Susan Sontag (1933-2004)
Sontag famously called childhood a “terrible waste of time” and spent most of it reading everything from Poe and the Brontës to Schopenhauer. As she said in a 1995 Paris Review interview, “I got through my childhood in a delirium of literary exaltations.” In the same interview, Sontag said she started to self-publish at the age of nine, writing a four-page monthly newspaper which featured her stories, poems, and plays. She hectographed each copy and sold to neighbors at five cents a pop — a businesswoman, too! Color us impressed.
From her diary, written at age 14:
(a) That there is no personal god or life after death
(b) That the most desirable thing in the world is freedom to be true to oneself, i.e. Honesty
(c) That the only difference between human beings is intelligence
(d) That the only criterion of an action is its ultimate effect on making the individual happy or unhappy
(e) That it is wrong to deprive any man of life
[entries “f” and “g” are missing]
(h) I believe, furthermore, that an ideal state (besides “g”) should be a strong centralized one with government control of public utilities, banks, mines + transportation and subsidy of the arts, a comfortable minimum wage, support of disabled and age. State care of pregnant women with no distrinction such as legitimate and illegitimate children.
Barbara Follett (1914-1939)
At ages 13 and 14 Barbara Follett published two critically acclaimed novels, The House Without Windows (which she had been working on since she was eight) and The Voyage of the Norman D. The New York Times called the former “the most authentic and unalloyed document of a transient and hitherto unrecorded phase in plastic intelligence.” But after her father (and writing mentor) left her mother for a younger woman, Follett’s writing spiraled, she was forced into secretarial work, and married as a teenager. Then, at the age of 25 she walked out of her apartment never to be seen again. So, what happened to Barbara Follett? Did her bout of child celebrity take its toll? These are questions the literary world wonders to this day. And in case you’re wondering, her 98th birthday would would have been earlier this month. So if you’re out there Barbara, happy belated.
Follet’s response to a critic’s diatribe against her age:
“It is surely very rash to slam down into the mud a childhood and a system of living that you know nothing about.”
Jorge Luis Borges (1899 –1986)
As a young boy Borges’ father introduced him to philosophy, mathematical theory, and his personal library of over 1,000 volumes, which he once wrote was the “chief event” in his life. Authors he was reading from a young age included Twain (Huckleberry Finn was the first novel he read), Dickens, Cervantes, and Lewis Carroll. Also making a profound affect on Borges were his father’s bohemian friends like poet Macedonio Fernández, who stopped by and “mixed things up” with avant-garde ideas. In 1909 Borges published his first work, a Spanish translation of Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince,” which ran in the Buenos Aires paper El Pais (and was mistakenly thought to be written by his father).
Borges on his influential “mirror fear”:
“I had three large mirrors in my room when I was a boy and I felt very acutely afraid of them, because I saw myself in the dim light — I saw myself thrice over, and I was very afraid of the thought that perhaps the three shapes would begin moving by themselves … I have always been afraid … of mahogany, of crystals, even of limpid water.”
Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)
When Sylvia Plath unexpectedly lost her father at the age of eight she swore, “I’ll never speak to God again.” That same year her first poem was published in Boston Traveller, and she spent the rest of adolescence reading and writing relentlessly. Her hard work paid off and her first story, “And Summer Will Not Come Again,” was published in Seventeen magazine in August 1950 before she went to Smith College on a scholarship. As we all know, Plath went on to be an incredibly successful writer, but she never was able to fully assuage her father’s death or the pressure she put on herself.
Journal entry on human limitations, written at age 18:
“I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want.”
Richard Wright (1908-1960)
Wright was valedictorian of his junior high, and at the age of 15 his first story, “The Voodoo of Hell’s Half-Acre,” was published in the local Southern Register. He had to drop out of high school to make money for his family, which had always lived in itinerant poverty, but this didn’t stop him from pursuing writing and education for the rest of his life. Wright eventually described his experiences growing up in the Jim Crow South in Black Boy, which includes the now-famous story of Wright borrowing a white co-worker’s library card to check out books (they even made an award-winning children’s book out of it: Richard Wright and the Library Card.)
Wright’s reflection on sense of self as a young boy, from Black Boy:
“At the age of twelve, before I had had one full year of formal schooling, I had a conception of life that no experience would ever erase, a predilection for what was real that no argument could ever gainsay, a sense of the world that was mine and mine alone, a notion as to what life meant that no education could ever alter, a conviction that the meaning of living came only when one was struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering.”
