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.

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (1980)

John Kennedy Toole spent ten years writing A Confederacy of Dunces – about a fat, flatulent history scholar who bumbles, blunders and insults his way through a New Orleans that keeps slapping him back down. He believed it to be a masterpiece of modern satire. Trouble was, no publisher would agree.

The rejection hit him so hard that, starved of the writerly recognition he craved, he tumbled down the whiskey bottle into a pit of paranoia and depression, ending with his suicide aged just 31.

It was only thanks to the tenacity of his mother, who tirelessly hawked the manuscript about for a decade until, finally, one took it on in 1980. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981, has since been translated into more than 30 languages and is today considered one of the great cult classics of modern American literature.

1984 by George Orwell (1949)

George Orwell was already dying when he squirrelled himself away in a remote Scottish cottage to write 1984. Near bed-ridden by terminal tuberculosis, it became a race against time to finish the dystopian classic that would become the definitive novel of the 20th century (he once said it, “wouldn’t have been so gloomy if I had not been so ill”).

He died six months after it was published, just in time to read the reviews. New York Herald Tribune, called it "timely as a label on a poison bottle," while others described it as an earthquake, a bundle of dynamite or, as E. M. Forster put it, “too terrible a novel to be read straight through”.

Orwell may have already been one of the most celebrated writers of his day when he died, but what he never knew was the monumental impact 1984 would have on modern culture. And, to this day, it remains impossible to talk about propaganda, surveillance and big state politics without dropping reference to 1984.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville (1851)

They called him Herman. But few people took Melville's magnus opus, Moby Dick, seriously during his lifetime. He had enjoyed critical success as a travel writer after recounting his hair-raising high-seas adventures as a whaler in Typee and Omoo – tales of giant whales, violent mutinies and time spent living among Polynesian island natives.

Then, in 1851, he wrote Moby Dick, the epic tale of a sea captain's hunt for a monstrous white whale that had bitten off his leg. It failed miserably and had long fallen out of print by the time he died, impoverished and forgotten, in 1891.

It would take 40 years for the world to wake up to his genius, when a new edition came out, sparking the “Melville Revival”. D. H. Lawrence called it "one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world", and soon a carnival of literary greats leapt to its defence, from W. H. Auden and E. M. Forster to William Faulkner to Virginia Woolf, propelling "the greatest book of the sea ever written" into the defining American novel.

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.

The Trial by Franz Kafka (1925)

Franz Kafka was at the centre of probably the most famous betrayals in literary history. On his deathbed, as he took his dying breaths, unable to speak or swallow, he made best-friend Max Brod promise to burn all his unpublished writing, which included The Trial, Amerika and The Castle.

Despite having already published a handful of works – including his most famous, The Metamorphosis – Kafka never escaped the demons of self-doubt that chased him his whole life. His writing had brought him no fame, no prizes, and no public recognition. So when he died in 1924, he begrudged to take it all to the grave. Brod refused, and published The Trial in 1925 a dark, paranoid tale that proved to be the author's most successful novel.

Others followed, enshrining a legacy that would propel Kafka into literary legend as the greatest gloom-monger of modern literature. Or, as W. H. Auden put it, "the Dante of the twentieth century". How Kafka would have coped with his fame, however, we will never know.

Poems of John Keats by John Keats (1795-1821)

Despite his reputation as one of the most dazzling poets, not just of the Romantic movement, but of all time, John Keats died younger than Kurt Cobain – a miserable death (tuberculosis), penniless and painful, aged just 25. 

He'd always struggled to compete with contemporaries like Percy Shelley and Byron, who once likened Keats' “p*ss a bed poetry” to intellectual “onanism … something like the pleasure an Italian fiddler extracted out of being suspended daily by a Street Walker in Drury Lane.” The critics were not much kinder, sinking Keats into a bog of misery and unfulfilled dreams. “I have left no immortal work behind me—nothing to make my friends proud of my memory", he wrote to friend before he died.

In a final two-fingers to a world that never loved him, he asked friends to ensure his gravestone bore no name, just the words: “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.” They duly obliged, adding: “[he died] in the Bitterness of his Heart at the Malicious Power of his Enemies.” Still, Keats had the last laugh, even if it was from his own “quiet grave”.

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.

The Poems of Emily Dickinson by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Emily Dickinson is considered one of the most emotionally articulate poets in American history. And yet, her life remains cloaked in mystery. She was said to have lived a nun's existence, a sort of 19th century cat-lady who only wore white, loved flowers more than people and had few friends beyond her sister and ailing mother, for whom the pair cared until her death in 1882. She once declined a friend's invitation, writing, “I'm so old-fashioned, Darling, that all your friends would stare." Villagers where she lived in New England called her “the Myth”.

What is known is that, when she was alone, she wrote feverishly – poems about passion, nature, loneliness, adventure and death. And it wasn't until her own death in 1886 that her sister, Lavinia, discovered a lifetime of poems (almost 1,800 of them) in her chest of drawers and had them published. Since 1890, her work has never been out of print.

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