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At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life

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A profound meditation on accepting, and celebrating, one’s solitude. Whether seeking more time for solitude or suffering what seems a surfeit of it, readers will find the best of companions here. Fenton Johnson’s lyrical prose and searching sensibility explores what it means to choose to be solitary and celebrates the notion, common in his Roman Catholic childhood, that solitude is a legitimate and dignified calling. He delves into the lives and works of nearly a dozen iconic “solitaries” he considers his kindred spirits, from Thoreau at Walden Pond and Emily Dickinson in Amherst, to Bill Cunningham photographing the streets of New York; from Cézanne (married, but solitary nonetheless) painting Mont Sainte-Victoire over and over again, to the fiercely self-protective Zora Neale Hurston. Each character portrait is full of intense detail, the bright wakes they’ve left behind illuminating Fenton Johnson’s own journey from his childhood in the backwoods of Kentucky to his travels alone throughout the world and the people he has lost and found along the way. Combining memoir, social criticism, and devoted research, At the Center of All Beauty will resonate with solitaries and with anyone who might wish to carve out more space for solitude.

256 pages, Hardcover

First published March 10, 2020

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About the author

Fenton Johnson

22 books40 followers
Fenton Johnson is an award-winning author who teaches in the creative writing programs at the University of Arizona and Spalding University.

Librarian note: There is more than one author in the Goodreads database with this name.


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Displaying 1 - 30 of 123 reviews
Profile Image for Chris LaTray.
Author 12 books90 followers
January 19, 2020
I don't recall ever being personally affected by a book in the way I have been by this one. I'm reminded of when a handful of introvert acquaintances urged me to read Susan Cain's Quiet. I enjoyed that book, but it didn't reach me nearly to the depth that Fenton Johnson's latest has. This one seemed to alternate between being written for me and being written about me. Johnson has perfectly articulated so many of the ways I view the world, and my place in it, that it is almost frightening. It is the kind of book that I hope many people will read, but at the same time feel protective of, as if sharing the book with too many folks means I am revealing more about myself than I am perhaps prepared to. For example, I recently published an essay in a local journal in which I fantasized about the way in which I might die. Fenton Johnson does the same thing near the end of this book (not a spoiler, I promise) and the descriptions are eerily similar. What I am trying to articulate here is that in sharing how Johnson—and the solitary artists he describes—lives his life, he is challenging me to live up to how I would prefer to live mine. Do I have the courage? I don't know if I do or not. All I can say is this book is a call to action to me, one I would hope I don't fail to answer. It is a beautiful, difficult, wonderfully lonely kind of life that I've only managed glimpses of; I can't imagine this view of the world being described more beautifully than Fenton Johnson has done here.
Profile Image for Ken.
Author 3 books925 followers
June 30, 2020
Purchasing books is a Las Vegas roll of the dice. Purchasing hardcovers even more so. Still, the description of this book placed it right in my wheelhouse. That's the beauty of chance, I guess. The "fun" comes in learning by reading.

The focus here is on solitary sorts or, as author Fenton Johnson refers to them, "my solitaries." The possessive pronoun, used over and over, got to me a little bit, as it made it seem like real people from the past were part of his glass menagerie or something.

Who are these people? H.D. Thoreau, Cézanne, Whitman, Dickinson, Henry James, Eudora Welty, Rabindranath Tagore, Zora Neale Hurston, Rod McKuen paired with Nina Simone, and Bill Cunningham. I admit that I better enjoyed the first half of the book, especially the chapters on Thoreau, Cézanne, Whitman, and Dickinson.

Even those disappointed a bit in that I wish the mini-profiles offered more substance. It was uneven, with some chapters devoted to more quotes and interesting facts than others.

One thing that draws away from these non-married (or might-as-well-be) creative souls' stories was the fact that Johnson decided not to make the book a pure slate of mini-profiles. He instead embeds his own family's story, more in the first half of the book, to the point where certain solitaries must compete with the author and his family themselves for space. I would have preferred a more straightforward focus on the famous. Perhaps, then, Johnson could have written a separate memoir of his own.

If you are interested in brief snapshots of creative solitary sorts, this may just be your cuppa. If you prefer depth over breadth, however, you might want to hold your dice.
Profile Image for We Are All Mad Here.
504 reviews38 followers
June 13, 2020
What I wanted from this book was a pleasant discussion of solitude: what it is, what it's good for, why we (or some of us) love it, how we can find more of it. And so on.

Which is not what I got from this book. Not necessarily because it wasn't there, but because my mind went completely blank by the end of sentences like this one:

"And - with full and necessary and sorrowful acknowledgment of institutionalized religion's evils, horrors, and omissions - perhaps the exploded and fragmented nature of the contemporary developed world owes itself to the insistence of institutionalized religion and science alike that we subscribe to doctrine and dogma in service to their aggrandizement, instead of attending to the need to bring us together to acknowledge all that is sacred, in ourselves and in our world."

I've read that at least forty to fifty times and I still am not quite sure what it says.

193 reviews
August 30, 2021
At the Centre of All Beauty is a contemplative defence of the solitary life. The youngest of nine children raised in a devoutly Roman Catholic town in Kentucky, Fenton Johnson and his family were friends of the Trappist Monks who lived nearby, including the author and monk, Thomas Merton, and he acknowledges the significance of their influence.

The book outlines the lives of several solitary creatives, such as Henry Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, Paul Cezanne, James Baldwin, Nina Simone and Bill Cunningham. There are also nods to Jesus and the Buddha, solitaries both. To be fair, Johnson is not claiming that a solitary life is a necessary condition for creativity but nearly all artists will, I believe, concede the need for extended periods of solitude in order to do their work, regardless of marital status.

