Monday, October 24, 2011

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
Amy Wallace “THE PRODIGY – A Biography of William James Sidis, the World’s Greatest Child Prodigy” (first published 1986)

Reading this week’s Something New, Alexander Masters’ The Genius in My Basement, automatically put me in mind of a book I first read 17 years ago, Amy Wallace’s The Prodigy, the biography of a child genius.

William James Sidis (1898-1944) was a genius. He could read fluently before the age of two, speak innumerable languages before he was eight, got through four years worth of high school in twelve weeks and was ready to go to Harvard when he was nine. But they wouldn’t accept him until he was 11. Early in 1909, aged 11, he delivered a famous two-hour lecture to the Harvard Mathematical Club and out-reasoned the learned professors who cross-examined him. He graduated from Harvard cum laude at the age of 14. As a teenager he had a brief few months lecturing at Rice University in Texas (where one visiting contemporary, the biologist Julian Huxley, recalled him as a slovenly child who was good only at mathematics).  Yet Sidis made no career for himself as an adult, going from menial job to menial job, shunning publicity, seeking anonymity and dying at the age of 46 (of a cerebral haemorrhage) without, apparently, having achieved anything.


Amy Wallace’s book is basically written to a thesis. She sets out to refute the notion that Sidis “burnt out”. Every so often in Sidis’s adulthood, articles would appear in the popular press, crowing over the former boy wonder’s failure to achieve anything and suggesting that gifted children are merely freaks whose genius does not last. Contradicting this, Wallace argues that Sidis’s genius -   his prodigious mathematical ability, reasoning powers, photographic memory and creative intuition -  remained intact until the day he died. Rather, she says, he effectively went “on strike”, deliberately reacting against high expectations of him by cultivating anonymity and eccentricity.
According to her thesis, he was chiefly reacting against his parents.

His father and mother were both ambitious Russian-Jewish immigrants who brought him up in a reasonably humane, non-disciplinarian way. But his father Boris – one of the founders of the Journal of Abnormal Psychology – couldn’t resist showing the boy off. When William was still a child, Boris even wrote a book, Philistine and Genius, presenting his son as a vindication of Boris’s method of child-rearing to cultivate genius. His mother Sarah, whom William came to hate, was even worse. She endlessly penned articles for the popular press on how to turn children into geniuses. Boris and Sarah were only too happy to show the boy off to an inquisitive press, effectively turning William into an exhibit.

Amy Wallace sees William as a “success” in his own terms. He wanted to live “normally” and obscurely and for much of his adult life he succeeded in doing so. He briefly took the route of trying to scandalise his parents by becoming involved in radical politics, which he knew they would hate. But this merely brought more publicity upon him. So it was on to a life as a clerk in dingy offices, banging away at adding machines when he could in fact perform their simple calculations mentally and faster than the machines could. Wallace interprets his frequent (false) disclaimers of genius in his adult life as evidence of his wish to escape his past.

Only once as an adult did Sidis attract much publicity when, for the first time, he turned on the press. In 1937, New Yorker magazine ran a facetious article called “April Fool!” (Sidis’s birthday was 1 April 1898), written under a pseudonym by the humorist James Thurber. It exposed Sidis as a “failure” – almost a half-wit – promoting the familiar Schadenfreude argument that child genius inevitably ends in adult mediocrity. Sidis attempted to sue, but won only a meagre out-of-court settlement.

There are many interesting side-issues in this book. One is noting how many well known people William Sidis and his family knew. Boris Sidis was well on the way to being hailed as one of the founders of modern psychiatry until, in 1910, he had a massive bust-up with the notoriously touchy Sigmund Freud and denounced psychoanalysis as a fraud. William James Sidis was named after the philosopher William James (brother of the novelist Henry James), who was a family friend. William’s cousin was the writer Clifton Fadiman. As a child at Harvard, William rubbed shoulders with other child geniuses, including Norbert Wiener, who coined the terms “cybernetics”. A book like this always has its gossipy side.

More germane to the book’s argument, though, is the tantalising evidence Amy Wallace produces for William’s undimmed genius. Chief exhibit is a book William had privately published in 1925, for a tiny circulation, called The Animate and the Inanimate. It as rediscovered in 1979, 35 years after William’s death, by a student of William’s former classmate Buckminster Fuller. Fuller at once recognized that, twenty years before anyone else had thought of it, Sidis had postulated the existence of Black Holes in the universe. Almost as interesting a piece of evidence was another (unpublished) book Sidis wrote as an adult – an “alternative” history of the United States, The States and the Tribes, focusing on the interaction of Native American tribes with early colonists, and their interchange of ideas.

