Famous Literary Friendships–Good and Bad

Throughout the history of literature, there have been numerous examples of two literary giants becoming friends, which typically became hazardous.  A lot of interesting anecdotes come from this.  Assembled here are a handful of stories I’ve come across over the years.  As all of the info here came from biographies (so dubiously factual), college classes, or from friends who read a lot, I can’t guarantee much validity here, so don’t by any means consider this the product of scholarship.  If you’re looking for something informative and amusing to read, then read on.

Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne

Melville and Hawthorne were both minor celebrities on the East Coast around the same time, Hawthorne being thought of highly, and Melville was alternately thought of as a good yard-spinner and crazy.  I have heard that both authors became friends, and Melville admired Hawthorne’s style so much he wrote long essays about his books and even dedicated Moby Dick to him.  The two would, like many men, meet, talk about work, smoke cigars, and drink.  Here’s the part that might be true or might be a rumor (scholarship is lacking): it’s been said that Melville was a closeted homosexual(there’s a lot in Moby Dick that suggests that), and that the reason why the friendship between Melville and Hawthorne ended was that Melville made a pass that did not go over well with Hawthorne.

Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud

This is a very famous literary “romance” of sorts.  Paul Verlaine was a poet of some note in France when he received a poem in the mail from a young poet named Arthur Rimbaud, who wasn’t yet the venerated enfant teribles we now know him as.  Rimbaud at the time was having trouble getting published, and thought the older, more established Verlaine could help him, but Verlaine had in mind other devisings.  Paying for his one-way ticket, Verlaine had Rimbaud meet him and stay with him in what turned out to be a short tempestuous relationship.  The relationship abruptly ended when, after a long drinking binge (Rimbaud and Verlaine supposedly drank absinthe regularly together), Verlaine shot at Rimbaud twice, one bullet missing, and the other wounding Rimbaud’s wrist.  The only good that came out of the whole thing was that Verlaine did in fact help Rimbaud find publication.

Robert Louis Stevenson and Henry James

This is one of the nicer stories on the list.  R.L. Stevenson was a frequent guest at Lamb House (the mansion owned by Henry James).  By all accounts, theirs was a long, happy friendship, punctuated only briefly by a literary rivalry revolving around some remarks about Treasure Island by Henry James, but both men resolved it amicably, and the friendship continued until R.L. Stevenson left England to travel to the South Seas, where he hoped the warm climate would help his health (something people often believed in the 19th Century).

Henry James and Edith Wharton

This is very famous literary friendship.  Henry James was an early supporter of Wharton’s writing, and is said to have taken her under his wing.  Wharton developed a great deal of respect for the older author, to the point where, when his later novels weren’t selling well, she had her publisher siphon some of her own royalties and put them into James’ account, doing it secretly so James would think his own books were selling, and not feel embarrassed by the charity of his protege.  It’s also said that later in life, when James was suffering from long periods of depression and would stay at home for weeks on end, Wharton would come by and insist he go traveling with her.  Also, she parodies the attitudes of James’ detractors in the story Xingu.

Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev

It’s said that Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Turgeneve had a very strained friendship.  Both were fairly famous in Russia around the same time, and they were said to have met together on several occasions.  One of the things to come between them was, and this is kind of funny to me, Turgenev’s dancing.  One night, for whatever reason (maybe he was drunk), Turgenev got up and insisted on showing off his ability to do the cancan.  Tolstoy found this disgraceful.  It’s later said that on his death bed, Turgenev pleaded with Tolstoy that he should return to writing fiction (this was during his philosophical/religious period).

There’s a handful of other stories I’ve heard, but I’ll save them for a different post.

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I've written a book called The Madness of Art: Short Stories


Are there any other interesting literary friendships you care to mention?


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