Ex-Prodigy: My Childhood and Youth, by Norbert Wiener

Himmelfarb, Gertrude. "Ex-Prodigy: My Childhood and Youth, by Norbert Wiener." Commentary Magazine, May, 1953.


One of the famous exhibits in the 19th century’s showcase of infant prodigies is the four-year-old Macaulay who, when asked how he was feeling after having been scalded, replied: “Thank you, madam, the agony is abated.” The average modern reader is probably more appalled than amused by this remark, torn between sentiments of incredulity and pity: incredulity that the boy did in fact speak in the well-rounded sentences of the cultivated gentleman, and pity for any child unhappy enough to speak in such sentences. For it is the modern conviction that refinement of mind is as unnatural as refinement of manners, and that both are symptomatic of a profound spiritual malaise (or psychic disturbance, as the argot has it). And when the rest of the evidence is introduced—a childhood voluntarily spent, from the age of three, in reading rather than playing; a tendency to talk, as the maid complained, “quite printed words”; an intellectual turn so pronounced that at the age of seven he could think of no more delightful occupation than writing a “compendium of universal history” or composing poetry in the epic manner at the rate of one hundred lines a day—it takes a person of strong and independent convictions not to have a sneaking suspicion that such a child is either something of a monster, as if mental excellence could only be acquired at the expense of moral soundness, or at least something of a neurotic, as if health is better served by mediocrity than by brilliance.