There’s a quote attributed to EB White that goes, “Genius is more often found in a cracked pot than in a whole one.” The list below appears to confirm that, with stories about geniuses who disappeared, geniuses who vanished, and, yes, some geniuses who seem to be some flavor of what people used to call, insensitively, “crazy.”
But the plural of anecdote, as they say, isn’t data. These so-called mad geniuses aren’t a homogeneous group of crackpots. Some of these geniuses went into hiding for perfectly sensible reasons, such as to flee the Gestapo or avoid pushy and privacy-invading press. Others simply vanished without a trace, leaving behind a mystery as looming as the brilliant work they left behind.
- Video: YouTube
Russian math god Dr. Grigori Perelman collected the super-prestigious $1,000,000 Clay Mathematics Institute Millennium Prize in 2010 for proving the Poincaré conjecture, and earned the super-awesome nickname “Mathsputin” for rejecting the prize to continue living in squalor with his probably pissed off mother and sister in St. Petersburg. The Poincaré conjecture states, “Every simply connected, closed 3-manifold is homeomorphic to the 3-sphere,” which you have to admit sounds a bit like rejected Pootie Tang dialogue unless you’re a Good Will Hunting-level math wizard.
The wild-bearded Perelman, who turned down teaching offers from Princeton and Berkeley, reportedly lives “extremely humbly,” which is wee bit of an understatement: an “astounded” neighbor said in 2010 that Perelman “only has a table, a stool and a bed with a dirty mattress.” Slightly more recent reports indicate Perelman has “all [he] needs,” and just doesn’t want the attention, likening it to being “on display like an animal in a zoo.”
After Perelman's sudden flight from obscurity to fame, he more or less disappeared from public view, so much so journalists went looking for him. Brett Forrest of British newspaper The Telegraph conducted a stakeout to find the reclusive genius in 2012, and apparently made brief contact with him. Meanwhile, Perelman's Wikipedia page is full of bizarre conjecture like "Some Russian news outlets have indicated that Perelman has had a job in Sweden since 2014" and "In April 2011, Aleksandr Zabrovsky, producer of President-Film studio, claimed to have held an interview with Perelman... A number of journalists believe that Zabrovky's interview is most likely a fake... "
- Photo: The Sidis Archives / Public Domain
Proto-Doogie Howser William James Sidis (1898-1944) was an impossibly gifted lad: he could reportedly read the New York Times before he was two, knew several languages at six, and even invented his own language before being accepted into Harvard at age 11. The Wes Anderson-character-come-to-life had other interests, too, including writing French poetry, novels, and “a constitution for a utopia.”
But it was his astounding math skills that really wowed the grown-ups at Harvard, where he lectured, at age 11, on four-dimensional bodies. He graduated cum laude at age 16, but never really used his degree. After toiling in grad school, law school, and a professorship, Sidis went into hiding, bouncing from job-to-job and city-to-city, seeking to become a “regular working man.”
He wrote the occasional odd book, often using pseudonyms, including a book all about streetcar tickets under the name Frank Folupa, which his biographer calls "arguably the most boring book ever written." In 1937, he successfully sued the New Yorker for writing a sneaky piece about him he thought “made him sound crazy.” He died in 1944 from a brain hemorrhage, the same thing that killed his father.
- Photo: Metaweb (FB) / Fair use
No list of reclusive geniuses would be complete without Catcher in the Rye author JD Salinger, who famously left Manhattan in 1953 to live on a “90-acre compound” in Cornish, NH. He remained there until his death in 2010, at age 91.
Salinger's most famous character, Rye protagonist Holden Caulfield, wanted to live in “a little cabin somewhere with the dough [he] made and live there for the rest of [his] life,” far from “any goddam stupid conversation with anybody.” If Caulfield was speaking for Salinger, the author got his wish, for the most part. In his first year in Cornish, he let local kids interview him for the “High School” section of the local paper, but the editors instead gave the interview prominence as a feature. Feeling betrayed, Salinger built a six-and-a-half feet fence around his property.
Salinger broke his legendary silence in 1973, speaking to the New York Times about his attempts to prevent his uncollected stories from being published without his consent: “Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”
- Photo: Metaweb (FB) / Public domain
Like JD Salinger before him, author Thomas Pynchon is one of the world’s most famous reclusive literary geniuses, except Pynchon has maintained a relatively steady output of novels (Against the Day, Inherent Vice, Bleeding Edge) and even film adaptations (Inherent Vice) since his long, post-Gravity’s Rainbow drought in the ‘70s. Despite this, there are only four known photographs of Pynchon in circulation.
Gravity’s Rainbow earned Pynchon a Pulitzer consideration in 1974 (overruled by the advisory board for being “turgid” and “obscene”), and the William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1975, which he declined via letter: “The Howells Medal is a great honor, and, being gold, probably a good hedge against inflation, too. But I don't want it. Please don't impose on me something I don't want.”
Pynchon has successfully remained out of the public eye his entire career, but he appeared, oddly enough, three times on The Simpsons in animated form. He even sent Executive Producer Matt Selman feedback on his first appearance, cutting a line where he calls Homer a “fat ass.” Pynchon wrote to Selman, “Homer is my role model and I can’t speak ill of him.”