Monday, 8 October 2012

Examples of neglected genius?


The neglected genius, unrecognized during his lifetime is a standard concept in modern discourse. Yet good examples are exceedingly rare.

(Or unrecognized during her lifetime, since it has been a tenet of feminist theory that there were/ are numerous unrecognized female geniuses. However, I don't think that forty years of feminist - ahem - scholarship has come up with a single new example.)


Of course it takes a while, usually a matter of decades, for somebody to become really famous - but the genius who was essentially unknown and disregarded during their lifetime and only emerged after death is pretty rare considering the cultural currency.

In classical music, among the certainly first rate, there is probably only Schubert (the example comes from Karl Popper's autobiography).

In poetry, perhaps Emily Dickinson would count; probably William Blake (although well known for his art work).

But some of the supposed examples, such as Van Gogh or Mozart are simply untrue - Van Gogh was well known (and sold his work) and Mozart extremely famous during their lives - dying in insanity or poverty is not the same as being unknown; and of course when somebody dies young there has not been enough time for their reputation to be consolidated.


Reputations rise and fall, of course - and there is dishonest boosting and denigration - but in general geniuses are (or have been) known and recognized by their contemporaries - although not necessarily given pride of place.

Fashionable and powerful figures are always in evidence - e.g. Spohr in classical music seems to have been regarded as first rate in Victorian times while Mozart was neglected for a while (seen as a composer of pleasant trifles - rather as we might regard J.C. or C.P.E Bach).

But while trajectories are various, the specific notion of an obscure and neglected genius who lived a full lifespan in the wilderness and was only recognized by posterity is, in fact, a very rare bird.




  1. Perhaps we must await the discovery of the Buddy Bolden cylinder.

  2. @d - I hadn't heard of BB, but it seems like he *was* appreciated and known during his performing life, so even if a recorded cylinder was discovered, and BB was confirmed as the father of jazz, it wouldn't realy count as 'neglected' in this context.

  3. Schubert died young. As you say, this is the most common cause of neglect in a genius' lifetime.

    Dickinson intentionally kept herself obscure. Same with Hopkins. Though usually there is someone famous who knows of the work.

    A lot of Blake's problems were of his own doing: his songs were known to Wordsworth, Coleridge, Hazlitt and Lamb at least, and his patron, Hayley, was nominated as poet laureate. If he had deigned to publish his Songs of Innocence and Experience in a normal manner and not quarrelled with his patrons he would easily have been famous as a poet in his lifetime.

    There is one area of partial exception. Most of the truly unrecognized geniuses have been painters, though usually they found enough work locally. Before photography you had to travel to see artworks or make do with woodcuts and other generally inferior reproductions. People had to go out of their way to see your work.

  4. @THU -"A lot of Blake's problems were of his own doing"

    Yes, but geniuses usually are difficult people - for reasons I discuss elsewhere.

    I think Blake probably should be allowed to count as a neglected genius on the basis that he was omitted from good anthologies for a long time - but would never be omitted for the past 50 years or so.

    Did you know that Jacob 'Ascent of Man' Bronowski was one of the pioneer re-discoverers of Blake, with a book on him in 1943?

    Thomas Traherne is another example of a truly undiscovered genius - his work was literally lost for a couple of hundred years - but again he died young...

    Still, these are exceptions that 'prove' the rule.