Johnson is an American author and professor. A solitary himself, I was surprised that he also describes both of his parents as solitaries; they chose to live apart and alone once they had dispatched their large brood into adulthood whilst apparently remaining happily married. This book is essentially a philosophical tract making the case for the solitary life as an active choice, giving it equal status to that of marriage. In 2021, when the global divorce rate circles 50% and a quarter of (UK) households have a single occupant under 65, I’m not sure this case really needs to be made but I take the point that most societies regard the single status to be, at best, a life on hold waiting for a partner, or, at worst, something to be pitied. Certainly, it is not something that is celebrated as a credible, positive choice, which is a shame because not everyone is cut out for the couple thing.

Johnson does not deny the loneliness that comes to us all from time to time, regardless of circumstances. Rather, he pays genuine homage to the unsung joys of solitude; its peacefulness and freedom. Natural introverts such as myself need no convincing of this. Solitude is a soothing balm, a comforting blanket to pull around the shoulders, especially when one’s working life is densely populated.

The book is deeply introspective in places - sometimes at length, which is the missing star - but is beautifully written throughout. There is much of interest here, especially for anyone feeling judged for choosing this particular path.
Profile Image for Stephany Wilkes.
Author 1 book32 followers
May 7, 2020
Oh, Fenton Johnson, he gets me, he really gets me, validating life choices all over the place, and kindly noting "solitaries within marriage." This book is so much more than that, of course. Perhaps one of my favorite things about it is historical reclamation, righting the story on those "lonely" women, so labeled by men writing about them. Johnson says wait, there's more, not quite so, and to have those women's stories now -- better late than never -- is mesmerizing. As someone raised, like Johnson, in a Catholic tradition that included Merton, the journals of Kierkegaard, and more, I was taught the need for quiet contemplation and reflection. I was thus surprised to realize that, in Johnson's delightful, sweet, charming story of his poster, I'd forgotten that yes, solitaries were one of the three "acceptable" Catholic paths to pursue, that they were considered necessary. Enjoyable read; won't be my last time through this book, and I am sending a few copies to like-minded, kindred spirit friends.
Profile Image for Michael Perkins.
Author 6 books357 followers
March 26, 2020
This book was not quite what I expected, even after reading reviews and the sample Amazon sent to me. Most chapters are entirely devoted to a particular artist or two, visual or literary, in whose life the author goes into detail and explains how they impacted his life as a solitary author. I confess I did not connect that well with the examples he chose, except maybe Nietzsche, who only took up a small section of one chapter.

My preferred book on this topic is this one.....

Profile Image for Caroline Curry.
20 reviews
December 26, 2022
This is, without a doubt, the best book that I’ve read this year. I initially thought Johnson would explore in the book what solitude looks like, yet he instead attempts to write about individuals who lived a solitary life (whether married or unmarried), and applies it to his own solitary experience. Though Johnson writes of a secular meaning of a solitary life, his conclusions and analysis of solitaries are positively influenced by his Roman Catholic upbringing. He defines solitaries not necessarily as “lonely” or “single”, but as those who live in ways that don’t fit the conventional view of what marriage in our society has come to be. Solitary people, as argued by Johnson, do not have codependent relationships: they have parallel relationships.

Johnson makes a compelling statement in the book’s final chapter, declaring that solitaries have taught him that “if I want to find the self, give it away, again and again, until there is no more left.” His statement sums up his argument that solitaries are really just people that defy the consumerist and conformist nature of modern society. More broadly, Johnson seems to show that solitaries throughout history have just been those who live unapologetically for their beliefs and callings, regardless if it is accepted or understood by the majority. The solitaries this book explores simply lived for something bigger than themselves.

My favorite section was Johnson’s analysis of Paul Cézanne. Cézanne is, to me, a profound image of what it looks like to lose yourself for the sake of your purpose, for something greater than yourself. If you want to borrow this book just let me know :)
Profile Image for BookChampions.
1,184 reviews108 followers
June 20, 2021
Do you think books find you at just the right time? Even ones that have been on your shelves for months or even years? It's like they wait for that crucial moment to call to us from the stacks, if only we try not to overthink things and if we learn to just take our wild reading life on faith.

I knew I wanted to begin my 5th #prideread on my journey to the Kentucky backwoods to reunite with my best friend of 8 years for a few days of camping and hiking. Because of the pandemic, I hadn't seen him for nearly 2 years! I had Fenton Johnson's new book on my possible TBR this month (it was released early last year just before lockdown), and at the last minute, I added it to my stack.

I don't exaggerate to say that this book was the BEST companion for my travels. I knew I loved Fenton's writing. His essay *The Future of Queer* from 2018 was super influential (after reading it I started embracing the word Queer as one of the only labels I've ever loved---the book continues to define queerness is lovely ways), and that led me to read his heartbreaking but also lovely memoir, *Geography of the Heart* about his friend and loved who died of AIDS. I didn't know that Johnson grew up in Kentucky.

So I knew this book would already be a winner, surely merging gorgeous writing with wisdom and raw honesty, but it damn well pierced my heart! And through those pinpricks, it has illuminated a path of stars on the floor.

*At the Center of All Beauty* is above all a study of living a solitary life. I think "study" is the best word I could use as Johnson examines, across 12 chapters, a series of notable artists who lived all or significant chunks of their lives alone, in hopes of understanding the necessity of time alone. He recasts these individuals not as "singles" but as "solitaries," a word he deliberately uses throughout the book.

