Johnson, Fenton. “At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life”, W.W. Norton, 2020
I fell in love with Fenton Johnson’s “Geography of the Heart” when I first read it years ago so naturally I was eager to get his new book, “At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life”. Johnson writes that “solitude is the inspirational core for many writers, artists, and thinkers. Alone with our thoughts, we can make discoveries that matter not only to us but to others. To be a solitary is not only to draw sustenance from being alone, but to know that our ultimate responsibility is not only to our partner or our own offspring, but to a larger community.”
In lyrical prose, Johnson explores what it means to choose to be solitary. He celebrates this idea and shows that solitude “is a legitimate and dignified calling.” He shows this by looking into the lives and workings of He delves into the lives and works of nine iconic “solitaries” who he sees as his kindred spirits (Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, Bill Cunningham, Cézanne, Hurston, Rod McKuen, Nina Simone, Rabindranath Tagore, Walt Whitman, Henry James, Eudora Welty). He writes about these inspirations in wonderful detail and shows us their legacies. He intertwines his old life journey into what he has to say about the characters.
This is something of a memoir but it is also so much more including research and social criticism. We see the world through Johnson’s eyes are led to think about solitude as a catalyst for spirituality and creativity. He encourages us to understand “solitariness as consecration, a fecund, rich condition for the pursuit of beauty. We see “how sterile loneliness can become creative solitude.” I found it amazing at how much of myself I found here and how far I have yet to go. I am nonetheless challenged to take part in a call to action.