Saturday, November 17, 2012

“The Keats Brothers: The Life of George and John” by Denise Gigante

The brothers lived their lives under a cloud. The cloud, the disease we now call tuberculosis, took their mother when they were children (it may have taken other family members too) and with their father out of the picture, the Keats children were on their own. The eldest, John, nursed his mother to the end, probably picking up the infection then. The third brother, "poor Tom," died in his teens with both brothers John and George taking turns at nursing, John once again there at the end. When you nurse somebody who's dying from a failed respiratory system and struggling for breath, as the author points out, you're almost certain to be infected. If you're susceptible (clearly not everyone was), you get the disease. Sometimes it's slow, sometimes quick.
Today we have inoculations and treatments, but in the early 19th century you couldn't even rely on doctors to diagnose it correctly. Even well into the 20th century notables died from it - try D.H. Lawrence and George Orwell.
John Keats, who would become one of the "immortals" of English poetry, though only (the words themselves pile the irony on) after his death, diagnosed his own "death warrant" when he saw the color of the blood he was expectorating after a particularly cruel turn of fate. On a warm winter's day he rode into London but left his winter coat behind. The weather turned cold and he took an ill-chosen coach ride, sitting outside the box to save money and arriving home in a feverish state. We shake our heads when geniuses make tragic mistakes - earlier, a walking expedition to Scotland (a notoriously cold climate even in summer) left him with a throat infection he never got over; but John Keats always expected to die young.
George Keats, the second brother, and the person in his life that John relied on more than anyone else, lasted into his early forties. But George, when barely twenty, goes to America to make his fortune at a time when the American frontier was regarded as boomtown.
A more tantalizing subject (despite the unfortunate pairing of first names in the subtitle, which suggests an early attempt at the Beatles) can hardly be imagined.
Poetry freaks, English majors everywhere, and followers of the geniuses-die-young school of celebrity worship - we all have a soft spot for John Keats. Being great in your early twenties leads to what-ifs? How would Jimi Hendrix be playing in the 21st century? Harvesting golden oldies in Las Vegas; or escaping to a mountain somewhere to conduct secret recording sessions with the locals?
John Keats' poetry writing career lasted only a few years, and genius flared to its heights around the time in fell (tragically, of course) in love. It's a set-up that has people like me craving all the details I can get, and Gigante's book delivers more than I knew before.
Her book also delivers all sorts of details about George's life in the rude, crude American frontier (a place we have longed tamed into the Midwest). This is an intriguing tale as well, though here we have too many details for my taste, the fruit of the author's exhaustive research of everyone and every place that George rubbed elbows with (or might have) in his pioneering quest for a financial utopia. First on the "English prairie," a tantalizing name for a place so lacking in infrastructure and basic civility that it was hard to imagine anyone there reading a poem or for that matter getting out of the rain. George takes his investment capital (some of which arguably belonged to his brothers and a younger sister stranded with an unloved guardian) down river to Cincinnati and Louisville, first getting ripped off by local entrepreneurs (including no less an eminence than John James Audubon, who also went bankrupt); then persevering and getting rich when the frontier boom caught up to his neighborhood; then going bankrupt in the panic of 1837. A truly American story.
Just how bare and dirty and opportunistic (also drunk and lazy) the American frontier was at this time is an eye-opener and a compelling subject. I was a little put off when first reading the snobby English perspective on the USA. It was like England, John Keats thought, but lacking in the poetry and romance. He imagined it as an endless store counter with everything in the world for sale. In fact, Gigante's's portrait of the place backs it up. Fine English goods, we learn, were rushed to newly planted frontier towns before there were buyers for them.
George Keats, a man of culture and intellect in a land of the unlearned, becomes a conventional pillar of his community. He's married, has seven children, a few slaves, and seemingly sound business interests; and a lifelong sadness over the loss of his fantastically gifted brother.
John suffered the loss of his brother to the new world as well. George was family, companionship and security for much of his too short life, a life in which he knew only that he would die young and believed - as he once put it - "when I die I think I shall be among the English poets."
God, is he ever.