Book Review: THE PRODIGY by Amy Wallace


Perhaps I expected something more from this book than I got and if that is the case, it mirrors the expectations America had for William James Sidis. Born in 1898 to educated immigrant parents, young William’s mental acrobatics quickly surpassed their wildest expectations. He supposedly spoke 8 languages by age 8 and even invented his own, Vendergood. He entered Harvard at age 11 and famously lectured to adult scholars on the subject of 4-dimensional bodies. Eventually he would swear off mathematics entirely and he spent his adulthood obsessed with radical politics, ticket transfers for public transport, and New England (particularly Boston) history, even going so far as to write books about Native American tribes of the area.

As with many child prodigies, he was in a pressure cooker from an early age, hounded by reporters and paraded by his parents to their dinner guests. Questions abound regarding what is fact and what is fiction in William’s life. Certainly he was incredibly gifted and no doubt achieved much of what was said, but despite Ms. Wallace’s best efforts, it never feels like she gets to the truth behind it all. She is hampered by decades having passed and much of the original paperwork missing when she wrote the book.

What is apparent from her surprisingly tender, protective portrait of the man is that he suffered that most horrible of fates which befall the vast number of young prodigies: the struggle to live up to expectations as they mature. The natural human inclination is to expect a superior intellect to produce superior work, and we think these young men and women will push forward the human experience in some way. But this is not only an unreasonable expectation, it often includes an invasion of privacy and deprives them of living a “normal” life out of the public eye.

The book makes it quite clear that William suffered much of this in his all-too-brief life of 46 years. Indeed, he was so damaged by the tribulations of his youth that he shunned the public eye in adulthood and did his best to make people think he had no extraordinary mental gifts. It’s difficult to tell how unhappy or lonely he may have been. At times the book makes it seem like his brain was above that type of emotion, then brief passages make him seem very sad indeed.

We will likely never know the entire truth about what was in his head or if he really was the smartest American child prodigy who ever lived. It certainly doesn’t answer the big question looming over the proceedings: was he always destined to be a uniquely intelligent young man or (as his parents claimed) was their upbringing responsible? I recommend this book for the curious, just don’t expect it to bring the man fully into focus when there simply isn’t enough extant information to achieve that aim.

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