of the month. Second-book syndrome. There’s even homo unius libri—man of one book, attributed to Thomas Aquinas. Our vocabulary for artists who flame out is limited, pejorative. The terms we turn to are more indictments of industries that fetishize novelty than verdicts on an artist’s capacity to sustain an output. In the end, it’s all a bit of a toss-up, even if we’d prefer to think otherwise, to believe that those destined for greatness will, in fact, become great. As Tom Bissell writes, “I cannot help but imagine that literature is an airplane, and we passengers on it. One might assume that behind the flimsy accordion door sit pilots of skill and accomplishment. But the cockpit is empty. It has always been empty. The controls are abandoned. They have always been abandoned. One needs only to touch them to know how mutable our course.” And if literary fame is random, literary failure is just as random. There are infinite reasons why—even if they’ve been anointed great, even if they have the right connections, the right timing, the right smarts, the right mystique—some people do not reach the heights set out before them. Walrond’s path was marked by particular, undeniable struggles. Who he was (an immigrant from the Caribbean, navigating, among other things, colonialism and racial regimes) and who he became (a charming and brilliant but troubled person) had as much to do with his success as with his failure. A writer today might encounter similar as well as different issues: an inability to use Instagram, an oversaturated market, the cultural devaluing of the arts, the encroachment of technology, a world driven by the financial imperatives of corporations, et cetera, et cetera. The banquet of obstacles is always lavish. Though maybe we’ve reached a point in history when none of us will have time to fizzle out; instead, we’ll be cleanly, dramatically swallowed by artificial intelligence, rendered extinct, the last of the species once known as artists. That would be cinematic.

In the meantime, however, I propose we celebrate not just the stories of the against-all-odds successes, the posthumous geniuses, the Sea-to-Summits, but also the quiet, smoldering grandeur of lives that are shaped the other way. Those who, like Eric Walrond, keep searching, climbing, ambulating through the hills of that vast middle—even if they never quite make it to Mount Nebo.

This is what I think as I stand before Walrond’s mud-splattered grave this afternoon—five winters on from our first encounter, after a hailstorm has whipped through London—in the warmth of a late-breaking sun. A promised land never fully glimpsed, a hunger never entirely satiated. Moments of joy, beauty, and possibility scattered throughout, accessible even through the hardship, poignant in their transience. It’s a different sort of cinematic, a different sort of admirable. You can feel it in the first pages of Tropic Death:

Hunger—pricks at stomachs inured to brackish coffee and cassava pone—pressed on folk, joyful as rabbits in a grassy ravine, wrenching themselves free of the lure of the white earth. Helter-skelter dark, brilliant, black faces of West Indian peasants moved along, in pain—the stiff tails of blue denim coats, the hobble of chigger-cracked heels, the rhythm of a stride… dissipating into the sun-stuffed void the radiant forces of the incline.

And you can feel it in the words Walrond wrote, close to the end, to those who once believed in him:

I am determined to try somehow and get on with some of my own, long-neglected work… I have only one thing to live for, and in spite of age and years of silence I have not lost sight of my objectives, or the high aims with which I set out such a long time ago.

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