Skip to main content

The Disappointment Artist


The Disappointment Artist

In THE DISAPPOINTMENT ARTIST, novelist Jonathan Lethem examines
some of the influences that have shaped him, as an artist and as a
person. They include films, books, music, and his family and
childhood environment. Lethem grew up mainly in Brooklyn, son of a
painter and a bohemian mother who died of a brain tumor when the
writer was in his early teens.

"Speak, Hoyt-Schermerhorn" is the most evocative of Lethem's
childhood. In this essay, he describes the subway of his high
school years. Hoyt-Schermerhorn was his station in a rough
neighborhood and the essay reflects his fear in being easy prey as
a young boy on his own, as well as his fascination with the vibrant
city all around him. When an abandoned platform in his station is
chosen as the set for the dystopian New York City movie The
, Lethem's interests collide.

Three essays in this collection are about movies: "Defending the
Searchers," "13, 1977, 21," and "Two or Three Things I Dunno About
Cassavetes," and films are at least mentioned in all of the
remaining essays. The Searchers is an old John Wayne movie,
dated and awkward, yet Lethem is moved by its imagery, by John
Wayne's acting power, and remains in thrall to it. He is moved to
defend it, even in the face of a hostile audience, even to people
he knows would understand neither the movie nor his compulsion to
speak. "13, 1977, 21" is about seeing Star Wars 21 times at
the age of thirteen. This isn't as odd as it might sound; a lot of
boys saw Star Wars many, many times when it first came out.
The essay isn't really about Star Wars; it's about obsession
and how you can hide behind it. His mother's illness, his father's
remoteness, the awkwardness of his preteen years --- the author
could make these things disappear, temporarily, at the

"The Disappointment Artist" is about writing and generosity. Based
on correspondence from Lethem's aunt, Wilma Yeo, a children's book
author, the essay concerns her experiences with Edgar Dahlberg, her
writing instructor. Dahlberg, whose misanthropic work is largely
forgotten now, was hypercritical, relentlessly discouraging, and
mean. He is especially cruel to other writers, even students;
Lethem examines Dahlberg's implicit self-loathing and compares it
with his aunt's more positive approach.

"The Disappointment Artist" is the title essay and reading the
whole collection will make its emphasis clear. When a reader (or
viewer or listener) invests so much of himself in any given artist,
the normal peaks and troughs of an artistic career become so
meaningful that the disappointment of lesser works is nearly
unbearable. This collection is in no danger of such a brush-off.
It's a testament to our culture's fascination with itself, yet
moving and personal, an interesting reminiscence on learning to
think critically.


Reviewed by Colleen Quinn ( on December 29, 2010

The Disappointment Artist
by Jonathan Lethem

  • Publication Date: March 15, 2005
  • Genres: Essays
  • Hardcover: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday
  • ISBN-10: 0385512171
  • ISBN-13: 9780385512176