Orca Blog for April, 2019 – Hardheaded: The Autodidacts Who Shaped Literary History

It was Ernest Hemingway’s second plane crash in as many days. As the fuselage burned, the survivors ran to the rear cargo door to make their escape. Never a follower, always a trailblazer, “Papa” was a man who labored under the notion that the courageous always exited the way they came in. He tried to head butt open the fire-fused main cabin door and managed to crack two vertebrae in the process. One of the great masters of the English language was many things, among them, an Autodidact—a self-taught man—and while that kind of thinking didn’t serve Hemingway well during his second plane crash in Africa, his rebel attitude helped redefine the language you and I speak today.

The internet is rife with articles extolling the virtues of traditional education. This is not one of those pieces. Certainly there are many benefits to MFA programs: they can be a welcoming place to hone your craft around like minds, to strengthen the mechanics of your trade, or to open doors to the literary world through the personal connections you make. But this blog is dedicated to those who went a more non-traditional route. This is a tribute to autodidacticism and the men and women who have embraced it. From Hemingway to Faulkner, Mark Twain to José Saramago, the self-taught writer is as much a part of the literary landscape as any of the multi-degreed polymaths through the ages.

Sometimes this self-taught nature is a result of circumstances beyond the literary greats’ control. Poor health, isolationism, and the general social mores precluding women from more advanced opportunities relegated Jane Austen to her family’s library. It was there she taught herself to write in the style of some of her favorite authors, and later became skilled enough to turn that style on its head—giving us the influential novels she’s known for today, while the vast majority of her traditionally educated contemporaries have been forgotten.

Renowned Russian author Maxim Gorky’s family was so impoverished, he ran away from home to be one less mouth to feed. Starting from the age of twelve he earned his education by “borrowing” books from the various towns he passed through as he traveled on foot across the country. He would pick up various jobs as he walked and entertained himself with impressions of the people he encountered, many of whom would later populate his works.

Richard Wright was denied an education due to the color of his skin as the grandson of freed slaves in the Jim Crow South, but he persisted in seeking out any opportunity he could to hone his craft and challenge the status quo at every turn. When his junior high school asked him to give a traditional, faculty-written speech at graduation, he refused and instead gave the racially charged, honest speech he had written for the occasion.

But just as often the greats we remember today became autodidacts by choice. Playwright August Wilson dropped out of high school in grade nine after he found the curriculum unchallenging and had grown weary of teachers accusing him of plagiarism for delivering reports written in a style well beyond his grade level. Instead he spent all of his newly acquired free time at the Pittsburgh Carnegie Library. His presence became so ubiquitous among the stacks that the library would later offer him an honorary high school diploma in recognition of his years of self-motivated learning.

Irish playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw abhorred traditional education to such a degree that he quit school altogether at age fifteen, declaring years later that “Schools and schoolmasters, as we have them today, are not popular as places of education and teachers, but rather prisons and turnkeys in which children are kept to prevent them disturbing and chaperoning their parent.”

Jack London sought a life of adventure outside the classroom and used his unique travel and work experiences as a young man to formulate a new, commercial approach to fiction. Ardent autodidact Mark Twain loved to brazenly boast that “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

While there have been many self-taught writers who would go on to win Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes for their craft, the measure of their contribution to the world has, and will always be, the unique way they managed to steer the world of fiction in new and interesting directions. If there is one prevalent critique of MFA programs and writers’ workshops, it is that they have the potential to teach everyone to write in a similar voice, based on a preconceived notion of what fiction is and isn’t. For the self-taught greats, this kind of conformity, real or imagined, is what drove them to march to the beat of their own drummer and, along the way, create new and wholly unexpected literary expressions.

Autodidacts like H.P. Lovecraft and Jack London managed to create new literary genres, while other independent learners like Louis L’Amour and Harlan Ellison helped to innovate and breathe new life into existing genres. Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore managed to reshape literature for an entire subcontinent while Ernest Hemingway, his aversion to traditional emergency exits aside, achieved nothing less that reshaping the way an English-language novel is written and a story is told.

Clearly, an informal education is not an impediment to literary success or acclaim, which may lead one to wonder which path is better. The short answer: whatever learning style best suits you! While it is true that many autodidacts have catalyzed paradigm shifts in their respective media, precisely because they naturally think outside the box there are still many examples of artists who embraced higher learning and managed to change their art form for the better. After all, you still need to know the rules before you can effectively break them. So choose the path that is right for you, weigh the pros and cons of each, and regardless of how rebellious you choose to be, it never hurts to learn where your exits are in case of an emergency.

-Zachary Kellian