Famous Writers Who Dropped Out of College

Updated on March 22, 2017
harrynielsen profile image

The biographies of the literary greats tells us many things about these authors and the times in which they wrote.

The Beat Generation

Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Lafcadio Orlovsky, and Gregory Corso in NYC in 1956
Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Lafcadio Orlovsky, and Gregory Corso in NYC in 1956 | Source

College Dropouts

Since WWII the term "college dropout" was been much maligned and often (incorrectly) associated with a person, who was not ambitious or hard-working. Actually a quick look through today's who's who of self-made millionaires, especially in the field of computers, will reveal quite a few highly successful entrepreneurs who dropped out of college to make their mark in the world. Where would the world be today without Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Buckminster Fuller, Frank Lloyd Wright, Tiger Woods and James Cameron. In fact, in a recent article, the NY Times went so far as to raise the question: "Will Dropouts Save America?".

Dylan On Stage

Bob Dylan performing at Saint Lawrence University in 1963, several years after he left the University of Minnesota,
Bob Dylan performing at Saint Lawrence University in 1963, several years after he left the University of Minnesota, | Source

An American College Dropout receives the Nobel Prize for Literature

The awarding of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature raised quite a few eyebrows, especially since the award did not go to a novelist. Instead, the most recent literature prize went to an American folksinger/songwriter, who once attended the University of Minnesota, but never completed his studies. In fact, Bob Dylan never came close, for after being an enrolled student for just one year, he dropped out, moved to Greenwich Village in NYC, where he began his folksinging career.

The Nobel Committee defended their groundbreaking and unusual decision by comparing Mr. Dylan to the ancient Greek poet, Homer, who traveled around the Mediterranean, singing songs of the great Trojan War and its aftermath.

Misconceptions About The Beats

One group of writers that has been forever associated with the dropping out of college were the Beats. Among the most widely read authors of this group only Kerouac failed to finish his years of higher education and obtain a degree. The remainder of the group, Gary Snyder (Reed College), Allan Ginsburg (Columbia University), William Burroughs (Harvard University) and Lawrence Ferlinghetti (University of North Carolina) all received bachelor degrees from well-respected American universities.

And the academic accomplishments do not stop here, for Lawrence Ferlinghetti went on to obtain a Doctorate from the Sorbonne in Paris, while Gary Snyder obtained a Masters in Anthropology from Indiana University. All in all, this group was well educated, despite their beatnik attitude and carefree lifestyle.

Carl Sandburg In 1955

Carl Sandburg at age 77, photo by Al Ravenna, World Telegram staff photographer
Carl Sandburg at age 77, photo by Al Ravenna, World Telegram staff photographer | Source

A National Poet Who Never Finished College

Carl Sandburg began his academic career at the West Point Military Academy, but left after attending classes for only two weeks. The cause of his quick departure was failure to pass a mathematics exam. Carl went on to have a colorful career, as soldier, brick layer, farm laborer, coal heaver, socialist party secretary, writer and folksinger. Mr. Sandburg published several books of poetry (which won him Pulitzer prizes in 1940 and 1951), a biography of Abraham Lincoln and a couple of books of children's stories. He also attended Lombard College in his hometown of Galesburg, Illinois, but never graduated. His folksinging career included a Grammy award in 1959. Today, there is a two-year community college in Galesburg named after the illustrious National Poet. That school still goes by the name of Carl Sandburg College.

Incidentally, almost a century earlier, another man dropped out of West Point, only to become a well-known writer later in life. His name was Edgar Allan Poe.

Off To Alaska

Miners hoping to prosper in the Klondike during the 1890s had to make the climb through Chilkoot  Pass in Canada,
Miners hoping to prosper in the Klondike during the 1890s had to make the climb through Chilkoot Pass in Canada, | Source

The Saga of Jack London

Jack London (born in San Francisco in 1876) attended the University of California at Berkeley before dropping out and heading for the Klondike Gold Rush with his brother-in-law. A year later, Jack was back in the Bay Area with a case of scurvy, but no gold. By the turn of the century, Jack had successfully launched his writing career with the publication of several short stories and articles from his adventurous young life, including the classic winter tale, "To Light a Fire". Jack London, the great adventurer, died young at age 40, leaving behind a legacy of short stories and books that are still read today.