Most of them featured in the book identified as "queer" or could be identified as such, or lived what could be defined as lives of "queerness"---Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Nina Simone, Eudora Welty, Paul Cezanne, Henry David Thoreau. Each chapter had so much to teach me about these artists, but also about the importance of being in solitude, that it is in the quiet of losing oneselves that we find ourselves and find truth and find beauty.

The chapter on Paul Cezanne's friendship to Emile Zola was a revelation, but the chapter on photographer Bill Cunningham was my favourite (and also the most direct challenge to myself at this point in my life).

I want to live the life of a creative, and as a father and a husband and a high school teacher, I want to be good in the world of others. I want to radiate love but not sidestep sorrow or suffering.

I don't know if *At the Center of All Beauty* is a book everyone would love as much as I did (and I LOOOOVED it). But Everyone could learn from its wisdom. But especially for those who are devoting themselves to their art or who are learning how to do so, for those who choose to remain uncoupled or try to live Gilbran's definition of marriage as two separate trees standing besides one another, for those who know what passionate friendship looks like or who are actively looking for it, for those who love literature and art and the stories of those who create it, for those who are solitary or queer or feel loneliness or who are all three---I recommend this book to you.

Did I cry in my car alone as I listened to the last chapter driving home from Kentucky, still a little sweaty and dirty, afraid my phone would die out before the audiobook could reach the end? Yes, I did. Tears at the power of books to reach across space and time. How would I be able to navigate through life's bigness without the help of writers---so many of which spent huge arcs of time alone to tell readers what they have found about living and failing and loving and self-loving. This will be a MUST REREAD for sure.
Profile Image for Mark.
424 reviews10 followers
May 22, 2021
Towards the end of this fascinating and elegantly-written book, author Fenton Johnson admits his purpose: “And so I have written this book, to study, learn from, and celebrate the lives of those who have been chosen by or who choose solitude, and to investigate the roots of my affection for being alone.” What Johnson has learned, only he knows. But At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life is certainly a celebration of solitude, and his thoughtful and thought-provoking essays reflect a considerable depth of study of his selected “solitaries.”

In addition, I would argue that Johnson’s humility is modest, for as well as studying, learning, and celebrating other well-known historical figures as solitaries, he also validated various aspects of his life of solitude. He can certainly enjoy being in the company of such notable figures as Thoreau, Cézanne, and Henry James, not to mention Emily Dickinson, Rabindranath Tagore, and Nina Simone.

In the chapter “The Forging of a Solitary,” one lesson Johnson learns from the Trappist monk Thomas Merton is gaining self-knowledge through silence. “Words and concepts identify our shared realities,” Johnson says, “but silence is the language of self.” I’m immediately reminded of the opening line of “Desiderata,” a prose poem attributed to Max Ehrmann: “Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.”

Johnson deftly mines each of his candidate solitaries to progressively expand the nature of solitude. Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, for example, in making solitude “the vehicle of their imaginations… transcended gender duality.” They both wrote about what it means to be a man and a woman. And Virginia Woolf, “a solitary within marriage,” declared “the androgynous mind is resonant and porous… is naturally creative, incandescent, and undivided.” Reading Whitman and Dickinson, Johnson claims that “masculine and feminine fall away and I inhabit what it means to be, not male, not female, but human.”

It’s not that loneliness does not exist in the world of solitaries, but the solitary’s challenge becomes converting loneliness into solitude. Johnson likens this conversion from loneliness to solitude as a journey with self as the vehicle. He admits that so often has American poet Marianne Moore’s claim that “the cure for loneliness is solitude” been proven true in his own life, that it has enabled him to “understand the appeal of hermitry.”

At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life is a remarkable book, made all the more enjoyable by Johnson’s exquisite, intelligent, and refined prose. Reading page after page, chapter after chapter is a rhythmic, effortless journey throughout the whole book. With chapter titles such as “The Generosity of Bachelors,” “All Serious Daring Begins Within,” and “Those Who Seek Beauty Will Find It,” readers will be irresistibly drawn to Doris Grumbach’s claim in Fifty Days of Solitude, that “Loneliness is the poverty of self, solitude is the richness of self.”

I would argue that for many self-suspecting solitaries, Fenton Johnson’s book will be a reassuring “Aha! It’s okay to be who and what I am…and there are more like me than I thought!” But I am also willing to bet that the book will be enriching and tempting food for thought for those who are not solitaries…yet!
Profile Image for Rory Litwin.
25 reviews5 followers
April 18, 2020
Loved this book. Beautifully written. Very helpful to those of us who are loners or solitaries, or "not the marrying kind," in that it helps us understand our choice or nature in a positive light in a society that views marriage and family as the only valid way to live as an adult. I want to go read some Thoreau and Thomas Merton now....
Profile Image for Ryan Creed.
99 reviews
May 22, 2020
I wanted this solitary gay man to give me insight into being a solitary gay man. Turns out, I'm more misanthropic than I am solitary.
Profile Image for Mind the Book.
794 reviews62 followers
May 16, 2021
Så kallad 'solitude' är alldeles nödvändigt för att skapa, men pandemi och lockdown innebär ett nästan permanent tillstånd av isolering ('enforced solitude') och hjärnan fokuserar på överlevnad, vilket förstås är nödvändigt. Vad jag är ute efter är att det tyvärr är dålig timing för böcker som den här och t.ex. Alonement. För närvaarande är det inte vilsam läsning.

