A Portrait of the Artists as Young or Old Innovators: The creative life cycles of modern poets and novelists

David Galenson

Published: December 2004

Earlier research found that great painters can be categorized either as young geniuses, who make sudden conceptual innovations early in their careers, or as old masters, who work experimentally, by trial and error, and arrive at their greatest contributions late in their lives. This paper extends this analysis to literature, and shows that the same dichotomy applies to both poets and novelists. Thus great conceptual writers, including T. S. Eliot and F. Scott Fitzgerald, have peaked early and declined thereafter, whereas great experimental writers, such as Robert Frost and Virginia Woolf, have produced their most important work later in their careers. The likelihood that both patterns exist not only in all the arts, but in all intellectual activities, poses a challenge to economists, who have not studied life cycles of creativity. Understanding the life cycles of great innovators may help us to increase the contributions of some of the most productive members of our society.

Download Paper in PDF format