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3QD is a one-stop intellectual internet surfing experience that culls interesting articles from all over the web. Here, 3QD Editor Zujaja Tauqeer provides insights into some of 3QD’s top hits.

What do a physicist, a Victorian, and a civil rights activist have in common? Before they were heroes, saints, and cultural icons, they were deeply flawed human beings. In this post, we explore the lives of authors—who they were before they became what they are now. All are remembered with admiration and devotion. But for a significant part of their lives, they faced and lived with spectacular failures of personal judgment and circumstance. Unsurprisingly, the pasts of these three varied personalities brought them face to face with tragedy, abuse, and failure. But perhaps we should not be so surprised that they did not fail, even in the darkest moments, to exhibit their characteristic resilience, wit, and boundless curiosity.

1. Maya Angelou’s Caged Bird Sings

Before this caged bird sang her way into the history books, as highlighted in this 3QD pick, she worked as a prostitute and a pimp. American Poet Laureate Dr. Maya Angelou’s death earlier this year at the age of 86 prompted a worldwide outpouring of grief that demonstrated in no uncertain terms her assured immortality in the cultural and literary canon of America. But is it a fitting ode to the woman who literally made an art of baring the darkest moments of her soul to shy away from her past as a sex worker? On her blog which features writings by sex workers, Peechington Marie asks, “Why was this secret kept by seemingly everyone except Dr. Angelou herself?” Indeed, Angelou deliberately sought to use her past as a comforting lesson for others, as quoted here:

If you’re in the very gutter, see where you are and admit it…I wrote about my experiences because I thought too many people tell young folks, ‘I never did anything wrong. Who, Moi? – never I. I have no skeletons in my closet. In fact, I have no closet.’ They lie like that and then young people find themselves in situations and they think, ‘Damn I must be a pretty bad guy. My mom or dad never did anything wrong.’ They can’t forgive themselves and go on with their lives.

Angelou spoke candidly about her work as a prostitute, indeed she refused to be intimidated by questions about it, even on national TV. Marie argues that it is our stifling narrow-mindedness and respectability politics that won’t allow us to imagine that someone of Angelou’s caliber could ever have been a sex worker. While Maya Angelou maintained that “There are many ways to prostitute one’s self,” Marie demands that we not trivialize Maya Angelou’s truth with our shame and recognize her for all that she was: Poet Laureate. National Medal of Arts Winner. Presidential Medal of Freedom winner. Woman. Mother. Sister. Artist. Mentor. Former sex worker.

2. Oscar Wilde’s Redemption

It is hard to believe now that the inimitable Oscar Wilde had been made a literary failure and judged a social outcast towards the end of his life in the aftermath of scandalous revelations about his homosexuality in 1895. As Stefano Evangelista writes in the Times Literary Supplement (and as highlighted in this 3QD pick), after Wilde’s death, his literary executor attempted to rehabilitate his estate, including his vast corpus of journalistic writings, in the vague hope it would be preserved as a heritage of great literature. Though the frenetic pace of the journalistic life tired Wilde out soon enough (thankfully for us), even as a journalist—ever on a deadline—he was still consummately Wilde: cosmopolitan, and experienced in his observations, by turns amusing, dismissive, and polemical in his responses. His essays and reviews reveal that he was especially absorbed in art and fashion, which he attempted to translate for a large audience that consisted mainly of learned, middle-class women, who were as likely to be interested in fabrics and cookery as Renaissance painting and Greek drama. Adept in the latest developments in women’s biography and culture and newly-minted as the editor of Woman’s World, Oscar Wilde recruited a new cadre of women graduates of Cambridge and Oxford colleges to help him produce high-quality journalism.

Wilde’s journalism is now in the limelight as the culmination of a process that is more than one hundred years old and has succeeded in rehabilitating and firmly establishing his reputation as a literary genius. Along with the compilation of the Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, an endeavor of Oxford University Press commandeered by an international team of scholars, the man who languished in prison towards the end of his life has finally been judged worthy of canonization as a literary saint.

3. Feynman’s Foibles

Theoretical physicist Richard Feynman had a famously unstable relationship with authority and social convention; yes, he refused to wear neckties, constantly pulled pranks, was oddly into safe-cracking. But as this 3QD pick from science blog Galileo’s Pendulum asks, how do we account for this tremendously successful Nobel Prize-winning physicist’s sexual predations of women—the wives of his graduate students and young women he tried to get to sleep with him by pretending to be an undergraduate? Widowed young, Feynman is remembered well in the public imagination as a publicly accessible genius. But in his own semi-autobiographical works, including Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman!, he glibly admitted to his less-than-stellar attitude towards women. Matthew Francis of Galileo’s Pendulum writes that the inability of many to process this uncomfortable fact about a veritable hero of science usually prompts a fairly predictable range of responses, from some people excusing his behavior as typical of the time to others chalking it up to his ‘quirky’ personality. But efforts to purify the reputations of Feynman and cultural and intellectual giants like him is manifestly unfair to the vulnerable people they hurt, as Francis writes:

Their legacies in science are secure, so it doesn’t behoove us to defend their often less-than-stellar personal lives, especially when they did damage to people less powerful than themselves.

Indeed, for someone as devoted to the principles of scientific truth and progress as Feynman was, it would be thoroughly immoral to brush away the awkward truth as if it might call into question the objectivity of his scientific claims. The pull of legend should not allow us to forget the awkward and deplorable aspects of the lives of great men and women of science, nor should the whole truth be sacrificed at the altar of scientific progress.

Further Reading:

Image credit:  Derek Bridges via flickr