Ah, the Buzzfeed listicle. Gawker’s Tom Scocca recently described the dreaded online publishing phenom as “aggressively designed to ‘go viral’ within a specific microtargeted population and to be worthless to every other reader on the planet.” Maybe something of an exaggeration. Then again, it seems that “17 Things Bears Are Better at Than You” may reach a minor contingent of readers, and “7 Fantastic Needlepoint Fashion Magazine Covers” may indeed have limited appeal. Of course, the listicle precedes the internet, and drives content beyond Buzzfeed. A staple of Cosmo, it’s always been a narrow form, except when it comes to such irresistible clickbait as “before they were famous” lists, such as this selection of awkward photos of TV personalities.
But sometimes even Buzzfeed takes the high road. A recent spread, for instance, showcased 24 photos of famous authors as young, anonymous men and women. Take, for example, the pic at the top of a teenage Toni Morrison (then Chloe Wofford) from 1949. Taken at Ohio’s Lorraine High School, we see senior class treasurer Morrison posed with serious intent, gazing at some sort of magazine with three of her classmates. Buzzfeed pilfered this photo from another literary listicle, Flavorwire’s “20 Famous Authors’ Adorable School Photos.” Not a Morrison fan? No worries. You may be enlightened or amused by the photo above, of a young Haruki Murakami, working in his Tokyo jazz bar, the Peter Cat, before writing his first novel, Hear the Wind Sing, in 1979.
Then we have the famous recluse J.D. Salinger above, from his 1936 yearbook photo from Valley Forge Military Academy. We learn that the future Franny and Zooey author was a corporal who put in time in the glee club, the aviation and French clubs, and served as the literary editor for the yearbook (called Crossed Sabres.) A copy of the yearbook, signed by Salinger, went up for auction last year for $2,400. Also from the Buzzfeed list, below, (and also lifted from Flavorwire), we have the tender portrait of a 14-year-old Virginia Woolf (nee Stephen—on the right), circa 1896, posed with her sisters Stella and Vanessa (left and center).
There are several more photos floating around out there of famous authors as awkward or very intense young men and women. They may not give us the same thrill as seeing the latest hot young thing as an acne-plagued goofball with braces, but they provide us with visual windows on the stages of our favorite writers’ development as real people in real life.
Author Flannery O’Connor Captured on Film at Age 5, with Her Chickens
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness
Amazing how much they already look like themselves, in all their depth and glory.
Just a spelling note: Ms. Morrison’s high school is Lorain High School in Lorain, Ohio, which is just a dozen miles north of Oberlin College, home of the Toni Morrison Society.