In August of 1815, Napoleon set sail for Elba, where the overthrown leader was allowed to keep his title of emperor, reigning over the island's 12,000 inhabitants. Not every exiled person got to possess political clout, but for a collection of creative thinkers, getting banished from their homelands (or banishing themselves, for that matter) helped some of their most famous compositions see the light of day.
1. Ernest Hemingway—The Sun Also Rises
Sent to France as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star, Hemingway loved the expatriate culture he found there so much that he became one himself. He stayed in Paris on self-imposed exile, writing his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises there. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to think some of the book’s passages had some autobiographical influence, too, with dialogue exchanges like:
Listen, Robert, going to another country doesn’t make any difference. I’ve tried all that. You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another. There’s nothing to that.
2. Albert Einstein—Manhattan Project letter
A noted pacifist—he once said “I loathe all armies and any kind of violence”—Einstein escaped the growing control of Nazis in Germany by fleeing to the United States in 1933. Six years later, Einstein and Hungarian emigrant Leo Szilard wrote Franklin Delano Roosevelt a letter about the very real threat of German scientists building an atomic bomb, and urging the government to jump into uranium research.
That letter, along with meetings between Einstein and Roosevelt, ignited the chain of events that led to the Manhattan Project in 1942, leading the United States to be the only country in World War II to successfully create an atomic bomb. Five months before the scientist died in 1954, he reconsidered his actions, saying, “I made one great mistake in my life... when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made; but there was some justification—the danger that the Germans would make them.”
3. Oscar Wilde—The Importance of Being Earnest
The Irish playwright was imprisoned in England on charges of sodomy and gross indecency as Oscar Wilde, but left Britain in 1897 as an exile named Sebastian Melmoth. Sick and completely broke, Wilde stole the surname from a character in his great-uncle Charles Maturin’s gothic novel Melmoth the Wanderer.
In Paris, Wilde published The Importance of Being Earnest, though he refused to give himself credit on the playbill—the first edition's cover touted that the play was “by the author of Lady Windermere’s Fan." After writing the play, Wilde confessed that he had lost his joie de writing, despite loving the play: “The first act is ingenious; the second, beautiful; the third, abominably clever,” Wilde said.
4. The Rolling Stones—Exile on Main Street
The Stones may have been exiled on Main Street, but they fled England in 1971 as tax exiles. “After working for eight years I discovered at the end that nobody had ever paid my taxes and I owed a fortune. So then you have to leave the country,” confessed snarling frontman Mick Jagger. “So I said f*** it, and left the country.”
Before the British government could seize the band’s assets, the band settled in France. When it came time to record Exile on Main Street, Keith Richards transformed his basement in Villefranche-sur-Mer into a makeshift studio using the band’s mobile recording truck. In 1972, the same year their ode to exile came out, the Rolling Stones started using banks in Holland, since there was no tax on royalties under Dutch law.
5. Victor Hugo—Les Miserables
First kicked out of France for his vehement opposition to Napoleon III’s empire, Hugo was then banished in succession from both Belgium and the island of Jersey. In a letter written 26 miles from his native country, Hugo wrote, “Exile has not only detached me from France, it has almost detached me from the Earth.” But in October of 1855, Hugo found his “rock of hospitality and freedom” in Guernsey, a neighbor of Jersey in the English Channel.
It was there Hugo picked back up his earlier abandoned novel, Les Miserables, along with novels like Toilers of the Sea and volumes of poetry including Les Contemplations. Hugo wrote at a torrid clip with mortality-fueled motivations: Since the writer was in his 50s when he reached Guernsey, he feared his “present refuge” would turn into his “probable tomb.”
6. Dante—The Divine Comedy
As one of six politicians governing Florence, the poet exiled several of his own rivals before getting banished himself in January of 1302 for supporting the Holy Roman Emperor instead of the papacy. If the poet-politician returned to Florence without coughing up a hefty fine, his punishment would be getting burned at the stake.
During his 20 years of wandering through Italy, Dante composed his three-part epic poem The Divine Comedy, even dedicating the last canto of the poem ("Paradiso”) to the troubles suffered by exiles. He never returned to Florence, even when the punishment was dropped to house arrest, but the city eventually scrubbed the poet’s criminal record in 2008—about 700 years too late.
7. Pablo Neruda—Canto General
Referred to as “one of the great ones…A Whitman of the South” by the New York Times, Neruda left Chile for Mexico in self-imposed exile since his pro-Marxist stances weren't making him many allies. Spending three years in Mexico, Neruda wrote Canto General, a behemoth of a poetry collection that tried to chronicle the history of Hispanic America in 15,000 lines.
Neruda returned to Chile and, in 1971, became a Nobel laureate. Two years later, Neruda almost became a second-time exile—during the Chilean coup d’état of 1973, when a dictatorship took command of the nation, ambassadors from Mexico and Sweden offered to take Neruda and his wife in. When armed forces searched the political poet’s Chile residence, he quipped, “Look around—there's only one thing of danger for you here—poetry.”
8. Frédéric Chopin—Funeral March
The third movement of Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 in B-Flat Major is modeled after the often-parodied Rossini opera La Gazza Ladra—a bold move, considering the movement is a weepy funeral march. The Polish composer penned the composition in the 1830s, when he was an expatriate in Paris and part of Poland's Great Emigration. Chopin didn’t often perform publicly in France, but according to NPR, "His colleagues said that he often played in salons, and the only way to get him to stop playing was to get him to play the March.”
The haunting melody might be familiar to astute sci-fi fans too. “The Imperial March,” the John Williams composition that accompanies Darth Vader every time he first shows up on-screen in Star Wars, based its theme on Chopin’s iconic tune.
9. Sigmund Freud—An Outline of Psycho-Analysis
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Never mind that Freud was 82 when he arrived in London in 1938, fleeing from the Nazis in Germany. In his London home at 20 Maresfield Gardens, the aging doctor compiled a final summary of his life's work that he titled An Outline of Psycho-Analysis, which he had started writing in Vienna before leaving for London.
By September of 1938 (he got to London in June), he had polished off three-fourths of the book, but due to his battle with cancer and one last surgery in 1938, the book went unfinished. A year after Freud's death in 1939, the incomplete three-section book was published posthumously.