An elite, university education seems the surest route to a prestigious career these days. But you might be surprised to find out how many authors made names for themselves without finishing — or, in some cases, ever attending — college.
Ray Bradbury is a familiar name to the generations of high school students required to read his classic novel Fahrenheit 451. These students might be irked to discover that Bradbury barely finished high school himself and had no interest in attending college. This is not to imply that he was unmotivated; he started writing stories on butcher paper at age 11 during the Depression. He claimed he didn’t “believe in colleges” and put his faith in libraries instead, to which all children (even poor ones) had access. Bradbury even wrote Fahrenheit 451 in a library, renting a room with a typewriter for an hourly charge.
In response to the tragic circumstances of her childhood, including sexual abuse and racial discrimination, author Maya Angelou remained mute for five years. Even without speaking, these were the years she developed an intense love of language and books. She managed to graduate high school, but three weeks later she gave birth to her son. Unable to attend college and desperate for money, she worked as a pimp and prostitute. Angelou didn’t begin to concentrate on her writing career until she was almost 40, when her friend James Baldwin encouraged her to publish her now-famous autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
This guy had a tough childhood. Born Truman Streckfus Persons, he was a small, eccentric child often abandoned by his parents. At the young age of 11, he resolved to become a writer and spent the rest of his childhood learning the craft. His mother, however, interrupted his plan when she sent him to military school to toughen him up. It was, predictably, a disaster, but Truman was hired as a copyboy for The New Yorker out of high school. He was 41 when he published his “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens was forced to drop out of school at age 12 and to work for food rations after his father died. By age 15, he was contributing articles to his brother’s newspaper. He later moved to New York City to work as a printer and, like Bradbury, educate himself in public libraries. Before becoming a journalist at almost 30, Clemens worked as a steamboat pilot for many years. When he reinvented himself as a writer, his work as a boat pilot would provide his new identity (“mark twain” is steamboat slang for measuring two fathoms).
When he was just eight years old, Wells was bedridden by a leg injury, an unfortunate event that would mark the beginning of his love for literature. To pass the time, his father brought him books from the local library, and he became increasingly enamored with fictitious settings. His father was a professional cricket player, but when he suffered a leg injury of his own, the young Wells was forced to leave school for work as a draper’s apprentice. Every job he had was a nightmare until he was finally able to support himself as a teacher and to continue educating himself in hopes of becoming a writer. Wells went on to become a famous, science fiction novelist known for The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine.
Jack London eventually ended up at UC Berkeley, but his journey to college was hardly traditional. As a young boy, he found a librarian at the Oakland Public Library who was willing to mentor him, and, with her encouragement, London was essentially self-educated. He worked long hours at a cannery beginning at age 13 and later began to work as a tramp, begging for money. At 18, he spent a month in jail for vagrancy, only after which he returned to complete high school. A pub owner and friend loaned him the money to attend UC Berkeley, but London left a year later when the money ran out and never graduated. Even without a college education, he penned such classics as The Call of the Wild and White Fang.
Born into a family of eccentric, highly-educated individuals, Augusten Burroughs was christened Christopher Richter Robison. The future writer dropped out of school in sixth grade, but he obtained his GED at 17. Burroughs then changed his name and enrolled at Holyoke College as a pre-med student, only to drop out before the first semester was over. Burroughs published his controversial first memoir, Running with Scissors, in 2002.
From a young age, Charles Dickens knew he wanted to be famous. One of eight children, Dickens received only sporadic formal education interspersed with factory jobs that offered abysmal working conditions. His father was thrown into debtor’s prison when he was a boy, and his mother and youngest siblings went to live with him there. Dickens’ experiences as an impoverished child would become the inspiration for many of his novels. He eventually became a freelance reporter and is now known as one of the foremost Victorian novelists.
Though he knew he wanted to be a writer, this famous member of the Beat Generation made it to Columbia University on an athletic—not an academic—scholarship. He was a skilled running back for the football team there, but he broke his leg during his freshman year. He made it back for one more season, during which he fought so often with his coach that he was compelled to drop out of school altogether. It was his journey to Columbia, though, that would introduce him to many of the Beats with whom he would soon launch a literary revolution.
This Nobel Prize winner never earned a high school diploma. Not tall enough to enlist in the U.S. Air Force, Faulkner lied his way into the Canadian Royal Air Force for one year before World War I ended. He later enrolled in the University of Mississippi, but he only attended classes for three semesters before dropping out. Faulkner went on to work as a bookseller’s assistant and postmaster before publishing his poetry for the first time at the age of 27.