A Streetcar Transfer Named Desire

by Fred Schwarz

Christian Schneider’s item about library mission creep quotes William James Sidis on Boston’s libraries. Sidis was an interesting man. Here’s my old friend and boss Richard Snow describing his first public appearance:

Early in 1910 the solemn boy . . . stood at a podium in his velvet knickers and, with halting eleven-year-old gravity, addressed a hundred Harvard professors and advanced mathematics students on “Four-Dimensional Bodies.” Though his speculations were too abstruse for some in the audience, Professor Daniel Comstock of MIT followed them all and, at the end of the talk, assured baffled reporters that the boy, William James Sidis, was destined to become one of the great mathematicians of the age. Papers across the country picked up the story, and for a while Sidis was the most famous child in America.

Sidis’s father Boris, a psychologist, and mother Sarah, a physician, were the Tiger Dad and Mom of their day — relentlessly pushing the boy to greater and greater academic achievement, teaching and quizzing and drilling him constantly on mathematics, science, and languages, beginning in the cradle. The year before this lecture, William had become the youngest student ever to enroll at Harvard, breaking Cotton Mather’s record. From then on, he played out the usual story of a child prodigy, a life of vast intellectual brilliance and almost equally vast social awkwardness.

Some tales of Sidis’s anguished, reclusive adult life are a bit overdrawn, and while it’s true that a treatise on streetcar transfers was his magnum opus, he did publish other books (under pseudonyms, which is why some histories have overlooked them). Wikipedia has a pretty good account of his life and work, which mixed super-genius triumphs and tragedies with the same sort of vicissitudes that the rest of us experience (“The paper reported Sidis’s vows to remain celibate and never to marry, as he said women did not appeal to him. Later he developed a strong affection for a young woman named Martha Foley.”), along with his political views (he was arrested for sedition as a socialist during World War I and later called himself a libertarian) and employment history (like many modern-day math whizzes, he took a job on Wall Street — though not as a “quant” but as an adding-machine clerk).

It would be hard to show that Sidis’s parents made him into the eccentric he became; even with a more conventional upbringing, he would have had trouble fitting into the America of a century ago.  But you do have to wonder whether he might have turned out a little less weird if they had let him play baseball with the neighborhood kids once in a while.

The Corner

The one and only.