5 Famous Geniuses And Their Super Embarrassing Early Works
Looking at history's greatest geniuses, it often feels like they must have come out of the womb already dressed in a tweed jacket and holding opinions about the latest New Yorker. But as it turns out, even the best minds mankind has ever encountered behaved like hormonal idiots when they were young. Even better, plenty of them left embarrassing journals to prove it. For example ...
Karl Marx Wrote Sappy Poetry As A Teen
Karl Marx, big daddy of communism and bane of the bourgeoisie, started out writing stuff that was a lot more gooey than what we remember him for. That's because long before he wanted the workers of the world to unite, he had a much more intimate union in mind -- one he wrote about a great deal more than ideology.
At 18, Marx joined the Poets' Club at his university. (The first rule of Poets' Club: Only talk about Poets' Club in iambic pentameter.) Of course, one of the main requirements to join any kind of teenage poetry society is to have a mad crush on someone. For Marx, this someone was Jenny Von Westphalen, daughter of a prominent Prussian baron. And to woo this noble lady, the middle-class Marx spent half a year penning what is surely his most famous manifesto: three moody volumes of poetry, all dedicated to Jenny.
These works, titled Book Of Love Part I, Book Of Love Part 2, and the combo breaker Book Of Song, are cover-to-cover melodramatic teenage declarations of capital-R Romantic love which are like what every emo teenager scribbles after reading three Shakespeare sonnets. Take this example, deceivingly called "Concluding Sonnets To Jenny" (there were so many more):
So high the Soul's illusions aspire,
O'er me you stand magnificent;
'Tis but your tears that I desire,
And that my songs you only enjoyed
Or how about the ending to this tree-killing entry, simply called "To Jenny":
Truly, I would write it down as a refrain,
For the coming centuries to see -
LOVE IS JENNY, JENNY IS LOVE'S NAME.
Or this surprisingly self-aware poem, also called "To Jenny":
Jenny! Teasingly you may inquire
Why my songs "To Jenny" I address,
When for you alone my pulse beats higher,
When my songs for you alone despair,
When you only can their heart inspire,
When your name each syllable must confess,
When you lend each note melodiousness,
When no breath would stray from the Goddess?
Of course, not all poems just had Jenny in the title. Others were only very, very subtle references to Marx's desire for her, like "Yearning" or "Siren Song." But Jenny wasn't the only thing all of these poems had in common -- they were also terrible. At least, that's what Marx thought later in life, when he "treated his verses very disrespectfully," according to his daughter Laura, and would mock himself for ever having written such ridiculous love odes. But he couldn't deny their success. Jenny fell madly in love with Karl, and they later married, had seven kids, and stayed together for the rest of their lives. Hey, maybe all our literary careers secretly peaked during our middle school emo phases.
Leo Tolstoy Kept Diaries Of Everything He Ever Did Wrong
Nobody becomes a success overnight. It takes years of experience, practice, and failure to sculpt even a competent McDonald's night manager, let alone one of the greatest authors to have ever lived.
Nobody knew this better than Leo Tolstoy, legendary author of those books no has ever gotten to the end of, who at an early age was already looking back at his shortcomings. He used this to become the most boring young adult of them all: a self-help nerd.
At the tender age of 18, Tolstoy was having a bad year. Not only was he about to drop out of university for poor academic performance, but he was also being treated in a hospital for a venereal disease -- and we're going to assume those two events were somehow related. Lying in the hospital, Tolstoy decided to use this time to "enter into himself" (if only he'd done that in the first place, then he wouldn't have needed a doctor) and find a way to turn his life around. His answer? A series of diaries and notebooks composed of instructions on every aspect of life, as if he was trying to make a Leo Tolstoy user manual.
The first of these notebooks was his "Rules for Life," which is the exactly the kind of ambitious scope you'd expect from a man who later wrote War And Peace. Then that scope narrowed quite significantly. There were the "Rules for Developing Will," then "Rules for playing music," and "Rules for playing cards in Moscow until January 1," among many, many others. But the most disturbing and difficult writings had to be his "Journal of Weaknesses", inspired by the harsh self-criticism of his idol, Benjamin Franklin. In it, he would write down every bad quality he thought he had, including "laziness, mendacity, indecision, sensuality, and vanity." Then he would unflinchingly and on a daily basis mark every bad quality he had shown. He would also fill his ledgers with notations of "sissiness" aside every failed opportunity, because he was clearly not being too hard on himself already.
