Photo credit by Juan G. Hurtado
Writing is a hard, solitary occupation – unlike some of the more collaborative arts, the forge that spawns great literature is one of lonely toil over a typewriter, wrestling with your inner demons and putting them down on paper. So is it any wonder that a disproportionate number of our greatest authors have seen fit to end their own lives? In this article, I’ll spotlight five wordsmiths who couldn’t take it anymore and see if their work offers any clues to their tragic deaths.
Perhaps the patron saint for the suicidal writer is Sylvia Plath, the Boston-born poetess who pioneered the genre of confessional poetry. Her novel “The Bell Jar” is a practical manual for young women with a dark artistic temperament, but sadly the ravages of married life with an unfaithful husband proved too much for Sylvia to bear. In 1963, she sealed the doors to her children's rooms with wet towels, leaned into the gas oven, and turned the nozzle on full blast, asphyxiating herself into an eternal sleep. Her suicide has served as a metaphorical capstone to her literary career, making her one of the first recognized martyrs for art.
Of course, no list of literary suicides would be complete without Ernest Hemingway. The literary veteran of the “Lost Generation” pioneered a writing style that was intense, muscular, and uniquely American, and still stands as one of the most compelling men of letters in recent history. But, like many men who find their vitality escaping them as they age, Hemingway took the coward’s way out. After being badly burned in a bushfire, Papa H. lived in constant, crippling pain for a year and a half before putting a shotgun to his forehead and pulling the trigger in 1961, leaving a grisly mess behind. Oddly, suicide ran in Hemingway’s family, with his father, two sisters and his granddaughter Margaux all ending their own lives as well.
Of course, when it comes to suicide, the Japanese culture has a rich tradition. So it should come as no surprise that one of the most lauded Japanese authors of all time, the maniacal Yukio Mishima, would end his own life. Mishima, who launched an unforgettable career with 1948’s “Confessions Of A Mask,” went steadily off the rails as he wrestled with his sexuality, forming a private army of young men in 1967 to overthrow the government. When his plan failed, he committed the ritual suicide known as seppuku, driving a knife into his stomach as one of his men cut off his head.
One perplexing literary suicide comes in the form of New York monologuist Spalding Gray, creator of the lauded one-man show “Swimming to Cambodia.” Gray, known for his uncompromising, minimal theatre pieces, suffered neurological damage as a result of a car crash in 2001. Although he worked with many doctors to restore his shattered body, his life was never the same, and in January of 2004 he lept from the Staten Island Ferry, his body not found for months.
The most recent death on this list comes from David Foster Wallace, who ended his life in the fall of 2008. Wallace, most memorable for the postmodern epic “Infinite Jest,” was one of the most lauded writers of the early 21st century, his text glistening with a complex blend of Midwestern irony and cultural referentialism. Unfortunately, Wallace wrestled with depression his entire life, and took medication for over 20 years to handle it. When he attempted to wean himself from the mood stabilizer Nardil, his condition worsened severely. After many other treatment options, including electroshock therapy, failed to restore his mental state, he hung himself in his home.