Reading lists

Books that changed the world after their author’s death

From Emily Dickinson to George Orwell, Zora Neale Hurston to Franz Kafka, here are eight wordsmiths who died before they got their dues. 

famous authors dead before their time
When authors find fame after their time. Image: Ryan McEachern / Penguin

What author doesn't dream of setting the world alight with their books, and enjoy the spoils of success while they're still alive?

Sadly, there are a handful of history's greatest writers who never got that option. Some of them wrote mastepieces that were rejected and were doomed to obscurity until their death, only for someone to realise, years down the line, they had something vital to say after all.

Then there are the unlucky ones who achieved the fame they deserved in life, only to die before their greatest book changed the world. Here we round up some of these unlucky souls, who nevertheless still burn bright today.

"We love Zora Neale Hurston for her work, first, and then again … we love her for herself" – Alice Walker

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)

This novel about the coming of age of a young mixed-heritage girl in her quest for love and selfhood has become an icon of early feminist literature and a celebrated portrayal of female sexuality. It did not, however, go down quite so well in 1937.

Hurston's book sold about 5,000 copies and then went out of print. As writing had stopped paying the bills, she worked as a substitute teacher and house cleaner in Florida. And when she died in 1960, aged 69, she was buried in an unmarked grave.

It was not until the 1970s that The Colour Purple author Alice Walker stepped in to reanimate the author's ghost in a now-famous essay entitled Looking for Zora: "We love Zora Neale Hurston for her work, first, and then again … we love her for herself. For the humor and courage with which she encountered a life she infrequently designed; for her absolute disinterest in becoming either white or bourgeois, and for her devoted appreciation of her own culture, which is an inspiration to us all." The book now sells hundreds of thousands of copies a year with such cheerleaders as Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith and the rapper Cardi B.

“I’m 50, for Christ’s sake!” – Stieg Larsson's final words

The Millenium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson (2005-2007)

In 2004, not long after submitting the first three instalments of the Millennium Trilogy to his publisher, Stieg Larsson was climbing the 197 stairs to his apartment block when he suffered a massive heart attack (his diet was said to have consisted of cigarettes, junk food and copious amounts of coffee). “I’m 50, for Christ’s sake!” he marvelled to his friend as he died.

Little did he know that the thriller franchise – about the gritty exploits of investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist and his heavily inked, tech-wizard sidekick Lisbeth Salander – would become one of the biggest-selling book series in history, and launch three movies that would gross £30 million and counting.

Nor could he have known that, as he didn't leave a will, his death would spark a bitter years-long legal battle over the rights to his legacy between his family and his partner of 32-years Eva Gabrielsson. Because Swedish law doesn't recognise common law marriages between cohabiting couples, his fortune fell controversially into the lap of his father and brother. Meanwhile, Gabrielsson fights on.

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