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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Genius and Labor

By Junius Henri Browne (1833–1902)

[Appleton’s Journal. 1878.]

THERE are two distinctive kinds of genius, although there is but one kind of labor. There is the genius which is patient, toilsome, persevering, which accomplishes something, which becomes known. There is also the genius which is careless, indolent, occupied with the present, indifferent to results. This is usually brilliant, often more brilliant than the other; but its recognition is apt to be limited and its influence fleeting. It is likely to be mistaken for talent; for the general opinion of genius is so high as to hold that it must make itself widely felt, and assume some form of permanence. The former kind may be called productive—it is of the more fortunate sort; the latter, convulsive, and, being convulsive, is unrecorded. This is like to be purely personal, to depend upon time and occasion, to be prodigal, to waste itself in a hundred unworthy ways. Any account of it is preserved mainly as tradition, for its character is such that it cannot be accurately understood out of its own atmosphere.

Convulsive genius is unquestionably the more natural of the two. All genius has an instinctive dislike to labor; is impatient of mental process; dashes at conclusions. But the productive sort tempers reason with instinct; is stimulated by ambition; gains self-discipline; grows accustomed to work as means to an end. The convulsive lacks such disposition; has not the same latent power, and therefore contents itself with spontaneous expression or mere tentative effort. It often expires with its immediate activity, and, beyond its own circle or its direct contemporaries, is not ranked as genius at all. Hence the definition of genius as untiring capacity to labor, inexhaustible patience to perform. Convulsive genius is prone to be more ideal than the productive; it has frequent glimpses of possibility which it feels that it cannot command the industry to reach, and which, to its broad sweep, may not seem worth reaching. Its exalted ideal renders all performance, especially its own, unsatisfactory, and puts aspiration at a discount. It is generally weary; it is easily tired; it abhors drudgery; it discovers no adequate reward for exertion; it despises, from its higher view, what narrower natures long to attain and are eager to toil for night and day.

Convulsive genius is illustrated through all history. Much of it has come down to us, and is still famous, though more from innate force and irrepressible brilliancy than from individual effort or deliberate design. The genius which has been named convulsive, for want of better title, has frequently produced; and yet it is very different from the genius allied to unremitting diligence and steady aim, inspired by reflection on itself with perpetual fanaticism for work….

Men of the most spontaneous intellect are rarely spontaneous in their distinguishing achievements. Hard, absorbing work must generally be done some time, either in preparation or execution. Sheridan had the name of a radiant and ever-ready wit; he had but to open his mouth, it was thought, and epigrams flowed thence in a sparkling stream. He was very vain of, and carefully cultivated, such reputation. But he did not deserve it. His astonishing readiness was a sham; he used to lock himself in his chamber, and, under pretense of recovering from a debauch, slowly and deliberately devise the fine speeches which he assumed to throw off by sudden impulse. Some of his vaunted impromptus cost him hours of reflection. The present text of “The School for Scandal” is totally different from the first copy; not lines merely, but passages, scenes, and entire acts were recast and rewritten again and again. Almost everything that emanated from him was the result of much deliberation. He was a rare genius; but before he was so ranked, as well as after, he was a hard worker.

Tennyson’s best poems seem as if they had run in all their sympathy and sweetness from his overflowing brain. But no poet has ever toiled more over his verses; he forms and reforms them; changes, erases, reproduces, files, and polishes them, until those that stand would never suspect their relation to their early and remote progenitors.

Very few poems or writings of any kind that are reread or remembered but have been wrought with copious brain-sweat. As a rule, the offspring of genius, whatever its nature, is born with exceeding travail, although it is common to believe it generated after the manner of Pallas….

The published production of genius is like the personation of an actor on the stage. We see it, and judge of it as it is presented, without thinking or caring by what means he has arrived at his superiority. Research, reflection, study, are not taken into account: it is the effect of his work, not the work, that we consider. Quite likely we explain his impressiveness, his influence upon us, his naturalness, as we choose to style it, by pronouncing him a genius, just as we explain discoveries in science, accomplishments in art, triumphs in literature. They are what they are because they have sprung from genius—the measureless work which has aided, shaped, ripened, expressed, the genius, is not remembered, nor is it generally suspected.

Productive genius has almost invariably its attendant agony of effort, and the willingness, often the gladness, to undergo such agony is a concomitant and inseparable part of productive genius. Nevertheless, it is maintained that labor is primarily unwelcome, even hateful, to real genius, and is undertaken for the most part from egotism, curiosity, ambition, or some other form of self-love. Convulsive genius, frequently of the purest, sometimes of the highest, obeys its instinct and refuses to work with any such earnestness or persistency as will publicly make manifest its affluent possession. But, as has been said, the convulsive is not recognized nor regarded as true genius, since it is averse to harmonizing with what seems to be its destiny. Strictly speaking, it is unnatural for genius to sustain continued and severe effort, notwithstanding it generally does sustain it. Convulsive genius alone acts out its inward promptings; productive genius, by resisting and overcoming strong temptation to ease, or at most to mere occasional endeavor, earns appreciation, and wears the laurel above the crown of labor, which in itself is a crown of thorns.