10 Literary Portraits of a Young Artist


Today marks the 97th anniversary of the publication of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man — a novel that has come to epitomize the journey of the angsty artist on the threshold of becoming. If you never grow tired of reading about isolated figures turning their backs on family dysfunction, religious oppression, and social burdens in the wake of individual consciousness, head past the break. Here are ten other books that explore the interiority of creative passion, unbridled youth, and artistic evolution.

Lives of Girls and Women, Alice Munro

“People’s lives, in Jubilee as elsewhere, were dull, simple, amazing, unfathomable — deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum. It did not occur to me then that one day I would be so greedy for Jubilee… What I wanted was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together — radiant, everlasting.”

Alice Monro’s short story collection, Lives of Girls and Women, chronicles the experiences of protagonist Del Jordan, tracing her development from childhood beginnings in rural Ontario during the 1940s. Del’s passion for art and literature inform her eloquent observations of local mores. Boundaries between her personal mythos and mundane realities ultimately dissolve, as she attempts to construct her own identity by interweaving fiction and fact.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Brontë

Brontë’s controversial, protofeminist, epistolary novel — about a woman who escapes an abusive marriage and reclaims ownership over her life and artistic freedom (her paintings narrate the events of her battle) — rattled critics and sister Charlotte. The oldest Brontë halted its re-publication. However, there is great speculation on the reasons behind this.

Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood

Successful painter Elaine Risley returns to her hometown of Toronto for a retrospective of her work, but she is flooded with painful memories of cruel childhood friends. A specter of the harrowing experience continues to hang over Elaine, affecting her relationships with the women in her life, and also her art. She tries to cope with the experience in one painting, which reveals a reflection of three girls who don’t actually appear in the work.

Fun Home, Alison Bechdel

Alison Bechdel’s labyrinthine graphic memoir chronicles her childhood and complex relationship with her closeted father — an English teacher and the local funeral home director who shared his daughter’s artistic proclivities and obsessive-compulsiveness. “I was Spartan to my father’s Athenian. Modern to his Victorian. Butch to his nelly. Utilitarian to his aesthete,” she explains. In the act of photographing herself dressed as family members for illustration references, and painstakingly copying letters and journal entries for inclusion, Bechdel re-creates some of the shared tension, but also seeks a place of understanding.

Look Homeward, Angel, Thomas Wolfe

“The old hunger for voy­ages fed at his heart… To go alone… into strange cities; to meet strange peo­ple and to pass again before they could know him; to wan­der, like his own legend, across the earth — it seemed to him there could be no bet­ter thing than that.”

Thomas Wolfe’s veiled autobiography is a coming-of-age tale about Eugene Grant, who yearns for the world beyond small-town life, but faces the pain of leaving everything he knows. Wolfe’s elaborate and lyrical expression of youth, personal growth, and artistic evolution is timeless.

The Tragic Muse, Henry James

James’ novel about a painter and an actress who surrender to their passions, circumstance, and self-doubt depicts the tireless struggle of creative individuals and the ambivalence that can haunt them.

Sons and Lovers, D. H. Lawrence

Edging closer to the art world, Lawrence’s Oedipal protagonist tries to break from his complicated family life and the emotional displacement his mother caused him. He challenges the hold she has over him through a sexual relationship with a woman and channels his energies toward artistic pursuits — but even then, “all his work was hers.”

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rainer Maria Rilke

Ghosts! Paris! Squalor! Nietzsche! Existential crisis! Rilke comes correct.

Inferno: A Poet’s Novel, Eileen Myles

Our own Jason Diamond counted Myles’ novel about a young poet’s creative and sexual trajectory, set in downtown New York starting in the 1970s, as one of the 50 books that define the past five years of literature:

“Without a doubt one of the most important voices in contemporary poetry, and the type of true original we need more of in literature. This book — and everything else Myles has ever put into the world — should be considered a classic.”

Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth Barret Browning

Browning’s novel-epic embodies the cultural and social constraints placed on women during the Victorian era, particularly female writers. Her protagonist’s observations also define a universal anxiety artists face when they are torn between roles that potentially betray their creative self.