In Henry James's short story "The Middle Years," an ailing writer is troubled by the conviction that only now, after many books, has he begun to find his true voice. All the work he's done so far has been nothing more than a sort of apprenticeship, in preparation for the truly great work that he'll be able to do if only he is granted more time.

In the story's last pages, the writer comes to accept the fact that he's dying. He won't get more time. The magnificent works that he might have written will never be written. What he has done already is all he'll ever do.

The story isn't depressing, because in his last days, the writer meets an admirer, a young doctor who has read all of his books with an intelligent appreciation. The young man's devotion, a devotion that verges on the idolatrous, helps the writer understand that his life hasn't been in vain. "The thing is to touch someone, to make someone care," the writer says to his admirer. "You happen to be crazy, of course, but that doesn't affect the general law."

Near the end of the story, the writer sums up what he's learned:

"A second chance! That's the delusion. There never was to be but one. We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art."


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pp. 81-82
Launched on MUSE
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