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Dave Astor

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Life Spans of Literary Giants

Posted: 02/ 8/2012 12:56 pm

Charles Dickens' 200th birthday on Feb. 7 and Edith Wharton's 150th birthday on Jan. 24 got me thinking about how old famous novelists were when they died. Here are some of the longer-living ones I found:

Eudora Welty, 92 (1909-2001)
Upton Sinclair, 90 (1878-1968)
Saul Bellow, 89 (1915-2005)
Agatha Christie, 85 (1890-1976)
Harriet Beecher Stowe, 85 (1811-1896)

How does the longevity of notable authors compare to the longevity of adults in general? In an effort to be at least pseudo-scientific, I found a website that lists the average ages people reached during different eras. But before I say more, some additional life spans:

Norman Mailer, 84 (1923-2007)
Erskine Caldwell, 83 (1903-1987)
Leo Tolstoy, 82 (1828-1910)
Daphne du Maurier, 81 (1907-1989)
William Styron, 81 (1925-2006)

According to the aforementioned Web site, the average white male who reached the age of 20 in 1850, 1900, and 1950 eventually lived to 60.1, 62.19, and 69.52, respectively; the average white female reaching 20 in those three eras lived to 60.2, 63.77, and 74.56, respectively; and people of color reaching 20 in those three eras unfortunately died four to eight years sooner than their white counterparts. Another interlude:

Colette, 81 (1873-1954)
Robert Heinlein, 80 (1907-1988)
H.G. Wells, 79 (1866-1946)
Thornton Wilder, 78 (1897-1975)
Jules Verne, 77 (1828-1905)

I'm only listing some novelists, of course, so it's hard to make statistically sound comparisons. But it looks like the average age of the white-male authors I'm naming in this post was a little higher than the average age of the general white-male population during those years. Another interlude:

John Updike, 76 (1932-2009)
Booth Tarkington, 76 (1869-1946)
Joseph Heller, 76 (1923-1999)
Edith Wharton, 75 (1862-1937)
Mark Twain, 74 (1835-1910)

I listed fewer white-female novelists, because fewer women were published in the past and some of the best authors (like Margaret Atwood) are still living. But those who were adults in the 1900s had life spans a little longer than those of non-novelist females, and the women writers who found success in the 1800s had a lower average life span than non-writers (the tragic early deaths of the Bronte sisters didn't help). Another interlude:

Willa Cather, 73 (1873-1947)
Isaac Asimov, 72 (1920-1992)
Erich Maria Remarque, 72 (1898-1970)
Herman Melville, 72 (1819-1891)
Bernard Malamud, 71 (1914-1986)

My sampling of novelists of color is even smaller than for white-female authors. Again, there were plenty of publishing roadblocks in the past, and some of the best writers (like Toni Morrison) are still living. Another interlude:

Aldous Huxley, 69 (1894-1963)
Zora Neale Hurston, 69 (1891-1960)
Alexandre Dumas, 68 (1802-1870)
Anthony Trollope, 67 (1815-1882)
L.M. Montgomery, 67 (1874-1942)

One would expect successful novelists to reach an older age than people in many other professions, because fame and career satisfaction often bring life-lengthening income and happiness. And there's also some circular logic involved, because longevity can mean more books and more acclaim. Another interlude:

John Steinbeck, 66 (1902-1968)
Sinclair Lewis, 65 (1885-1951)
Wilkie Collins, 65 (1824-1889)
William Faulkner, 64 (1897-1962)
James Baldwin, 63 (1924-1987)

But some novelists didn't get enough life-lengthening exercise because of all that sedentary time spent writing! Another interlude:

Emile Zola, 62 (1840-1902)
Ernest Hemingway, 61 (1899-1961)
Walter Scott, 61 (1771-1832)
George Eliot, 61 (1819-1880)
Nathaniel Hawthorne, 59 (1804-1864)

And it didn't help the health of those unlucky authors who wrote superb novels that got poor reviews and sales during their lifetimes (a la Herman Melville and his whale of a book). Another interlude:

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 59 (1821-1881)
James Joyce, 58 (1882-1941)
Charles Dickens, 58 (1812-1870)
Louisa May Alcott, 55 (1832-1888)
James Hilton, 54 (1900-1954)

Some novelists dealt with health-sapping racism and sexism. Some (such as Honore de Balzac) worked so hard that it might have contributed to their early deaths. Some had high-strung personalities that led to "self-medicating" with alcohol and drugs. Some took advantage of the many invitations their celebrity brought and partied too hard. Another interlude:

Kate Chopin, 53 (1851-1904)
Mary Shelley, 53 (1797-1851)
Richard Wright, 52 (1908-1960)
Marcel Proust, 51 (1871-1922)
Honore de Balzac, 51 (1799-1850)

There was also the occasional suicide (Ernest Hemingway) and car-accident death (Albert Camus). Another interlude:

Carson McCullers, 50 (1917-1967)
George Orwell, 46 (1903-1950)
Albert Camus, 46 (1913-1960)
F. Scott Fitzgerald, 44 (1896-1940)
Robert Louis Stevenson, 44 (1850-1894)

Then there was the possible 1902 murder of Emile Zola, who died in his sleep of carbon-monoxide poisoning caused by a stopped-up chimney. Zola had enemies because of his courageous 1898 statement publicly denouncing the wrongful conviction of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army. A last interlude:

Jane Austen, 41 (1775-1817)
Charlotte Bronte, 38 (1816-1855)
Emily Bronte, 30 (1818-1848)
Anne Bronte, 29 (1820-1849)
Stephen Crane, 28 (1871-1900)

And the life span of writing this blog post was Feb. 5, 2012, to Feb. 8, 2012. That said, if you have any comments about the longevity of famous authors, I'd love to read them!