Literature’s College Dropouts

Whenever a conversation shifts to famous college dropouts, the first names mentioned always seem to be Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg. We never seem to think of writers in the same light, but literature is full of stories of successful authors who elected to leave school early. “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education” Mark Twain once stated. He isn’t the only one. I am, by no means, suggesting that anyone drop out of school, but the stories of these famous authors are worth examining.

Jack Kerouac

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If you’ve read the work of Jack Kerouac, it’s hard to image the face of the beat generation was once a football star. Kerouac’s skills on the field caught the attention of Columbia University, who offered him a scholarship. The not-yet-author and his coach didn’t see eye to eye, though, and he rarely played. During his sophomore year, an injury sidelined him for good and Kerouac left the university. He was on the road and he wouldn’t return.

Harper Lee

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Harper Lee started out interested in writing and literature, but during her time at the University of Alabama, she opted to pursue a career in the legal industry. A strong student, she was accepted into a program that allowed her to begin her graduate studies while still an undergraduate student, but she dropped out of the program after only one semester. It was then that she moved to New York to become a writer. A few years later, To Kill a Mockingbird was published. 


F. Scott Fitzgerald

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F. Scott Fitzgerald was a student at Princeton University when he found himself on academic probation. He had failed to make the school’s football team and hadn’t done well as a student. Realizing that he had very little chance of graduating, in an attempt to save what little face could, in 1917 he enlisted in the military and was eventually made a lieutenant. He completed his first novel while still a soldier, but was not able to get it published until a few years later. It was during this time in the army that he met a young woman named Zelda, who would serve as the muse for much of his writing, including his masterpiece The Great Gatsby. 

Alex Haley 

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Another author whose work was influenced by time in the military was Alex Haley. Haley entered Alcorn State University at the early age of 15 and later transferred to Elizabeth City State College. After two years, though, he dedicated to withdrawn himself from school. Upon hearing this, his father forced him into the military. Haley ultimately spent 20 years in the Coast Guard and earned multiple service medals. It was there that he because interested in journalism, which would lead to the publication of his work The Autobiography of Malcolm X


Jonathan Lethem

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Sometimes dropouts return to the college they left as honored guests. Such was the case for Jonathan Lethem, who left Bennington College as a sophomore. Claiming to be going on leave, he left Vermont for the West coast. Many years later, after he had found success as a writer, Lethem was invited back to Bennington to give a commencement speech, where he joked that he was still on leave. 

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