Målgrupp: den som stolt lever barnfritt, i singelhushåll, gillar Thoreau, Dickinson, Whitman, Cézanne... och har en #furloughfriday med oanade möjligheter att flanera och läsa, lonely as a cloud. Mitt i alltihop dyker ett litet boktips upp, novellen Hands av Sherwood Anderson.

Gillade att läsa om Bill Cunningham, fotografen. Många delar är självbiografiska. När det blir religiöst bläddrar jag lite snabbare... Resultatet är spretigt, men i efterordet får man veta att flera delar av texten har förekommit i andra publikationer som enskilda artiklar och essäer. En skrivande solitär's gotta live.

En extraepilog, p.g.a. orsaker, har också tillfogats, om den samtidskontext i vilken pocketsläppet sker nu under våren 2021. Johnson observerar nu en värld av social distansering, masker och Zoom-möten. Det känns skönt att vi vet svaret på förhoppningen "It would be nice to think that, by the time you read this, a vaccine has been found."
Profile Image for eilasoles.
178 reviews5 followers
April 20, 2020
I am not surprised that the Goodreads tells me that "readers also liked" Rebecca Solnit's new memoir. I was reading both books together and was nearly driven mad by the utter lack of substance. There is flowery, elaborate, circuitous prose that fills up page after page but really says nothing. It is all the more frustrating because they are writing about things that I am passionately interested - and invested - in.

For a long while, I thought I wanted to be never be married or partnered, and grow old alone; and even now, when I am with someone, often regret no longer having those days and evenings when I depended only myself to be entertained, when I had the space to think and reflect.

So I am completely in agreement with Fenton Johnson is saying - my only problem is that reading the entire book has offered me nothing more than reading the synopsis at the back of the book would have. Yes, solitude is important, but Johnson's book doesn't dig very deep at all. Beyond some superficial biographical discussion of artists and writers and poets who lived as "solitaries," Johnson has so very little say about why solitude is important, and what being a solitary really entails anyway. And yes, the world around is ridiculously invested in promoting coupledom and marriage, but again, Johnson doesn't say anything interesting or profound about why it's come to be like this.

The chapter on Tagore and Johnson's visit to Calcutta made me wince and also made me furious. What were his fact-checkers doing? He gets into unnecessary digressions and doesn't seem to have bothered to study very much about what he is writing about: he misspells Mahisha as "Mashisha" (and the superfluity of the book in general that he doesn't know or care about the spelling - it's not a typo introduced by the editor), and he writes this condescending, silly, cliched description of Tagore's wife: "his child bride could not fill that role [of an intellectual companion to Tagore], whether because of limitations on her part or because her upbringing had not provided her the slightest preparation to be other than a submissive not-seen-and-not-hear, sequestered-in-purdah wife."

The argument at the core of the book is absolutely true and couldn't be more important, and it is therefore heartbreaking that is such a poorly researched and shallowly fleshed out book.

Profile Image for Crystal Hammon.
48 reviews5 followers
December 16, 2020
If you were to draw a Venn diagram that describes this work, Fenton Johnson has written a brilliant book that lands in convergent space of biography and art, but to creatives and solitaries, it is so much more. Johnson mines the lives of artists such as Eudora Welty, Paul Cezanne, Bill Cunningham, Walt Whitman, Nina Simone and many others to reveal the very distinct difference between being a loner and a solitary.

To those who already recognize this distinction through our own lives, this book is a hymn, an affirmation of the path we (or our loved ones) have chosen, full of rewards and sacrifices. For the rest of the world, I hope it offers revelatory awareness that the people/artists who seem odd, distant, selfish or removed from the world should neither be pitied nor despised. Love courses through us just as ardently, and may be dispersed more widely than first meets the eye.

