African, European literary geniuses compare


Catherine Drinker Bown in her biography writes: “If the energy and originality of geniuses startles people, so does the phenomenon of their abundance. Lesser talents produce sparely though their products may be exquisite. But your true genius produces in shoal in barrelsful shelvesful with the levels of quality rising and falling as witness. Dickens, Thackeray Tolstoy, Beethoven.”

Genius and inexhaustible energy are closely related. Mere intelligence does not make a person a genius. Genius is demonstrated in action by results.

Charles Dickens wrote 17 big novels and each of them of high standard. He died at the age of 58. Shakespeare wrote 37 plays and died at the age of 52. The two represent the best in English literature. What more works they would have produced if they had lived as old as George Bernard Shaw who died aged 94 and was still writing, we do not know.


H.G. Wells was born of working parents but managed to get university education with a degree in biology. He wrote science fiction – both novels and short stories. But the one book that earned him the largest amount of money was The Outline of History. According to some authorities, it was the most popular history book of the 20th century and yet he wrote it in one year despite being a non-professional historian. He must have done research over a long period with collaborators. Indeed, one of his collaborators was Sir Harry Johnston, the first governor of the British Protectorate of Nyasaland though his title was commissioner and consul general.

He left volumes of notes on themes and characters of novels. Often, he would wake up in the mid of the night and jot down an idea which had come into his mind or has been part of his dream. He wrote a biology textbook and tracts on world government.

Leo Tolstoy, a Russian, is generally acclaimed the greatest novelist who ever lived. His fame is based mostly on the novels War and Peace, Anna Karenina and Resurrection. These were written out of experience. His earliest works were novelettes such as How Much Land Does a Man Need and The Cossacks Childhood. In his old age, he wrote monographs on his religious beliefs. He said he believed in God whom he belied to be a spirit.


He was a man of great wit. He said among other things: Work banishes those three great evils – boredom, vice and poverty; History is the portrayal of crimes and misfortunes; If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.

Other Europeans who wrote in abundance were Jean Jacque Rousseau whose most famous book was The Social Contract and Johann Wolfgang voon Goathe, the German literature. He wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther, an autobiographical novel, and Faust. But the most prolific writer was a French writer with African blood in his veins. I am talking of Alexandre Dumas. His grandmother was an African slave who worked on a sugar plantation in the West Indies. Dale Carnigie in his little book Little Known Facts about Well-known People tells us that of all the adventure books such as Don Quixote, Treasure Island and Robinson Cruse, he loved Alexander Dumas’ The Three Musketeers.

Dumas wrote 1,200 volumes, fathered 500 children, fought 20 duels and made lot of money from his books but lost most of it. He would work for 14 hours a day. During that period, he did not eat and would not allow visitors to interrupt him even if they were close friends.

Carnigie tells us that Dumas’ 1,200 volumes were almost twice the entire output of John Golsworthy, Shaw, Robert Louis Stevenson, Wells, Rudyard Kipling, Mary Robert Rinehart and Zane Grey taken together.

What is there to be said about Africa’s literature icons? One of the earliest bestselling novels was Mhudi by a South African writer of the Sothi Swana of Tswana ethnic group. I think his name was Solomon Plantje. According to the principal of Lovedale College Rev R.H.W. Shepherd in the Cape Province, Mhudi sold so well that its author was able to use the proceeds to travel to the United Sates where he visited several states. The book seems to have been written in the 1920s when literacy among Africans was not so wide. We do not know of what else he wrote.

One other pioneer in literary work was a Guinean (Conakry) called Camala Laye. His autobiographical novel was called An African Child in English but L’Enfant Noire in its original version. It is said to have sold half a million copies in the 1950s and early 1960s. We read no more of what Laye wrote.

To most people in Africa, Chinua Achebe was the literary giant of Africa. His fame derived from his first novel Things Fall Apart, a story about a wrestler called Okwonkwo. The background of the story is anthropological. It is reported to have sold 15 million copies. For at least half a century, it has been cited as the most popular African novel

Achebe wrote about four other novels; too few compared with British writers such as Thomas Hardy, George Elliot not to speak of Agatha Christie.

The great African novel is still to come but it will be the achievement of a prolific writer. So far, we African writers have proved less energetic than European writers both in fiction and non-fiction writing. In non-fiction, I do not come across economic professor who have written volumes and volumes like John Maynard Keynes or John Kenneth Galbraith, nor in philosophy and mathematics like Bertrand Russell. Let us work harder.

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