“There is no tyranny,” Robert Hughes wrote in 1990, “like the tyranny of the unseen masterpiece.” He was talking about painting but his observation also applies to literature. Anatole Broyard and Harold Brodkey are among the sovereign examples — writers who were said, in their time, to be working on epic novels that would flatten the competition. People gave them a wide and fearful berth. Broyard’s never appeared. Brodkey’s (“The Runaway Soul”) arrived after nearly 30 years and was judged to be less than flattening. So it goes.
In the obsessive world of blues scholarship, the tyrannical figure has long been Mack McCormick and the unseen masterpiece his biography of Robert Johnson (1911-38), some five decades in the reporting and writing. Johnson is a titan of American music, though he died at 27 and recorded only 29 songs. Facts about his life were initially hard to come by, and myth rushed in to fill the void. You know the folk legend: Down at a crossroads, Johnson bartered his soul to the devil for mastery of the blues guitar. When you heard the songs, like “Hellhound on My Trail” and “Cross Road Blues,” the myth wasn’t hard to buy into. It didn’t even seem like a bad trade. The fever over McCormick’s long-anticipated biography broke a long time ago. His work has been superseded by several well-reported and myth-busting biographies of Johnson, and a memoir by the singer’s stepsister. But seven years after McCormick’s death, at 85, here comes his book, in a modest and expurgated form, under the title “Biography of a Phantom: A Robert Johnson Blues Odyssey.”