I particularly love the areas where Johnson explores the personal relationships artists had with family and lovers, showing that the bonds of marriage may look very different for some couples than the rather narrow view our culture has.
Profile Image for Weird.
484 reviews117 followers
October 7, 2020
In April of 2015, eating dinner by myself in a neighbourhood restaurant/bar, I read Fenton Johnson’s essay “Going It Alone: The Dignity and Challenge of Solitude” in that month’s HARPER’S. I was in early sobriety at the time, not yet two years clean and sober (a milestone I would reach in November of that year), and the daily solitary meal at a neighbourhood restaurant was part of a basic regimen of self-care crucial to what was still a fairly new mode of existence. I liked Johnson’s essay very much, and would occasionally impart certain precepts from it (especially relating to what I believed the author’s highly attractive characterization of Walt Whitman’s creative life) when sharing at the twelve-step meetings I was still regularly attending. Still, it took me, all in all, an unaccountably long time to realize how absolutely vital this essay truly was; in 2017 I began to reflect upon it regularly though I had not revisited it since that solitary dinner in the April of two years previous, and I found myself tracking it down again online. I began to share “Going It Alone” with friends and people I knew who were suffering (and who I believed might benefit from reframing their suffering rather than seeking its unrealistic cessation). Then I acquired and read Johnson’s book EVERYWHERE HOME: A LIFE IN ESSAYS, which I absolutely loved. Digging around back in 2017, I was excited to discover that Johnson was working on a book-length work based around the themes and many of the specific examples outlined in “Going It Alone,” the essay that had in a most uncustomary fashion flipped a switch belatedly. The book-length work in question is, naturally, AT THE CENTER OF ALL BEAUTY: SOLITUDE AND THE CREATIVE LIFE, unleashed upon the public by Norton this past March, and completed by me today, just about a month before I will—God willing—take seven years clean and sober, what we might call my ‘spiritual practice’ or my ‘active recovery’ now more or less a matter of habituation…or rather a thoroughly assimilated discipline. Tears came to my eyes regularly during my reading of AT THE CENTER OF ALL BEAUTY, especially as I made my way through the first three chapters, and this was more than merely a reflection of the beauty and power of the prose in and of itself, being rather a quality of relating experienced with an author in possession of uncommon (and hard-won) wisdom who in reflecting me back to myself places me in a position of directly facing a destiny I can only understand to be a gift I never would have imagined available but which I find myself living out in real time. I am, like Johnson, a solitary, this being the term Johnson prefers, its also being the term preferred by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who was once upon a time, in the backwoods of Kentucky, more or less Johnson’s neighbour. Fenton Johnson grew up Catholic in Kentucky, close to Merton’s Abbey of Gethsemani. Monks were often last-minute dinner guests at his home, one of them actually his namesake. Northern Kentucky in not quite either the American South or not the American South; the paternal great grandfather fought on the Union side during the Civil War. Still, to be Catholic in Kentucky, a primarily Protestant territory, is already to be part of a suspiciously scrutinized minority. Add to this that Fenton, born in 1953, knew early on that he was attracted to boys and men but had no knowledge of there being others like him; it was not a subject people discussed, ever. For all he knew he was singularly “bent.” To whatever extent Fenton Johnson would have liked to fit in, that was never going to be easy. In due time he found himself inspired by those who made good on their solitary status, not least of all his parents, Catholic father and Protestant mother, who were themselves two solitaries who had managed to negotiate life and family in the form of a partnership very much forged out of two complimentary self-sufficiencies. In both “Going It Alone” and AT THE CENTER OF ALL BEAUTY, Johnson makes a case for the more broadly quotidian value of his sphere of inquiry before zeroing in on spirituality and the nourishment of a generative poetics. From the book: “We are in the midst of a demographic revolution whose long-term implications may be as significant as the twentieth century’s mass migration from the countryside to the city. I speak of the astonishing numbers of people worldwide who are choosing to live alone or who deliberately carve out periods of solitude from otherwise conventionally coupled lives. The evidence is accumulating that when people, especially women, are presented with the opportunity and the means to live alone, many will sacrifice to seize it.” Because he has himself found meaning and purpose as a solitary, Johnson believes that the undervalued mode of existence this entails—which, undervalued though it is from the standpoint of the “popular” or “dominant,” clearly has a certain kind of appeal for increasing numbers of people—requires both an advocacy and the beginnings of a historiography. Johnson is intent on looking at the lives and works of a number of important solitaries in order to glean from the lives and the fruits of those lives any wisdom that may shed light on his personal journey and by extension perhaps the reader’s. The project largely takes the form of advocacy because it serves as a corrective measure: “the stories we tell ourselves embody fantasies of idealized couples and families, even if in unconventional configurations, instead of the rich and rewarding solitary journeys more and more of us are living out.” The exemplars taken from history, each of whom get or share a chapter unto themselves: Henry David Thoreau, Paul Cézanne, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, Eudora Welty, Rabindranath Tagore, Zora Neale Hurston, Rod McKuen, Nina Simone, and Bill Cunningham. Each of the chapters involves a consideration of personal resonances, beginning with that focusing on Thoreau, whose Walden is a place of solitary reflection and personal labour while at the same time a consecrated zone of friendship/fellowship, much as was the case with the “HERMITage” built by Johnson’s own father. Johnson sees Thoreau as a secular monk who took no vows as such, but who even as a social being, fond of hosting, “sought in silence and solitude” the “fountainhead” of truth. You wouldn’t call this fountainhead God if you were adequately humbled, not daring to name it, but God it may well be, the name serving whatever function one might have it serve. Thoreau, following from Emerson, has assimilated many Eastern/Oriental influences, but he is himself ultimately not afraid to invoke God. What indeed did Thoreau say his way of life granted him? “I have more of God.” Cézanne and Hurston are celebrated for setting out on their own course to discover for themselves serviceable hybrid religions of their own making (a matter both of fancy and contexts). The chapters on Cézanne and Tagore make use of idiosyncratic styles—within the context of this book itself—and largely depend on pilgrimages Johnson took to Aix-en-Provence and Bengal respectively. Cézanne may have married and bore a son, but he remained a lifelong solitary in pursuit of his métier. Rilke writes of the painter in later years being pursued by youngsters who pelted the shabby eccentric with stones, just as Johnson, as a youth, had seen done to a hermit in his home state. On Cézanne: “I can say he’s crazy—perceiving a soul in a sugar bowl?—or I can listen to what he’s telling me, in his letters and in his work, which is that the sacred exists in every particle and atom, the sacred is what is, and my job is to pay sufficient attention so that I too can perceive the psychology of the earth—its living, feeling, expressive self, made manifest in rivers and seas and mountains and tornadoes and earthquakes.” If Cézanne revolutionized painting and the conception of the figure within painting, this led to an approach wherein a spirituality and a poetics align with concurrent breakthroughs in physics: all that is of life shares equal primacy and the past and the present and the future are themselves of one, our perception of their separation a condition of human limitations. The title of Johnson’s book comes from a consideration of Cézanne's method, his obsession with Mont Sainte-Victoire, and the results of his commitment to a wholly singular discipline, unambiguously a matter of spiritual practice. “We seek to recreate the original creative gesture, whatever or whoever set it in motion—the bringing into being of what is. We seek the center of beauty.” In general, based on the insights Johnson himself has come upon both through personal experience and through study, the solitary life will tend to choose us before we will have occasion to ultimately embrace it. This generally involves longing, anguishing, and suffering. The ecstatic heights of the solitary life and of solitary endeavour require a passage through spiritual, emotional, and psychic travail, such that we might discover for ourselves that, in the words of Marianne Moore, “the cure for loneliness is solitude.” This certainly speaks to my personal experience, and it probably goes some way to helping establish why it was that essay from April of 2015 took as much time as it did to speak to me of where I was at and where I was headed. I knew my struggle but did not yet know it was my gift. “The measure in which your solitude is hard is the measure of the reward it offers.” Johnson thinks of his own affirmation of a solitary life as “a state of affairs I have come to embrace as the way things ought to be.” Whitman and Dickinson are both presented as appearing to have gradually embraced the solitary life over time, though for each