When young, I was too hip to have heroes, or at least to admit having them. Pride extinguishes natural impulses, including admiration. To admit you have a hero is to suggest they possess something you don’t, that you perhaps envy them – an admission intolerable to our swollen sense of self-importance. Dr. Johnson writes in The Rambler #180: “Envy, curiosity, and a sense of the imperfection of our present state, incline us to estimate the advantages which are in the possession of others above their real value.” With age ought to come some measure of “down-sizing,” accepting one’s self more realistically and acknowledging that we’re pretty much stuck with who we are. Now I have heroes, all writers, all gifted, all flawed, all admired more deeply for their flaws because the essence of heroism, perhaps, is overcoming them: Swift, Dr. Johnson, Henry James, Chekhov, Whittaker Chambers, Yvor Winters, Beckett.
Besides writing well, all were courageous, all knew occasional rejection and scorn, and all remained indelibly themselves. Those are the qualities I most admire today. I found an epigram by Walter de la Mare titled “Jonathan Swift” (Inward Companion: Poems, 1950):
“That sovereign mind;
Those bleak, undaunted eyes;
Never to life, or love, resigned—
How strange that he who abhorred cant, humbug, lies,
Should be aggrieved by such simplicities
As age, as ordure, and as size.”