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10 Most Reclusive Literary Geniuses in History

The world’s greatest writers use their literary genius to illustrate and comment on the human condition. And yet, those who could be considered to have the best understanding of human feelings often choose to hide themselves away from the public eye. The stereotype of the reclusive author is not always true, but for these literary greats, a life of solitude had more appeal than the draws of fame and awards.

10. Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson’s 1992 short story collection, Jesus’ Son, received widespread critical acclaim. Johnson spent most of the next two decades working on his novel, Tree of Smoke, winner of the National Book Award. While he previously gave interviews and readings of his plays, he refused to attend any public appearances or press briefings for the novel. Johnson spends most of his time in rural Arizona and Idaho, where he has educated two of his three children from home — and actually broke his isolation in 1997 to defend homeschooling on Salon.com.

9. J. M. Coetzee

Multiple award-winning writer John Maxwell Coetzee appears to detest personal publicity, having not even bothered to show up to collect either of his two Booker Prizes. He has been known to attend dinner parties without speaking a single word from his arrival to his departure. However, Coetzee is not a misanthrope: his distaste for public appearances means collectors particularly prize signed copies of his books, and the author turned this desire into philanthropy by helping to establish Oak Tree Press' First Chapter Series, which sells signed limited editions by Coetzee and others to raise money for African children afflicted with or orphaned by AIDS/HIV.

8. Cormac McCarthy

Pulitzer Prize-winner Cormac McCarthy has received widespread critical acclaim and is considered one of the world’s greatest living authors. Movie adaptations of his works have made him even more of a household name. Yet, as a notorious recluse, many of his peers might have passed him in the street and never recognized him. For years, he refused all interviews and even avoided a dinner that was held in his honor. Imagine the surprise, then, as he popped up at the Academy Awards when No Country For Old Men, adapted from his book of the same name, won the award for Best Picture. Around the same time the author also appeared on Oprah for his first ever television interview. The public attention must not have agreed with him, however, as he has since retreated back into seclusion.

7. Don DeLillo

In Don DeLillo’s novel Mao II, the following passage appears: “When a writer doesn't show his face, he becomes a local symptom of God's famous reluctance to appear." This may actually reflect more of DeLillo’s opinion than that of his characters. His eighth novel, White Noise, published in 1985, won him the National Book Award and widespread critical and commercial success, but by 1991, Mao II made it clear that he had severe misgivings about public intrusions into the lives of authors. Apart from two short stories, very little was heard from DeLillo for six years. Then, after a brief period in the spotlight following the publication of his 1997 magnum opus, Underworld, he repeated the withdrawal from the public eye, hiding away for the next four years until he again had to publicize a work.

6. Bill Watterson

The legendary creator of Calvin & Hobbes, Bill Watterson retired abruptly in 1995 — at a stage where he felt he had done all he could with his characters and medium. Since then he has avoided all public appearances and interviews, and has refused to give permission for anyone to merchandise his characters. While Watterson did at one time sign a few books for a local store, when he found they had been sold on at vastly inflated prices he refused to put his name to anything more. At various times since his retirement journalists have attempted to seek him out but were either unable to find him or politely rebuffed. Watterson has broken his self-imposed exile only a few times, most notably by giving an interview to The Plain Dealer for the 15th anniversary of Calvin & Hobbes’ last strip.

5. Harper Lee

Harper Lee’s seminal 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, taught many people that recluses such as her character Boo Radley were not necessarily to be feared. Following in the footsteps of her character to a certain degree, Lee has politely refused interviews since the 1960s and made few public appearances. These days, she seems content to make the occasional showing — so long as she doesn’t have to speak much. Asked to address the Alabama Academy of Honor in 2007, she charmingly replied, “Well, it’s better to be silent than to be a fool.”

4. J. D. Salinger

Despite his status as one of the most famous authors of the 21st century, J. D. Salinger has actually only published 13 short stories and a single novel — and all of these were produced before 1959. Of course, when that single novel is The Catcher in the Rye, the fame seems entirely justified. Having already steadily withdrawn from the public eye following the publication and success of Catcher, in 1980 Salinger began to refuse interviews — not giving a single one between then and his death in 2010. Ironically, the author’s desire for privacy led many of the details of his life to be revealed to the public — when they were taken down as transcripts during a 1986 court case in which he was trying to prevent his private letters from being used in a biography.

3. Thomas Pynchon

Thomas Pynchon is perhaps the epitome of the reclusive, near anonymous novelist. After the publication of his first novel, V., in 1963, Pynchon hid himself away from all press and publicity. There are very few photographs of the author, and he has refused to attend awards ceremonies — arranging for representatives to collect prizes for notoriously complex novels like Gravity’s Rainbow on his behalf rather than breaking his seclusion. This has led to wild speculation about Pynchon’s identity — including the rumor that he was actually J. D. Salinger — and various intrusions on his privacy, such as CNN filming him near his New York City home in 1997. However, in 2004 Pynchon did accede to one publicity request — to provide the voice for his own character on The Simpsons. Appropriately, the cartoon figure appeared with a bag over his head, so as not to ruin the author’s mystique.

2. Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson published less than a dozen of her almost 1,800 poems while she was alive, and so unknowingly avoided the fame that would have made her quiet life more difficult. She did not set foot outside of her family home for the last 20 years of her life, and even avoided her father’s funeral, preferring to listen to the ceremony from the safety of her bedroom. It was only after her death in 1886 that her brilliance was discovered, with her letters and powerful, emotional poems giving tantalizing clues about the feelings — and possible reasons — behind her reclusive existence.

1. Marcel Proust

Marcel Proust was a well-known figure in French society in his early life, but in his mid-30s tragedy struck his life. His father’s death in 1903 was followed by his mother’s in 1905, and Proust began to suffer from increasing ill health. Between 1909 and his death in 1922 he became increasingly reclusive as he worked on his most famous novel, Remembrance of Things Past, rarely leaving his home. For the last three years of his life he was almost entirely confined to his darkened and soundproofed room, spending his time sleeping and working on his last, and greatest, piece of work.

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