this manifests in a rapturous giving of themselves, an impassioned loving enacted both through friendship and literary creation. Because it is not traditionally based in property and the ratification of church and state, friendship strikes Johnson as a preferable ideal to coupling (Whitman’s notion of “companeros”). Something analogous to what is evident in the life-trajectories of Whitman and Dickinson is there too in Eudora Welty, and Johnson traces it from the early short story “Death of a Travelling Salesman” to the later “Bride of the Innisfallen,” a passage from loneliness to solitary joy. If solitaries are often attacked (as by one cultural commentator) for the “heresy of self-love,” Johnson sees in the solitary life a path to the dissolution of dualisms, such that the self become the experiential site of All and a love of or a devotion to self thereby becomes transmutable into a great and generous capacity to love and to give. Welty saw the creative life as a giving until there is nothing left. Consider the great generosity of Henry James and, especially, Eudora Welty. “Ordinary mortals, servants to desire and convention, must feel shame in the presence of such selfless generosity, such generous giving away of the self. Otherwise we might have to turn and look, really look inside ourselves and question our cultural assumption that the best way to give of ourselves lies through conventional marriage and conventional families, in which law and society and genetics are always at hand to define and enforce limits on our generosity.” (There is a sublime joke fairly late in the book about “the enduring three-legged sack race called marriage,” though, again, it is important to insist that Johnson does celebrate certain marriages, like that of his parents, these tending to be marriage between solitaries or complimentary spiritual self-sufficiencies.) In looking to his own childhood and that of other solitaries Johnson establishes a general tendency which has personal resonances for me. Johnson’s father is reported to have once said of his youngest son that “Of a hundred ways to do something […] Fenton will choose the hardest.” It is the same thing Vincent van Gogh’s father said of Vincent and an insight my mother once confessed to having arrived at concerning myself when I was still a small child. The truest crucible of the solitary life as experienced by Johnson exists in the outside-of-time rituals of reading and writing. This is the core practice of my life as well, the foremost precondition for the maintenance of wellness as I enter middle age. Johnson: “This is the magic of the word in print: not that it answers questions but that it composes an ongoing score for life, a mute chorus of voices as alive and evolving as light.” I recently wrote elsewhere about how two precepts guide my own creative endeavours: a) the work is a life; b) it is too stupid for words to outsource one’s sense of worth. Fenton Johnson: “To be an artist is not, finally, about product; it is about process, a way of being, and every solitary is of necessity an artist—an artist of her or his life, with little or no help from conventional rites and forms and mythologies, making it up as we go.” The creative life is a practice and a discipline. Unlike a mere habit, Johnson insists that a “practice is a way of living that you create and renew every day.” It is in just this light that I am able to frame my own practice in terms of recovery from alcoholism and addiction, a recovery that must remain an active one, becoming more than merely a neutral state of remission, rather a life in which I exist in direct conscious proximity to what Zora Neale Hurston decreed “the eternal in beauty.” Though celibacy is something that came to be a feature of Fenton Johnson’s life, he is a man who has know romantic love and who has had romantic partners. Perhaps the central event of his life was the loss of his partner Larry Rose to AIDS in 1990, subject of a previous award-winning book. Johnson found himself living a life of celibacy in middle age and ultimately came to embrace it. Something analogous has happened to me. I had numerous lovers as a young man, and at least two long term relationships involving cohabitation and all the accoutrements attendant to a common law-type setup. I have known a rich sex life, though it has been some time since I have been sexually active, this not constituting something that has come to be incorporated into my sobriety. The absence of sex is no longer a source of terribly much sorrow. What isn't in the cards for me just isn't in the cards. Suffice it to be said that I have not ruled out relationships or the possibility of coupling, merely that I am not actively seeking these things. The 'why' of this is not complicated. I do not in any sense feel that I am lacking anything, no supplementation is required, and it is too stupid for words to outsource one's sense of worth. Spirituality and creativity are already a living, dynamic eroticism. More than satisfactory as such. Consider the famous ecstasy of Saint Teresa. There is no better lover than the one total manifold thing...the beauty eternal...
Profile Image for Laura.
350 reviews
February 28, 2021
Wonderful book on the under-examined topic of solitude and how it can help us be more sane, content, and humane. The author actually helped me understand some things about myself in more positive terms. For example, my dislike of small talk is really more of a love of solitude. This reframing made me feel better about this quality.
Profile Image for Meg.
417 reviews182 followers
September 29, 2021
I'm a fan of Johnsons' writing in Harper's and elsewhere, and had been really looking forward to this book. Yet I found myself disappointed, and feeling like his observations about solitude and his reflections on the various public figures he wishes to highlight never really hang together. There's not much of a meaningful thesis or argument about solitude other than it can be useful and is undervalued in society at large while being valued by many an artist. And there are points that get made without sufficient unpacking or elucidation, like his repeated linking of androgyny and solitude; Johnson sees a connection there, and I'm curious about it, but I left without feeling like I ever saw that connection clearly stated.
Part of the issue, I think, is a misuse of genres. There's an attempt to blend here, to mix literary criticism with memoir. And I think a deeper use of either one or the other might have gotten us further along in an understanding of how solitude shapes creativity. But because we never get deep into Johnson's personal story, or really solidly delve into any of the artistic works or artists he examines, everything stays relatively surface.
That said, this did spark my interest in Johnsons' earlier memoir, Geography of the Heart, which I'll probably make an effort to read; just the hints of it from this book suggest it to be a moving and meaningful memoir.
Profile Image for Melinda.
957 reviews
June 23, 2020
Wanted to like this more that I did, but what are you gonna do? Crazy thing on Amazon is there is nothing but 5-star reviews! I can only suppose that Johnson or his publisher sent the book to five of his solitary friends and asked them to pen a few good words. IMHO this book is not that good. How can you compare Walt Whitman and Rod McKuen? Emily Dickinson and this Indian Tagore fellow? Okay, they were both "solitaries," but you can't pick and randomly chose your examples to prove your thesis. Or I guess you can, but what results is a very uneven look at the solitary life. The best parts of this book, for me, were the sections where Johnson talked about his own life growing up in Kentucky near the Catholic monastery. He got the solitude message at a young age. I grew weary reading about queer theory and homosexual life in the bathhouses of San Francisco. Is someone a "solitary" just because they are reviled by society? Because they're not married? Because they are married but don't live with a spouse? I am confused. I don't think the definitions are that important, but I wanted more from his fuzzy meandering treatise than I received.
Profile Image for Kayla.
100 reviews3 followers
March 5, 2020
Fenton Johnson’s At the Center of All Beauty is actually several books in one. It’s a memoir about living alone and learning to live alone. It’s an exploration of several famous figures who chose solitary lives but still contributed to society. It’s a literary exploration ranging from Emily Dickinson to Henry James. It’s a call to understand that biological offspring aren’t the only kind – that we can be impactful on the lives around us even if we don’t have children of our own. It’s also a sort of chapbook, containing moments of true poetry threaded through and glinting. Because it is all of these things, it may confound a traditional audience. However, those who love being alone, who read while stopping to think, and who love a legacy of writing and books will find much of worth here.
Profile Image for Helena.
9 reviews5 followers
March 15, 2020
Loved this. Beautiful prose and a subject that is right up my alley. Inspiring, soothing and thought provoking on either choosing or ending up in solitude and focusing on creative outlets.
Profile Image for Camille Cusumano.
Author 20 books25 followers
June 9, 2020
“The secret to contentment is low overhead,” writes Fenton Johnson. The award-winning writer explains that this advice in his new book, "At the Center of All Beauty, Solitude and the Creative Life," is a variation on Marianne Moore’s version, “The cure for loneliness is solitude.” His book is balm, validation, even celebration of all “solitaries,” his description for those of us who, like him, actively cherish and thrive in solitude. We solitaries draw our creative and artistic juices from within ourselves, from the boundless field of empty space with which we love to surround ourselves, an open corral in which to let our muses romp and run wild, unfettered, uninfluenced by external stimuli or others.

