People often tease that an artist’s work doubles in value once the artist has died. The same can be said for many now-famous writers whose celebrity and wealth only came about after they were cold in the ground. You may know these names from your freshman year literature course, but when these wordsmiths were living, their works were rejected, ridiculed, and blatantly ignored. Worse, some of these authors experienced success early on, but later died in obscurity, with little money and even littler praise. Here are nine writers who only knew fame after death.
This may be a bit of a cop-out, but Herman Melville peaked early on in his career, and his most famous works today were the most disappointing during his lifetime. Nowadays, everyone knows that “Call me Ishmael” is the opening line of the seafaring tale Moby-Dick, but when Melville first wrote and published the now iconic American romantic novel, it was a failure that was unable to garner the success of his previous works. The famous story of the white whale was the beginning of Melville's decline.
A famously ignored writer, Kafka was a Jewish Czech intellectual and lawyer who wrote in German and had a seriously strained relationship with his overbearing father. Nowadays, he’s hailed as an existentialist, a literary genius, and a master of the short story. There’s an entire museum in the heart of Prague's Old Town that's devoted to his life and work. But before people were shelling out to look at Kafka's letters and manuscripts, the author languished, passing his days in obscurity.
There are numerous theories and rumors regarding the life of the recluse and possible-lesbian Emily Dickinson. She spent her adult years floating around her family’s Massachusetts home dressed all in white like a specter, writing what would later become hallmarks of American poetry. However, before Dickinson was on every high school reading list, she was struggling to find publishers that were willing to print and distribute her work. One publisher famously told Dickinson that her poems were, “quite as remarkable for defects as for beauties," and, "generally devoid of true poetical qualities.”
Another American literary heavyweight, Edgar Allan Poe wrote some of the most recognizable and quotable pieces of modern literature, including "The Raven," "The Masque of the Red Death," "The Black Cat," and “Anna Belle Lee.” Nowadays, even children are familiar with the taunting, terrifying raven that sat above a door frame crowing “nevermore,” but Poe struggled to obtain any real success or recognition during his lifetime.
While Kate Chopin did experience some success in the late 19th century as a local color writer, her most famous work, The Awakening¸was panned by critics and eventually went out of print. Her works were appreciated for their literary merit after Chopin passed away.
The author of the American classic Their Eyes Were Watching God fell into obscurity late in life, after she was criticized for her use of Southern black vernacular in her books. While Hurston’s representation of black American life has since been hailed, at the time of the book's printing, it was considered to be a caricature. Zora Neale Hurston was so much in the shadows when she died of a stroke that she was buried in an unmarked grave.
While John Keats may be considered one of the masters of English romantic poetry, during his lifetime, his poems received little critical acclaim. It was only after Keats' death at the age of 25 that his work began to be appreciated for its style and sensuality. We can all thank Percy Bysshe Shelley for memorializing Keats, as Shelley recognized the young poet’s talents and became one of his biggest supporters.
While he's now considered one of the greats of fantasy and science fiction writing, Howard Phillips Lovecraft experienced little success during his lifetime, and had only a limited readership. Like his biggest influence, Edgar Allen Poe, his works became well-known only after he passed away.
John Kennedy Toole, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Confederacy of Dunces, suffered from depression as a result of his continued rejection. Publishers continually turned away what would become his masterpiece, only to acknowledge his skills as a satirical writer after he committed suicide.