Like Mozart, Vincent van Gogh died prematurely; unlike Mozart, he was no child prodigy. He did not even take up painting until after he had failed as an art dealer, as a teacher and as a Protestant evangelist. He was not well served in any of these undertakings by a personality that was both difficult and odd. As an art dealer, he argued with customers about their taste in paintings and was fired. His early romantic yearnings were met with indifference or scorn, and he wound up consorting with prostitutes, with the result that he may have contracted syphilis. The corrosive effects of venereal disease are but one of a number of theories for his increasingly erratic behavior. He hung out in Paris with some of the greatest artists of the age but chased his friend Paul Gauguin with a straight razor. He then went home and cut off part of his ear and presented it to a prostitute. Children taunted him in the streets, hurling stones. He was in and out of mental institutions in the final years of his life. Through it all he continued to paint. One of his most famous canvases, "Starry Night," was painted through the barred windows of the asylum in Saint-Rémy. Van Gogh’s entire career as an artist lasted barely 10 years, during which time he managed to sell only a single painting. He judged himself a failure and died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at age 37.
“We were born to succeed, not to fail,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, who also died before his time. Thoreau was hardly the best advertisement for his own pronouncement. Even his friend and benefactor Ralph Waldo Emerson lamented in his eulogy that Thoreau lacked ambition. Thoreau was seemingly a jack of all trades and master of none: a Harvard graduate who earned his living at various times as a surveyor, a schoolmaster and a handyman, when he wasn’t working in his family’s pencil factory. He regarded himself as a writer but published only two books in his lifetime, neither of which sold. Thoreau wound up with most of the 1,000 copies of his maiden effort, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, prompting him to quip, "I have now a library of nearly 900 volumes, over 700 of which I wrote myself." It took a year of surveying to repay his publisher for the unsold copies. Homely and socially awkward, he was refused in his one proposal of marriage – not surprising in view of his poor prospects. He never owned a home, and the cabin he built at Walden Pond was on Emerson’s property. He lived for a time in Emerson’s household, then moved back into his parents’ home for good. Through it all he continued to write – seven drafts of Walden alone and assiduously in his journal until he died of tuberculosis at age 44. “With his energy and practical ability he seemed born for great enterprise and for command,” Emerson eulogized, but in this Emerson was probably mistaken. Here, after all, was a man who refused to pay five dollars for his Harvard diploma to hang on the wall. “Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises?” he famously asked. “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.”
If Thoreau rarely saw the need to leave Concord, Massachusetts, Emily Dickinson rarely left her parents’ home in Amherst and eventually wound up confining herself to her bedroom. She was so painfully shy she dispensed treats to neighborhood children by lowering them down from her window in a basket attached to a rope, always careful to keep her face hidden. Her friendships were mainly conducted through correspondence, and she would sometimes receive visitors from behind a closed bedroom door. Her love affairs – if indeed that’s what you could call them – were entirely epistolary. Like Thoreau, Dickinson is famous only in retrospect, having published fewer than a dozen of more than 1,700 poems written in her lifetime. The handful that saw the light of day were heavily edited by well-meaning publishers, who were thrown off by Dickinson’s unusual style and her eccentric capitalization and punctuation. An early mentor had advised her not to publish just yet, and she followed this advice to the end of her days. After her death, her sister found hundreds of her poems sewn together into small booklets and hidden away from the world.
We should probably resist the impulse to romanticize the solitary genius who hears a different drummer. For every solitary genius there are a thousand cranks and crackpots who are merely odd. Even among those with singular creative vision it may be impossible to unwind their genius from their personality quirks. The hallucinatory intensity of van Gogh’s paintings was, after all, the work of a man who suffered from hallucinations. Then there was Thoreau, regarded by his neighbors as the village crank, who spent a night in jail for refusing to pay a poll tax and then wrote an essay on this small act of civil disobedience that later inspired Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Who’s to say that the very qualities that rendered them unfit for the world in which they found themselves were not essential for remaking the world in their own image? As Emily Dickinson cannily expressed it in one of her poems, “Much madness is divinest sense.”
The issue was not why they failed but why they kept at their calling in spite of failure. Faith or stubbornness, call it what you will; I would call it faith, although not in a churchgoing sense, since none was much of a churchgoer They had faith in truths they didn’t even know they knew until the words were on the page or the brushstrokes on the canvas. And they had faith to follow these truths wherever they led, even if it was over the edge. Move confidently in the direction of your dreams, Thoreau had urged when he was living in a shack outside of town; when even his friend Emerson believed he had failed to live up to his promise; when, as far as the rest of the world was concerned, he was doing nothing at all, nothing but remaking the world in his own image.