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Literary Life Cycles: The Careers of Modern American Poets


  • David W. Galenson


This paper examines the careers of eleven leading American poets of the past century. Using the frequency with which poems are reprinted in anthologies as a measure of their importance, quantitative analysis reveals that among these poets there were two distinctly different life cycles: one group produced their most important work early in their careers, in their 20s and 30s, while the other group produced their most important work considerably later, in their 40s, 50s, and even 60s. These different career patterns appear to reflect differences in the nature of their poetry. The conceptual poets, including E. E. Cummings, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound, arrived early and suddenly at a technically sophisticated poetry based on imagination and study of literary history, whereas Robert Frost, Robert Lowell, William Carlos Williams and the other experimental poets arrived later and more gradually at a poetry rooted in real speech and observation.

Suggested Citation

  • David W. Galenson, 2003. "Literary Life Cycles: The Careers of Modern American Poets," NBER Working Papers 9856, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:9856
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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. David W. Galenson, 1999. "Quantifying Artistic Success: Ranking French Painters - and Paintings - from Impressionism to Cubism," NBER Working Papers 7407, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    2. David W. Galenson, 2005. "The Methods and Careers of Leading American Painters in the late Nineteenth Century," NBER Working Papers 11545, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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    Cited by:

    1. David W. Galenson, 2004. "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young or Old Innovator: Measuring the Careers of Modern Novelists," NBER Working Papers 10213, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    2. David W. Galenson, 2004. "A Portrait of the Artist as a Very Young or Very Old Innovator: Creativity at the Extremes of the Life Cycle," NBER Working Papers 10515, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.

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    JEL classification:

    • J0 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - General
    • J4 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Particular Labor Markets

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