Not to be confused with only recluses or hermits, we solitaries love and delight in our own company and we are often avid social beings. I was reminded of the results of my Meyers-Briggs test (taken in the ’80s before it was dumbed down to psychobabble). I was mildly surprised to place on the spectrum toward introversion, believing myself outgoing and friendly. But the moderator explained that what this metric meant was that I felt drained after some time among people. I needed to recharge my mental and physical energies all by my lonesome. I realized how true that had been all my life. As often as I indulge in my social communities, my many urban tribes, my intimate friendship circles, I need to retreat to the silence of my own little nest.

“Silence and solitude set the imagination free to roam, which may be why capitalism devotes itself so assiduously to creating crowds and noise,” the author writes.

Johnson fans will already know what he reveals early on, that he enjoyed the love of his life, a man who died of AIDS in Paris years ago. Since then, Johnson has cherished his rich literary life and as a writing professor been gratified to nurture aspiring writers and to be an icon for the worldwide writing community.

At the Center of All Beauty encompasses an engaging weaving of Johnson’s own life as a life-long solitude-lover with the lives of nearly a dozen artists in various disciplines, including Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, Paul Cézanne, Walt Whitman, Eudora Welty, Nina Simone, Zora Neale Hurston, Rod McKuen, Rabindranath Tagore, and Bill Cunningham. Johnson illuminates the cultural prejudice toward loners and the societal pressure, sometimes counterproductive, to engage in coupling. Note that some of his subjects — Cézanne, Simone, Hurston, Tagore — did couple in marriage, yet still fit the profile of solitary, each fiercely protective of her/his interior space. Of Whitman and Cézanne, Johnson writes, “Each preferred the world of their vast and fertile imagination over the confining world of fact.”

Describing what his subjects have in common, Johnson, a Zen Buddhist devotee, says, “each lost the self to find the self,” referring to Thoreau in the woods, Cézanne to his painting, Welty in her art, Tagore in his music and poetry, Simone in her music.

“Perhaps . . . what defines my solitaries — a reluctance to sacrifice openness to all for openness to one.”

