Friday, March 11, 2011


     This week on HuffPost Zoe Tristka posted 10 of her favorite late bloomers -- Literary Late Bloomers: Great Authors Who Took A Little Longer  -- and asked readers to vote for their favorites. I have always been a sucker for these lists of late-in-life successes (usually hoping to see someone on them who is a little older than I am, of course). I imagine many readers will weigh in on which johnny-come-lately (or joannie-come-lately) inspires them the most. I know I am not alone in loving to hear about late bloomers.

     But I always crave to hear the backstories of these successes.

     Among the writers Zoe has chosen as her favorite late bloomers are four who were first published in their late thirties -- Wallace Stevens, Joseph Conrad, William Burroughs and Anthony Burgess. Some may not consider the late thirties to be late at all for literary success, but if you are in your twenties, it does seem a long way off. Three more men on the list -- Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller and Raymond Chandler -- all had to wait until their forties to hit the big time. None of them would have made the New Yorker's infamous 20 under 40 list.

       The three women on Zoe's list are all late late bloomers: Laura Ingalls Wilder, who  published her Little House on the Prairie series in her 50s; Harriet Doerr who published a prize-winning first novel at age 74, and Toyo Shibata who at 99 is on Japan's bestseller list, thanks to her first book of poetry, appropriately entitled "Don't Lose Heart" (see "Grandma next door" poet a Japan bestseller at 99).

Toyo Shibata, 99-year-old poet

     All these are interesting choices. But the members of this motley group took such very different routes to their late-in-life success I'm thinking that labeling them late bloomers need some refining.

     Some do fall into the classic late bloomer mold: They succeeded later in life because they were busy doing other things before they finally could turn to writing in earnest.  Let's call this group LATE STARTERS. Harriet Doerr was raising a family. Anthony Burgess worked as a teacher. Wallace Stevens was a lawyer.  Charles Bukowski worked in a post office. Raymond Chandler worked as a bookkeeper. Joseph Conrad was sailing on ships around the world.

     But some of these late bloomers weren't late to start -- they were writing all along. They just needed time to get good (or at least time to get sober).  William Burroughs and Bukowski come to mind. I'll call them the  PLODDERS.

      Henry Miller also was not really a late starter, but he wasn't a plodder either. Instead he falls into the classic LATE-TO-BE-RECOGNIZED bloomer category. He didn't need more time. It was the world that needed to catch up to him. His sexually explicit prose seems tame today, but it took him years to get his work published. When Tropic of Cancer was finally published in France in 1934,  it was banned in the U.S. as pornography and had to be smuggled into the country for years. Its 1961 U.S. publication triggered a series of obscenity trials until the book was finally declared a work of literature in 1964. Miller was by then 73.

      And then there are the ACCIDENTAL LATE BLOOMERS whose dabbling in a creative pursuit  pays off big time like a UTube video gone viral. Like Grandma Moses, they are not high brow artists, but their work touches a chord in masses of people. An unsuccessful journalist, Chandler only turned to writing pulp fiction as a means to make money when he lost his bookkeeping job. His phenomenally popular fiction led him to a screenwriting career. Laura Ingalls Wilder didn't begin write until her forties when she was inspired by her daughter Rose's career as an editor and ghostwriter to try her hand at it, also hoping to make a little money on the side. It was Rose who is said to have encouraged her to write down the stories of her childhood that make up the wildly successful Little House on the Prairie series.

       Tayo Shibata also is an accidental late bloomer. For years Tayo Shibata had been enjoying a beloved hobby: classical Japanese dancing. When her son urged her to find a pasttime that wouldn't be so hard on her back, she started to write poetry. Her first collection is reportedly written in a down-to-earth style (it hasn't yet been translated into English) to which the average Japanese can relate. Overnight, it hit the bestseller list, selling over  1.5 million copies.

     Here are my own favorite CREATIVE LATE BLOOMERS,  each representing a different category of late bloomers. Faithful readers of this site will note that I have discovered two more varieties since my earlier post, The Many Varieties of Creative Late Bloomers ):

ACCIDENTAL BLOOMERS, those who take up a creative activity as a hobby but are discovered to have great talent.
      Toyo Shibata. "A flower bloomed from a century-old tree," the 99-year-old told her fans after her first book of poetry hit the bestseller list in Japan, "and it's all because of your support. Now I have a souvenir to bring to the after-world and boast about to my husband and my mother there."

LATE STARTERS, those who dreamed of a literary career all their lives, but who were sidetracked by work or by family.
     Harriet Doerr. On a dare from her son, Harriet Doerr returned to finish her creative writing degree at Stanford University and won the National Book Award for her first novel, written for her class thesis, Stones for Ibarra. She was  74. She went on to write two more books, a second novel (at left), Consider this, Senora, published in 1993 when she was 83 and a collection of short stories and essays, Tiger in the Grass: Stories and other Inventions, when she was 85.

PLODDERS, those who needed time to get good.
     Ben Fountain, immortalized in Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker piece, Late Bloomers, took years to finish his first short story collection, Brief Encounters With Che Guevara. It was published to great acclaim in 2007 when Fountain was in his late forties. "Sometimes genius is anything but rarified; sometimes it's just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table," wrote Gladwell. Fountain's novel, scheduled to be published in 2009, has yet to appear.

CRUSADERS, those who launch a creative career late in life in order to advance a cause or promote an area of interest
    Helen Prejean was 54 when she wrote Dead Man Walking, a book that inspired an Oscar-winning movie and turned Prejean, a Catholic nun, into sought after speaker on the subject of capital punishment.

LATE-TO-BE RECOGNIZED, those who are discovered late.
     Carmen Herrera sold her first painting at age 89, and now is considered a master of abstract art. Herrera wasn't slow to succeed; it was the world that was slow to recognize her.

REPEAT BLOOMERS, those successful creative artists who fade away from the public eye only to stage a spectacular comeback late in life and bloom all over again.
     Debbie Reynolds. "Most people think I've died," she recently said during a lively appearance on The Talk. Nearly 80, for the past few years the unsinkable Hollywood legend has been crossing the country with a one-woman show. In June she will be auctioning off pieces of her vast collection of Hollywood memorabilia, including the headdress that once rival in love Elizabeth Taylor wore for her triumphal march into Rome as Cleopatra. If you can't be Elizabeth Taylor, at least you can own her clothes.

HYBRIDS, those who are successful early in life in one creative area and then, late in life, turn to a totally different creative field and succeed in that, too.
     Patti Smith. The Godmother of Punk is both in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and, at 64, a winner of the National Book Award for her memoir Just Kids. 

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