This week, we were saddened by the news that beloved 85-year-old Colombian novelist and Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez is suffering from dementia and has stopped writing. Though not every can scribble up until the very moment of their death (thought many do), it’s always a little heartbreaking to see the deterioration of such an amazing mind. We’ve put together a list of famous authors that were forced into retirement because of illness, depression or slightly more elusive reasons — check them out and mourn the late-life novels that might have been with us in the comments.
Gabriel García Márquez
Though Márquez has been rumored to be in ill health for some time now, and his publishers hadn’t quite expected any new fiction from him, this is the first official news of his decline. “Dementia runs in our family and he’s now suffering the ravages prematurely due to the cancer that put him almost on the verge of death,” Jaime García Márquez, the author’s brother said. “Chemotherapy saved his life, but it also destroyed many neurons, many defenses and cells, and accelerated the process…. He is no longer writing and is simply living this stage of life in peace. He reads every day and is with his family.”
Shortly after the publication of what would be her last novel, 1995’s Jackson’s Dilemma, legendary Irish-born novelist Murdoch was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, which quickly put a stop to her writing. Some critics have even suggested that they could see the onset of the disease in Murdoch’s final novel — while the structure and grammar are unchanged from her previous works, the language is much simpler. Sadly, one biographer wrote that her last years were “a descent into the abyss of Alzheimer’s” ending “a pathetic death [as] a demented old woman in a ‘home’ in Oxford.”
Prolific playwright and Nobel laureate O’Neill suffered from many illnesses in his life, including depression, tuberculosis, malaria, and alcoholism, but he first noticed a slight shaking in his hand when he was a freshman at Princeton in 1906. In 1941, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and soon thereafter the shaking became so bad that O’Neill found himself unable to write, a condition that plagued him for the last ten years of his life. He attempted to dictate his work, but unfortunately, he wasn’t able to work that way. Note: though O’Neill was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at the time, a later study showed that he suffered from “late-onset cerebellar cortical atrophy,” an inherited disease.
Like Márquez, White suffered from dementia towards the end of his life, but benefited from the support of his family and friends. Writing and then speaking became difficult for him, but according to Scott Elledge’s biography of the beloved writer, he still maintained his sense of humor until the end. In the last months, White’s son Joel would read to him from White’s own works, Elledge writes. “On one occasion, Joel remembers, his father was especially pleased to hear ‘Across the Street and into the Grill,’ his famous parody of a bad Hemingway novel.”
Yes, even Papa, who suffered from alcoholism his entire life, and by 1954 had accumulated an incredible number of ailments and injuries (the man was in two separate plane crashes, after all). He was depressed, paranoid and hypochondriacal, a series of issues that have now been chalked up to “the long association of bipolar illness, alcoholism, and multiple head trauma.” Indeed, by 1960, Hemingway found it almost impossible to write at all. As A.E. Hotchner said, “Basically, Ernest’s ability to work had deteriorated to a point where he spent hours with a manuscript… but he was unable to really work on it… His talk about destroying himself had become more frequent, and he would sometimes stand at the gun rack, holding one of the guns, staring out the window at the distant mountains.” As we know, sadly, he eventually killed himself with one of those guns.
Forster probably has the most dramatic shift on this list — while most of the other writers stopped writing a year or two or three before their deaths, stalled by illness and age, Forster stopped writing a full 46 years before he died. And it was probably because he lost his virginity. In a diary found amongst his papers only a few years ago, Forster wrote, “I should have been a more famous writer if I had written or rather published more, but sex prevented the latter.” After losing his virginity (at age 38, no less) to a wounded soldier on a beach in Egypt, he felt unable “to write about the subjects upon which his reputation was based.” Or perhaps more happily, as Alan Hollinghurst suggested, “It is certainly true for quite a few writers and certainly for Forster that suppression [of sexuality] was a strong creative force… And yes, the happiness he found from a relationship took away the urgency from his writing.” Well, at least he was happy!
Now, to be fair, Austen was one of those who fought her illness hard, and kept writing until just four months before her death. But her illness forced her to give up on Sanditon, her incredibly witty satire, and so we’re pretty comfortable saying it was much too soon.
Okay, so we’re not exactly sure that Rimbaud was forced into retirement — we’re not exactly sure why he retired at all. A dazzling poet whom Victor Hugo called “an infant Shakespeare,” he wrote all of his best works between the ages of fifteen and twenty, and then abruptly gave up writing altogether to make his way to East Africa, where he stayed as a trader until his death. Henry Miller lamented Rimbaud’s “act of renunciation,” which, he wrote, “one is tempted to compare… with the release of the atomic bomb.” Indeed, after he quit writing Rimbaud wanted nothing more than to destroy that part of his life, calling it “absurd, ridiculous, disgusting.” What happened? No one knows, but any sea change of this magnitude must, we imagine, have been a little bit out of Rimbaud’s control.