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David Galenson

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One-Hit Wonders Revisited: Happy Anniversary to The Last Picture Show

Posted: 10/04/11 11:12 AM ET

Huffington Post recently pointed out that one-hit wonders are not unique to popular music. One-hit wonders in fact appear in all the arts.

There are many writers whose careers have been dominated by a single novel. Famous examples include: Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818); Bram Stoker, Dracula (1897); Henry Roth, Call It Sleep (1939); Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind (1936); Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano (1947); J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (1951); Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952); Jack Kerouac, On the Road (1957); William Burroughs, Naked Lunch (1959); Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960); and Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (1961). And this list is clearly far from complete. (Remarkably, for Mitchell, Salinger, and Lee, the novel listed was their only novel.) There is a tendency for these lone hits to be written by the young; 9 of the 11 books listed here were published before their authors reached 40, and in two cases, before 30. In this group, Mary Shelley takes the prize for precocity; Frankenstein was published when she was just 21.

One-hit wonders have not received much systematic attention in other arts. But the New York Times now reminds us that this year marks the 40th anniversary of a film that dominates the career of its director. The Times describes The Last Picture Show as no less than "an American classic -- a perfect film." Peter Bogdanovich was a 32-year-old wunderkind when he directed The Last Picture Show, and in that respect he was compared to his idol, Orson Welles, when the film was released. Yet -- with apologies to fans of Paper Moon -- Bogdanovich's artistic decline was far more precipitous than that of Welles after the latter made his own great early masterpiece.

The great painter Eugène Delacroix puzzled over the phenomenon of artistic one-hit wonders as early as 1856. Thus he wrote in his journal:

Without the masterpiece, there is no great artist; yet those who have produced only one during their lives have not become great men through that. The things of that type are usually the product of youth. A certain precocious strength and a certain warmth which is in the blood as much as in the mind, have sometimes given a curious brilliance to men; but confidence as to talent aroused by early works has to be confirmed by other works which maturity, the age of genuine strength, should add, and nearly always does add when the talent is really strong.
Delacroix's reflection appears to cover most, if not all, of the artists mentioned in this post: gifted artists who are not generally considered great, but who produced a single masterpiece, often early in their careers. To his analysis we can now add the observation that all the artists mentioned here appear to have been conceptual innovators, and that their puzzling declines may be a result of the fact that age is not the friend of the conceptual imagination.