All this leads me to believe that Amy Wallace probably has a point in her argument, although it does rather scare me that she quotes the libertarian nutter Ayn Rand to prove it. (There genuinely are some hyper-intelligent people who believe they owe nothing to the world or the rest of society. Mercifully they are a small minority.)

Yet for all Wallace’s careful reasoning, there is still something immensely sad in this story. It is clear that William James Sidis was never able to form an ongoing and  loving relationship with another human being. The one woman he loved married somebody else. Forlornly, he carried her picture with him for the next twenty years.

Interestingly, too, he became a fanatical collector of used tram tickets (or “street-car transfers”). He coined the term “peridromophily” for this eccentric hobby.
This is what chimes most with Simon Phillips Norton in The Genius in My Basement, with his love of trains and buses and old timetables. What is it with mathematical geniuses and public transport? It must have something to do with the neat configurations of routes, the orderliness of systems, the practical resort to numbers and the knowledge that, after all, the journey will reach a predictable conclusion, like a well-wrought equation.

Important footnote – I have reported accurately the contents of Amy Wallace’s book, but it’s only fair to add that Amy Wallace ( daughter of the best-selling author Irving Wallace) is a controversial character. Her reputation has not been helped by her long association (beginning in her teenage years) with the popular charlatan Carlos Castaneda, whose best-selling fictions, posing as anthropology, addled the brains of hippies who thought enlightenment was only one dose of peyote away. Despite the author’s own biography, however, The Prodigy still strikes me as a sober and reasonable work. For a favourable survey of the book, type “amy wallace the prodigy” into your search engine, and you can read the long review by Dr Robert Seitz that not only summarises the book but quotes verbatim many interesting passages. By the way, Amy Wallace shares her name with two completely different American women who write, one being a born-again Christian writer of thrillers and the other a newspaper columnist.


  1. I would never wish genius or giftedness on my children. The reasons are quite clear in the two pieces that you have written this week. It is nothing to do with failure in a career or such issues. It is simply that such people are usually socially isolated and cannot relate to their peers. It is always tragic to meet children who do not understand the social conventions of their own age group, and instead gravitate to the nearest adult in order to get some stimulating conversation. The adult treats them like an intelligent child. The child never gains the spontaneous and often illogical empathy and drama that is present when children interact. The likely outcome is an intelligent adult who has few, if any, friends and does not feel that they understand society or how anything social works. That is not a good basis for a happy life.

  2. Yes, very interesting. But isn't there a distinction to be drawn between child prodigies (who don't necessarily go on to be extraordinary adults) and true geniuses, who do?

  3. A good point, Anonymous. But under your definition, the two examples from these books can't be construed to be geniuses. They excelled as children to the point where they had burned out, or lost their focus, by adulthood.

    In my view there probably is a difference between genius and childhood giftedness. The latter is probably a relative measure of intelligence when contrasted with peers. The former may be intelligence (and skill to apply that intelligence) beyond the attainment of most people throughout the lifespan. Or something like that. Either way, I suspect that too much intelligence is not a good thing - look at all the strong correlations between intelligence and depression, and the weaker, yet nonetheless present, correlations between high creativity and severe mental health disorders.

  4. I am a distant relative of WJS and have a collection of his papers, including his perpetual calendar and his transfer collection. I believe that he suffered from Asperger's. His lack of hygiene, unusal eating habits, his trouble with interpersonal relationships, etc. point towards this diagnosis.

    As an adult his interests were in the social area, not the sciences. He was a very active pacifist and had ideas for how pacifists could help the country during the war. He published a newsletter and had an active correspondence on this topic.

    Rich Sagall, MD

  5. Great to hear from you, Dr Sagall. With regard to your distant relative, my only source of information is Wallace's book and a few things I have looked up on line subsequently. However, from Wallace's book I did pick up on the Asperger's or something like it, in the details of his sticking to a diet of crackers and milk when he was a teenager, not to mention his difficulties with social relations. Huxley's comment about his being 'slovenly' (Huxley's term) seems to relate to this. On the evidence she gives, I found Wallace's thesis that Siddis went "on strike" persuasive. What are your views on this?