By the time he was 21, Tolstoy would keep a single journal that combined all the most obsessive parts of his former works. So a typical passage would look like this:
Poiret came, I fenced, and did not send him away (sloth and cowardice). Ivanov came, I spoke with him for too long (cowardice). Koloshin (Sergei) came to drink vodka, I did not escort him out (cowardice). At Ozerov's argued about nothing (habit of arguing) and did not talk about what I should have talked about (cowardice). Did not go to Beklemishev's (weakness of energy). During gymnastics did not walk the rope (cowardice), and did not do one thing because it hurt (sissiness).
This was followed by a minutely planned schedule for the next day:
From 10 to 11 yesterday's diary and to read. From 11 to 12-gymnastics. From 12 to 1-English. Beklemishev and Beyer from 1 to 2. From 2 to 4-on horseback. From 4 to 6-dinner. From 6 to 8-to read. From 8 to 10-to write.-To translate something from a foreign language into Russian to develop memory and style.-To write today with all the impressions and thoughts it gives rise to.
All of this self-obsession led to his first literary work at the age of 22. In The History Of Yesterday, he (you guessed it) wrote a complete accounting of every single second of a 24-hour day, with commentary in parentheses after every single sentence. It was the start of his journey as the most detail-oriented novelist of all time. And we thought Batman had an intense origin story.
A Prepubescent F. Scott Fitzgerald Was OBSESSED With Girls
F. Scott Fitzgerald has to be the greatest American author when it comes to catty gossip and overly complicated love trysts. His masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, depicts every teenager's idea of what glamorous love ought to be. And to write it, he had the greatest muse of all: himself.
For six months, a 13-year-old Fitzgerald kept a journal he called The Thoughtbook Of Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald Of St. Paul Minn U.S.A -- quite a ponderous title for a diary about all the girls he liked. The first entry sets the tone for the rest of the opus, showing how this preteen boy had preteen girls on the brain 24/7:
Kitty Williams is much plainer in my memory. I met her first at dancing school and as Mr. Van Arnumn (our dancing teacher) chose me to lead the march I asked her to be my pardner. The next day she told Marie Lautz and Marie repeated it to Dorothy Knox who in turn passed it on to Earl, that I was third in her affections. I dont remember who was first but I know that Earl was second and I was already quite overcome by her charms I then and there resolved that I would gain first place.
Kitty is only one of many girls to feature heavy in Li'l Fitzgerald's carousel of school beaus. In fact, the future author thought he was so popular with girls that cooties were afraid of catching him.
At the time I was more popular with girls than I ever have been before. In truth Kitty Shultz, Dorothy, Violet, Marie and Catherine Tre all liked me best.
To cement his reputation as St. Paul Academy's resident ladies' man, Scott also kept a tally of his Valentine victories, writing: Last year in dancing school I got 11 valentines and this year 15. That's not an undeserved haul, as his diary entries prove he could be quite the smooth talker. With lines like "Today in dancing school I told her she was my best girl" and "She asked me if I liked dancing school and I said I liked it if she went," there wasn't a middle school girl out there who could resist the charms of this Junior Gatsby.
But like any playboy, pocket-sized or no, it quickly becomes clear that what Fitzgerald loved most of all was falling in love. And he was quite fickle about which fair maiden was most deserving of his affection. As he writes in one entry:
Since dancing school opened this last time I have deserted Alida. I have to new crushes, to wit - Margaret Armstrong and Marie Hersey. I have not quite decided yet which I like the best. The 2nd is the prettiest. The 1st the best talker.
He also kept a ranked list of which girls he liked best at any given time, which he wrote "changes continually" and was "only authentic at date of chapter," showing he already had a very good understanding of the fickleness of infatuation for such a young age. But the thoughtbook has more literary value than you'd think. Throughout his novelist career, the adult Fitzgerald would often re-read this old journal, drawing inspiration from the crushes, his social circles, and all those bittersweet memories to write his jarringly accurate tales of socialite life. Burn?
Charles Dickens Was A Stalker Who Wrote Creepy Poetry
We've talked before about how Charles Dickens, lover of orphans and feel-good endings, was a rude ass whose hobby was staring at corpses. Not the type of man, then, who would've spent his early life writing a bunch of lovey-dovey poetry. But Dickens managed to combine his romantic streak with his creepy side by being a full-blown obsessive weirdo.
