In last week’s New Yorker, Adam Kirsch’s fine review of the almost hilariously dire poetry of Giacomo Leopardi notes of the scoliosis-stricken 19th Italian Romantic that
“His deformity effectively barred him from having any sort of romantic life, except for the few unrequited loves recorded in his poems, and he probably died a virgin.”
Noting that the subject died a virgin, or probably died a virgin, is a surprisingly frequent trope among New Yorker critics! Dig:
I distinctly remember this long piece, from 2001, about Hans Christian Andersen (which also touched on his masturbation habits):
He had crushes, often on the daughters of friends, and, obsessively, on Jenny Lind, but he was unnerved by anything having to do with sex and flustered by women and their bodies.
Since 1901… researchers have conducted a somewhat tedious debate as to whether Andersen was gay. As an older man, he was occasionally infatuated with men as well as with women… But Andersen’s virginity almost certainly remained intact.
A few years ago, Steven Shapin wrote a Critic at Large piece on the late 19th-century English philosopher Herbert Spencer:
It was with George Eliot that Spencer acted out the one love affair of his life. He was never comfortable with the idea that the relationship might go anywhere, however, and Francis and other commentators seem satisfied that he died a virgin. Eliot herself was infatuated, but complained of the “tremendous glacier” within him.
And in 2003, Adam Gopnik discussed the brilliant Queens-born collage artist and early experimental filmmaker Joseph Cornell, who, unlike the above, was alive in the 20th century:
And Cornell’s loves made him vulnerable, as vulnerable as any hermit who comes to believe his visions. In a dénouement that belongs in a movie or an opera, in 1962 he finally reached out to one of his [fantasy girls]. Her name was Joyce Hunter, and she was an aspiring actress whom he found waiting on tables in a coffee shop on Sixth Avenue. He… made many boxes and collages in her honor, and eventually, tremulously, invited her to live [with him] on Utopia Parkway. (They don’t seem to have slept together, and he probably died a virgin.) Predictably, she and a boyfriend ended up stealing nine boxes from him. A dealer put the police onto them, and she was arrested in the fall of 1964, which forced Cornell, gallantly but miserably, to spend his time trying to keep her safe from the police and prosecutors. A few months later, she was found murdered in a West Side hotel room, probably for unrelated reasons. Cornell was heartbroken.
1. Life is short, but art is long (all these guys are dead).
2. So is virginity, apparently: it will follow you to the grave.
3. You should avoid the culture pages of the New Yorker if you are a teenage boy already terrified that you’re never going to have sex.