On the Beach In Hawaii

Jack London with his second wife, Charmian , on a surfing trip to Hawaii. The picture was taken in 1915, just one year before Jack died.
Jack London with his second wife, Charmian , on a surfing trip to Hawaii. The picture was taken in 1915, just one year before Jack died. | Source

Faulkner in 49

William Faulkner during the year he received the Nobel Prize.
William Faulkner during the year he received the Nobel Prize. | Source

William Faulkner

William Faulkner, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949, is forever associated with fictional Yoknapatawpha County and real-life Oxford, Mississippi, where the University of Mississippi is located. The University of Mississippi is not Faulkner's Alma Mater because he never completed his academic studies there. Part of the reason Faulkner never finished college was the outbreak of WWI, which began soon after he started his classes. Since his post-war return to the American South, Faulkner released a popular series of books that included The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, Absalom Absalom and The Reivers.

Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac in 1956
Jack Kerouac in 1956 | Source

Jack Kerouac

Kerouac entered Columbia University just before WWII on a football scholarship, but due to a broken leg and verbal conflicts with the coach, he dropped out and spent the first part of the war years as a Merchant Marine. As a pre-requisite for entering the NYC Ivy League institution Kerouac studied briefly at Horace Mann, a local college prep school. It is here he encountered enthusiastic English teachers, who helped him develop a love for modern literature. When "On The Road" was published in 1957, Kerouac quickly gained literary recognition. Today, the man from Lowell, Massachusetts is widely recognized as the "father of the Beat Movement".

Punk Rock Comes of Age

Patti Smith performing at Cornell University in 1977.
Patti Smith performing at Cornell University in 1977. | Source

Patti Smith

The world of popular music is filled with successful, hard-working performers. Patti Smith commands special recognition because she recently won the National Book Award (2010) for Just Kids, a memoir about her partner, Robert Maplethorpe, and a intimate look inside the New York Punk scene of the late sixties and early seventies. Patti Smith arrived in NYC in 1967 after dropping out of nearby Glassboro State College in New Jersey. By 1974, she had her own band and in 1975 they released their first album, Horses. After that release, there came other albums, several collections of poetry and many fine art photographs. However, only with her recent released memoir has she been nationally recognized as a literary writer.

Joni Mitchell Performing

Joni Mitchell performing in 1983 at age 40
Joni Mitchell performing in 1983 at age 40 | Source

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Joni Mitchell is just one of the many songwriters/performers, who dropped out of college to pursue a music career. As it is often true for so many performers of the last 40 years, a highly developed songwriting skill along with a complex understanding of the English language has been accompanied by exceptional musical talent. The result is poetic lyrics put to music that is sold commercially to a large general public. In the late 60s, Joni dropped out of Alberta College of Art and Design to become a professional songwriter and performer. During the musical explosion of the 60s and 70s many others, such as Bob Dylan, Tim Buckley and Carole King have all followed a similar path.

Questions & Answers

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      • harrynielsen profile imageAUTHOR

        Harry Nielsen 

        15 months ago from Durango, Colorado

        Also of note is the fact that when Allen first left Columbia is was because he flunked out.

      • Amie S profile image

        Aimee S 

        15 months ago from Macondo

        Right. True that.

      • harrynielsen profile imageAUTHOR

        Harry Nielsen 

        15 months ago from Durango, Colorado

        Actually, Allen Ginsberg went back to Columbia in 1948 and finished his undergraduate, plus he returned in 1986 as a visiting professor. Of all the Beats, only Kerouac was the true college dropout.

      • Amie S profile image

        Aimee S 

        15 months ago from Macondo

        Allen Ginsberg too. Half of 1960's poets were all dropouts :)

      • harrynielsen profile imageAUTHOR

        Harry Nielsen 

        18 months ago from Durango, Colorado

        Incidentally, just recently a college dropout was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. His name is Bob Dylan and he briefly attended the University of Minnesota before moving to NYC and making a name for himself as a folksinger/songwriter.

      • rebelogilbert profile image

        Gilbert Arevalo 

        18 months ago from Hacienda Heights, California

        Interesting look at super talented individuals that didn't need a piece of paper from a credited college. Today, I believe it's more common to avoid college and pursue a trade. Writers and musicians create from personal experiences and are intelligent and talented enough to pave their own road to success.

      • GetitScene profile image

        Dale Anderson 

        5 years ago from The High Seas

        Jack London is one of my very favorite authors so it was good to see him mentioned on this list.

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