While his book is a torch-bearer for solitaries, it is not a diatribe against coupling/marriage. It merely shines a bright light on the prevalent blind faith in those cultural assumptions, “the avalanche of messages telling us that marriage is our most noble means of self-sacrifice.” Like his subjects, he says, many solitaries “sacrifice ourselves . . . not for our individual wealth but for the common wealth.” Dickinson, for example, had an offer of marriage that she turned down, one can argue to humanity’s benefit, given the body of lofty work she left us. She demonstrates, as Johnson proposes, that “solitude, not marriage, is the more selfless choice.”

What I personally loved about At the Center of All Beauty was learning more about the author. Wikipedia describes Johnson as the last of nine children in a whiskey-making family. (I wrote him to say I am the fifth of ten in a pasta-making family.) Like me, Johnson was raised in a Roman Catholic family, in his case right next to the Trappist Monastery Gethsemani in Kentucky. I envy his having known Thomas Merton, the Catholic convert whose writings on mysticism are still influential. Johnson acquaints us with his blood family, the rural setting of his youth, the southern foods at their table, much of which they cultivated. He gives us the sense that his parents, notwithstanding a large brood, had solitary lives, as well as an open-door policy, including lots of social activity with the neighborly monks.

In his defense of solitaries, Johnson delves skillfully into the hidden subtext of our notions of love being fused to coupling. Commenting on the lifelong bond between Cézanne and the writer Émile Zola, he writes, “That such ecstatic friendship has fallen from our lives and art is due in part to our obsession with labels (gay, straight, married, single), and partly due to our elevation of church-designed, government-sanctioned marriage as the apogee of human relationship. Somewhere, in part in service to capitalism, the notion took hold that to be worthy of celebration, love must be certified by government or church edict, when my experience has that love does not submit itself to logic or reason, calendar or clock — that one may love differently perhaps, but as intensely in a moment as across a lifetime.”

As Johnson trains our eye on the artist’s work one hears his religious breeding: “In Cézanne’s painting the sacred becomes flesh and dwells among us.” We hear his mystical vision as he notes how solitaries are some of the most agile at transcending the artifice of time: “Long before quantum physics, Cézanne understood that all moments are present to this moment.”

Perhaps only the bona fide solitary can know the opiate-high of the zone, the flow, the gratifying choice of aloneness, where time is irrelevant or as Johnson quotes Albert Einstein: “This distinction between past, present, and future is an illusion, however tenacious.” He writes, “Only the marathon runner, high on endorphins, or the heroin addict, or the besotted lover in the presence of the beloved . . . can understand . . . what it means to live outside time — to live, in fact, not in the past or future but in the mystic eternal now.”

Tipping the balance of prejudice toward pro-friendship is crucial, Johnson says, because “. . . the very survival of the species depends on our transcending ties based on blood and marriage . . . the ties of blood which perpetuate and reinforce conflict — recognizing instead the bonds of love, with friendship, not marriage, as the tie that binds.”

“ . . . to understand only biological offspring as our children is to shortchange the great human impulse toward magnanimity, toward altruism.”

Revealing that he practices “celibacy not as negation . . . but as joyous turning inward,” Johnson gives us a pearl to that end from famous solitary Dickinson who poeticized herself as an “Inebriate of air, debauchee of dew.” Johnson lyrically describes the Belle of Amherst as the “most promiscuous of celibates.”

In these times of enforced solitude, what better book to shelter in place with, than this one, which squarely places you At the Center of All Beauty.
Profile Image for Melanie Wilson.
176 reviews5 followers
Currently reading
May 9, 2023
This book got off to a good start, but now I'm at a part where he talks about how every young person should take at least one trip on their own without much money in their pocket, because the world isn't really that dangerous, and I'm struck by how little awareness he has of what things are like for women around the world.
There's also a section where he's talking about a married couple in which the husband is very thin and the wife is fat, and every time he mentions them he includes physical descriptions to make sure we know the wife is fat.
And now he's mentioned "poisonous" snakes, which is starting to make me wonder if anyone fact-checked this book. He's apparently an award-winning author and the book is put out by a major publisher.
Profile Image for Chris.
339 reviews16 followers
March 5, 2021
I thought this book might inform my writing poetry practice. I am also drawn to books about solitude, silence, hermits, monasticism, and similar topics because my life is often very solitary. This book was more of a memoir interspersed with reflections on different creative figures who led solitary lives. It seemed like a jumble of things to me, without a clear focus. I did enjoy the parts that were memoir very much.
May 23, 2021
This book had a lot of potential. The idea of solitude feeding creativity is an interesting topic. Yet the author tends to go on rants about his childhood and the books turns into part biography part notable artists who confine themselves to solitude. I did learn some things and enjoyed part of the book, but I did start to skip pages towards the end due to the author’s never ending ranting. I read the book to read about the topic, not about the author. Still a decent read.
Profile Image for Architeacher.
92 reviews55 followers
April 2, 2021
We have all found books that were written for us, for me alone, because its meaning was so particular, as though the author had been watching over my shoulder or eavesdropped on my innermost thoughts. This is a book that I will treasure and read again and again. If it has the look of a self-help book from the rack at B&N, look again.
Profile Image for Chad.
173 reviews
May 24, 2020
When I started this book I almost put it down, it wasn’t what I expected for some reason. Then I recalled when a wise person told me “reading isn’t always about entertainment sometimes it’s about learning and understanding the human condition.” So I stuck with it and am glad I did.
Profile Image for Cass Vogel.
100 reviews1 follower
September 24, 2020
Sometimes reads too much like a history lesson but overall I still got a lot out of this. Much to think about. Great read for artists, skeptics of marriage, friendship enthusiasts, anti capitalists, and anyone who may have dabbled in SLAA.
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