At 18, Dickens was working as a reporter when he laid eyes on Maria Beadnell, his first-ever crush and the woman who later be the basis for both Flora Finching in Little Dorrit and Dora Spenlow in David Copperfield. Dickens was so smitten by the 20-year-old woman that he decided he would "make a poet out of any wannabe reporter." At this he failed miserably:
Here lies Mrs. Beadnell, whose conduct through life,
As a mother, a Woman, a friend, a Wife,
I shall think, while I possess recollection,
Can be summ'd up in one word-PERFECTION.
You've just read one of many courting couplets in Bill Of Fare, which was written in the form of a tombstone epitaph. That's right, one of many. Dickens not only wrote a tombstone dedication for the girl he was wooing, but also for her best friend and her parents. Because nothing wins over a potential father-in-law than writing about how he's "a good sirloin of beef, though to see him cut up would cause no small grief."
Doubling down on his "m'lady" (which wasn't even cool back when it was a normal thing to say) stalker attitude, Dickens also followed Beadnell around. To be slightly more original, he also wrote her weird treatises on how she should accept his generous gift of a pair of gloves:
Surely, surely you will not refuse so trivial a present: a mere common place trifle; a common present even among the merest 'friends'. Do not misunderstand me: I am not desirous by making presents or by doing any other act to influence your thoughts, wishes, or feelings in the slightest degree. - I do not think I do: - I cannot hope I ever shall: but let me entreat of you do not refuse so slight a token of regard from me.
After this, the Beadnell parents shipped their daughter to Paris, where Dickens couldn't get to her, putting an end to the one-sided courting. But let's not condemn a man for how he behaved as a teenager crushing hard. Let's instead condemn him for that same crush when he was a full-grown adult and famous author. Dickens was still obsessing over Maria Beadnell 25 years later, writing her several letters asking to meet and swearing to her that his love is still as deep as it ever was:
I never can think, and I never seem to observe, that other young people are in such desperate earnest, or set so much, so long, upon one absorbing hope. It is a matter of perfect certainty to me that I began to fight my way out of poverty and obscurity, with one perpetual idea of you.
Which wasn't very deep at all, as he wrote this after she finally agreed to meet him:
We have all had our Floras, mine is living and extremely fat.
What a charmer.
Isaac Newton Was Obsessed With Sin And Wanted To Kill His Stepdad
Isaac Newton is one of the biggest badasses to grace the world of physics. Not only was he a science genius, but he was also a crazy alchemist who also spent part of his life hanging criminals and protecting the royal mint. But before all that awesomeness started, Newton had to go through the awkward phase of being a pious Christian boy.
When he was a teen, Newton appeared to be constantly wracked with Catholic guilt, finding transgressions in even the smallest of his actions. We know this because one day in 1622, Newton made a definitive list of his 57 sins in his diary, split between those happening "Before Whitsunday 1662" (seven weeks after Easter) and "Since Whitsunday 1662." No one can tell what exactly happened on that day that caused Newton's desire to let it all out, but it didn't make the list.
The "sins" can easily be divided into two categories. The first can basically be described as sucking up to God, and includes things like "neglecting to pray," "gluttony," and "making a mousetrap on Thy day." A few of them also just say "relapse," and seeing as this is a teenager we're talking about, we can all figure out what that's code for. The second is good old (secular) boyish tomfoolery. Newton wrote of such japes as "Robbing my mothers box of plums and sugar," "Striving to cheat with a brass halfe crowne," and "Punching my sister." You know, the kind of thing you could see Huck Finn getting up to when he wasn't busy being a massive racist.
But then, in between all of the apple-cheeked antics, there are a few legitimately sinister entries:
13. Threatning my father and mother Smith to burne them and the house over them
14. Wishing death and hoping it to some
15. Striking many
16. Having uncleane thoughts words and actions and dreamese.
As it turned out, Young Newton had quite a few mommy issues, to the point that when his mother remarried, he developed an intense hatred for his new stepfather. Apparently, by his own admission, this resulted in the genius teenager threatening to kill both of them in a fiery inferno and beating the shit out of one or more people. Wow, Isaac, what happened to the boy who just liked to bake pies on the Lord's day?
17. Stealing cherry cobs from Eduard Storer
Too late now, Isaac!
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