Clarice Lispector (1920-1977)
According to Ben Moser’s biography Why This World , Clarice Lispector displayed an extraordinary ability to mimic human behavior by the age of four (her sister claimed she had her kindergarten teacher’s every move down to a science). Lispector was very imaginative, not to mention bossy (always forcing her peers to participate in her “never-ending story game”) and started writing at an early age. But when she sent her stories to the chidren’s page of the Diário de Pernambuco, they were always rejected because they didn’t adhere to the typical “Once upon a time” protocol. Her rejection of convention carried over to school, where as a young student Lispector was relentless in pushing her teachers to get to the deep core of concepts like the difference between man and woman. She also identified strongly with animals at an early age, spending hours with the chickens in her yard because she “understood them.” All these eccentricities foretold the themes she would become known for in her writing: the mystical and her rejection of anthropocentric morality.
A conversation with her father as a young girl, as transcribed in Why This World:
“Daddy I made up a poem.”
“What’s it called?”
“Me and the sun.” Without waiting long she recited: “The hens who are in the yard already ate two earthworms but I didn’t see it.”
“Yes? What do you and the sun have to do with this poem?”
She looked at him for a second. He hadn’t understood…
“The sun is the shining on the earthworms, Daddy, and I made the poem and I didn’t see the earthworms.”
David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)
When a childhood poem by David Foster Wallace was posted on the Internet last year, a number of close readings ensued. According to the commentators, his use of repetition, design elements, and nuanced word choice all pointed to his later genius. A psychoanalyst even connected the poem to Wallace’s narcissism, arguing that the poem was actually about him and not his mother. Which, if we’re playing the “what does it all mean?” game, we could trace to Wallace’s future self-absorption, a quality he once said himself was the defining characteristic of postwar American male fiction authors, or the “Great Male Narcissists” (although, in his defense, this psychoanalyst’s logic points to the fact that all parent-child relationships are pretty one-sided). Whatever your thoughts are, the poem’s excavator Justine Goldberg was certainly correct in observing the distinct language at play here.
DFW’s hand-written grade school poem:
“My mother works so hard / so hard and for bread. She needs some lard. / She bakes the bread. And makes / the bed. And when she’s / threw she feels she’s dayd.”
Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892 –1950)
After butting heads with her junior high principal, Edna St. Vincent Millay (who preferred to go by “Vincent” because “Edna” was too boring) was pushed through to the high school, where her male classmates had an equally difficult time dealing with a confident, intelligent woman. During adolescence Vincent’s poetry won awards in the children’s magazine St. Nicholas and her poem “The Land of Romance” was published in Current Literature, alongside other great poets including Edwin Arlington Robinson. At the same time, she was busy performing in piano concerts and in plays at the local Opera House, as well as teaching Sunday school and tutoring her female classmates, who, unlike her male counterparts, adored her (see this wonderful biography for more great Edna anecdotes).
Excerpt from “The Land of Romance,” written at age 14:
In the hush of the dying day, / The mossy walls and ivy towers of the land of Romance lay. / The breath of dying lilies haunted the twilight air / And the sob of a dreaming violin filled the silence everywhere.
Stephen King (born 1947)
In a world where geek knowledge affords one more cultural capital than ever, Stephen King wins “most precocious” out of this list. It’s a well-known fact that his life was reportedly changed when he discovered a box of his father’s Avon paperbacks in his aunt’s garage, specifically the H.P. Lovecraft collection from 1947 called The Lurking Fear and Other Stories. In addition to being an avid reader (and fan of B horror films), King was a prolific writer from a young age, starting a newspaper with his brother called Dave’s Rag. They also founded the amateur press Triad and Gaslight Books, which published a two-part book titled The Star Invaders. King admitted he was “terrified and fascinated by death” in childhood, convinced he wouldn’t live past 20. We don’t even want to imagine a world in which that tragic alternate reality transpired (i.e., the darkest timeline).
King on his childhood reading:
“And when I cut my teeth on comic books, they were not the easy ones of today like Spiderman, Superman and The Hulk. They were Tales Of The Crypt, The Vaultkeeper, and that sort of thing.”
Harper Lee (born in 1926) and Truman Capote (1924-1984)
We’re cheating and counting these two as one (great backstory). Nelle Harper Lee and Truman Capote famously palled around together as children in Montgomery, AL, writing stories on a typewriter donated by Lee’s father. According to Capote they shared “an apartness“; Lee was a bookish tomboy and Capote a writing-obsessed loner. And as the story goes, the two eventually grew up to influence their respective literary careers in big ways. Capote was the inspiration for Dill Harris in To Kill a Mockingbird, and Nelle helped Capote research his masterpiece In Cold Blood. Their relationship has been shrouded in controversy, but nonetheless they are still often regarded as “perhaps the greatest backstory in American literature.”
Capote on their friendship:
“Her father was a lawyer, and she and I used to go to trials all the time as children. We went to the trials instead of going to the movies.”