Monday, February 3, 2014

1961: The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone

The Author:

Irving Stone (1903-1989) was born Irving Tannenbaum, but later adopted his step-father's last name.    A San Francisco native, Stone attended UC Berkeley where he studied political science and economy.  He received his BA in 1923, and attending graduate courses at Berkeley and USC in Los Angeles until 1926.  In 1933, he published his first novel, Pageant of Youth, about life at college in California.  The novel did not succeed commercially, and even Stone later declared it to be of poor quality.  A year later, with the help of editor Jean Factor (soon to be Mrs. Jean Stone) he published Lust for Life, a 'biographical novel' about Van Gogh which quickly became a bestseller.
Stone was known for extreme research on his subjects, going so far as to live in Van Gogh's asylum cell.  He worked within the biographical novel genre for most of his career, writing novels on, Clarence Darrow, Jack London, Jessie Fremont, Andrew Jackson, and Sigmund Freud, among many others.  He published 24 books of fiction and non-fiction, in addition to editing several more. He died of heart failure in 1989.

The Book:

Length: 755 pages
Subject/Genre: Michelangelo/ Biographical Novel

People who know nothing about art know Michelangelo.   They know his paintings:

The Creation of Adam

They know his sculpture:

They know his architecture:

St. Peter's Basilica
So how do you tackle the life of one of the greatest artist's in history?  Well, The Agony and the Ecstasy is extremely well-researched.  Stone went so far as to have all of Michelangelo's surviving letters translated into English, besides living in Italy and immersing himself in Michelangelo's world.  

The novel follows Michelangelo from his early adolescence, a son of the nearly destitute, once noble Florentine, Buonarroti family, as he decides to defy his father and become an artist.  From there, we have his life story: his training, the patronage of the Medici's, his conflict with the Pope. 

The novel's greatest strength is also its greatest flaw.  Stone provides a huge amount of information, which is frequently overwhelming.  When trying to blend the conventions of the biography and the novel, he frequently swings too far on the biography side, providing information that would be interesting and useful for a non-fiction (e.g. details about the fashions and foods of the day, long passages of Florentine history, etc.) but turn into clunky dead-ends in a work of fiction.  I would be remiss if I didn't mention a point that is brought up by critics of this book, that it overlooks Michelangelo's sexuality.  There are numerous extant love poems and letters written by Michelangelo to other men.  While I feel this is alluded to in the novel, it's kept completely tucked away between the lines.     

Stone gives us a vision of Michelangelo as a man with a very clear ambition from the start, to be a great sculptor, but whose life and work are incredibly complex.  Even with any omissions about Michelangelo's personal life, we have a very dense and well documented work.  This is the only novel I've ever read to include a works cited bibliography, which in this case spans ten pages.  A question many have asked is, if there is so much research, why write a novel instead of a biography.  Stone answered this question himself, saying: "I know from experience that biographies have a limited audience. We have thousands of readers who love [the biographical novel] and are thrilled by it, who'd never get near a conventional biography."

Like other of Stone's popular novels, The Agony and the Ecstasy was adapted for the screen.

The 1965 film version starred Charlton Heston as Michelangelo and Rex Harrison as Pope Julius II and was nominated for five Academy Awards.

The question I ask myself when giving recommendations is "who is this book for?"  If you are an avid history/art buff, you'd probably be better off with a biography than a biographical novel.  If you are interested in the subject, but don't have the background in it, The Agony and the Ecstasy would be a good choice.

Best Sellers of 1961:
1. The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone
2. Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger    
3. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
4. Mila 18 by Leon Uris
5. The Carpetbaggers by Harold Robbins
6. Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
7. Winnie Ille Pu by Alexander Lenard (a Latin translation of Milne's Winnie the Pooh)
8. Daughter of Silence by Morris West
9. The Edge of Sadness by Edwin O'Connor
10. Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck

Also Published in 1961:

Jorge Luis Borges - Ficciones (first translated in English)    
Roald Dahl - James and the Giant Peach  
Robert Heinlein - Stranger in a Strange Land
Joseph Heller - Catch-22
Norton Juster - The Phantom Tollbooth  
Stanislaw Lem - Solaris
Walker Percy - The Moviegoer
Muriel Spark - The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Kurt Vonnegut - Mother Night
Richard Yates - Revolutionary Road


Stone, Irving. The Agony and the Ecstasy. 1961. New York: Signet Books, 1963. Print.

"Irving Stone." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2007. Literature Resource Center. Web.


  1. Hello,
    Just a note to point out the error in your first paragraph: "...he published Lust for Life, a 'biographical novel' about Michelangelo..." when you mean Vincent van Gogh. I enjoyed your views of Irving Stone.

    1. Thanks for catching that. I'm glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for reading!