Late Bloomers

Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made.

Robert Browning

Why is a person’s most creative work done when they are young? The French poet Arthur Rimbaud was published at 15 and then disappeared into Africa. Mozart wrote his Piano Concerto No. 9 at the age of 21. Herman Melville completed Moby-Dick when he was 32. And in 1905, when Einstein was 26, he laid the groundwork for the Special Theory of Relativity that he completed ten years later.

In contrast, a great many artists and writers took much longer to do their best work. Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe when he was 58. Joseph Conrad published his first novel, Almayer’s Folly, when he was 54. Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness followed a few years later.

In Late Bloomers Brendan Gill, long-time New Yorker writer, briefly describes the work of 75 artists who did their best work relatively late in life. He says, “I never dreamed I’d write a book that would be regarded as inspirational…But the geriatric set is going full tilt…”

The late boomers in his book are artists, writers, musicians, dancers, fashion designers, motion picture actors and directors, etc. Of the 75, I have made note of writers who Gill reports wrote their most well-known or first book when they were well past their youth. They include the following ten:

Isak Dinisen: First novel at 49, Out of Africa at 52

Michel de Montaigne: First essay at 38

Jean Jacques Rosseau: Confessions at 70

Edith Hamilton: First book, The Greek Way, at 62

Harriet Doerr: First book, The Stones of Ibarra, at 74

Miguel de Cervantes: First volume of Don Quixote at 58, second volume at 68

Jonathan Swift: Gulliver’s Travels at 59

Ian Fleming: First book, Casino Royale at 44

O. Henry: First collection of short stories at 47

Lawrence Sterne: First volume of Tristran Shandy at 47

Perhaps you can think of others? According to Gill, the qualities that late bloomers share are “energy, high intelligence and discipline.”

It is clear that some truly creative individuals do their best work early in their careers, others, many years later. Consider two painters: Picasso was an early prodigy, while the opposite was true for Cezanne.

Cezanne was a late bloomer. Malcolm Gladwell claims that the paintings he finished in his mid-60s are valued fifteen times more highly than those he painted as a young man. On the other hand, he says a mid 20s painting by Picasso is worth an average of four times as much as one done in his 60s.

“For age is opportunity, no less than youth itself, though in another dress.
And as the evening twilight faces away, the sky is filled with stars, invisible by the day.”
Henry W. Longfellow