Monday, March 31, 2014

Life Expectancy for Humorists in the Early 20th Century


This past month I have researched British and American humorists who were writing around the time of The Great War.  For the sake of idle curiosity, I have compared their life spans.  (Please forgive the garish graph.  My Excel graphics skills are rudimentary.)


The humorists had life spans that ranged from 44 years for poor F. Scott Fitzgerald to 93 years for the phenomenally durable and productive P. G. Wodehouse.  The average life span for these twenty-three humorists was nearly 67 years, corresponding to the life span of Irvin Cobb in the graph above. 

To put these numbers into context, I consulted tables for life expectancy by age for white males born in the late 19th century (add about 2 years for females).  From the Infoplease website (http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0005140.html): "The expectation of life at a specified age is the average number of years that members of a hypothetical group of people of the same age would continue to live if they were subject throughout the remainder of their lives to the same mortality rate."


Age
Calendar period
0
10
20
30
40
50
60
70
80
White males









1850
38.3
48.0
40.1
34.0
27.9
21.6
15.6
10.2
5.9
1890
42.50
48.45
40.66
34.05
27.37
20.72
14.73
9.35
5.40
1900–1902
48.23
50.59
42.19
34.88
27.74
20.76
14.35
9.03
5.10

During this period, men reaching the age of 30 could expect to live, on average, another 34 years.  (Life expectancy calculated from birth was much lower because of infant mortality.)

What can one deduce from this limited set of humorist data?  Well, leaving aside Saki, who was killed in The Great War, one would note that the compulsive drinkers (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ring Lardner, O. Henry, Heywood Broun, and Robert Benchley) died relatively young, as one might expect. 

And what can be learned from those who beat the life expectancy odds?  Well, time and chance happen to all, of course, but writers who kept up a steady output of fiction (or theatre criticism in the case of W. A. Darlington) and cultivated moderation were generally blessed with longer lives.  A simple love of writing, as opposed to love of fame or money or excitement, appears to have been their fountain of youth.



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