Ten writers who only achieved fame and success posthumously
Heartbreaking: 10 writers who only achieved success posthumously.
There’s an infamous trope about artists (Van Gogh, for instance, is the most famous example) achieving fame and success only after their deaths. The same trope may also be applied to some writers whose works may be familiar to students and readers the world over now, but who, whilst they were living, had to endure the ignominy of being rejected over and over again by publishers and readers of the written word alike. As a writer myself, I feel nothing but pain when I think about what these (and other) writers must have endured; I know what the sting of rejection feels like – we are supposed to render ourselves immune to it, but there is nothing to protect oneself from the ache that springs from being told that not only are we not enough, our work – our words, our babies – are not enough either.
John Kennedy Toole
It is fifty years since the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 'A Confederacy of Dunces’ committed suicide. Toole tried – unsuccessfully – to have his book published and was faced with rejection upon rejection. As a result, he suffered from deep depression and committed suicide in 1959. His satirical novel was published after his death to critical acclaim and went on to bag the Pulitzer.
H. P. Lovecraft
Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s name is synonymous with science fiction and fantasy today, but he didn’t enjoy a wide readership during his lifetime. His work had a limited readership, and he wasn’t remotely successful as a writer. He was unable to support himself financially as a writer, and he lived in financially strained circumstances until he succumbed to cancer at age 46. Now he is considered to be one of the most significant 20th-century authors of weird and horror fiction.
Lucia Berlin was an American short story writer. Although she had a small devoted following of readers during her lifetime she only rose to sudden literary fame eleven years after her death with the publication of one of her books in 2015, which then hit the New York Times bestseller list in its second week. During her lifetime she was plagued by health problems, including double scoliosis and lung cancer. She died on her 68th birthday.
Miniature portrait of English Romantic poet John Keats (1795-1821) painted by Joseph Severn. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)
John Keats is considered one of the masters of English romantic poetry now, but during his lifetime he achieved very little success, with his poetry inviting scathing commentary from critics such as John Wilson Croker and John Gibson Lockhart. Lockhart, in fact, coined the defamatory term ‘the Cockney school’ to refer to poets in Keats’ circle, such as Hunt and Hazlitt, and Keats himself, an insult that was aimed at upstart young writers who were deemed uncouth for their lack of education, non-formal rhyming, and "low diction"; they were writers and poets who had not attended Eton, Harrow, or Oxbridge, and they were not from the upper classes. When Keats died at the age of 25 of tuberculosis, he had only been writing poetry seriously for about six years and was published for only four of those. Despite this, he left behind a large body of work, and he has come to be regarded as one of the greatest poets of the 19th century.
Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe was an American writer who specialised in writing mystery and the macabre. He wrote some of the most recognizable pieces of modern literature, including ‘The Raven’, and ‘The Masque of the Red Death’. Although most people are familiar with the raven who crowed ‘nevermore’ Poe’s poetry and short stories failed to gain any recognition or success during his lifetime.
circa 1850: American poet Emily Dickinson (1830 - 1886). (Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images)
Considered an eccentric by her neighbours, Emily Dickinson was a recluse with a penchant for white clothing who refused to receive visitors, and, in her later life, spent her time confined to her bedroom. She had some of her poetry published and those were heavily altered to suit the poetic style at the time. It was only upon her death in 1886 that her younger sister Lavinia found the rest of her poetry – around 1800 poems that went on to become hallmarks of American poetry.
Franz Kafka was a Jewish Czech intellectual and lawyer who wrote in German in his spare time. He was a novelist and a short story writer who had a strained and formal relationship with his overbearing father. Although he was published in his lifetime, it was the work that was published after his death that catapulted him to literary stardom. This was a direct result of his friend Max Brod ignoring Kafka’s instructions that his work was to be destroyed upon his death. He died of tuberculosis in 1924 but later came to be hailed as an existentialist and a literary genius. His work influenced the likes of Albert Camus, Gabriel García Márquez, and Jean-Paul Sartre.
Zora Neale Hurston
Portrait of author Zora Neale Hurston, circa 1940s. (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images)
Zora Neale Hurston wrote prolifically about racial struggles in the early twentieth-century American South, but she never found favour with either whites or blacks during her lifetime. She was derided for using Southern black vernacular in her books, and when she died she was suffering from financial and medical difficulties. She was buried in an unmarked grave, and the world would surely have been bereft of her genius were it not for Alice Walker, whose piece about Hurston in 1975 revived interest in her work and went on to establish her status as one of the pre-eminent writers of twentieth-century African American literature.
Sylvia Plath was plagued by clinical depression throughout her adult life. When she was thirty years old, with her children asleep in the next room, she committed suicide by sticking her head into a gas oven, finally succeeding after many failed suicide attempts. Although she was published before her death, poetry as well as the semi-autobiography The Bell Jar, it is on the posthumously published book called The Collected Poems, upon which her reputation hangs. She was awarded a Pulitzer Prize posthumously and is considered to be one of America’s finest writers.
Swedish writer and journalist Stig Larsson on visit in Paris. (Photo by Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)
Stig Larsson is wildly popular and well-known for his Millennium trilogy, but that wasn’t always the case. His books only achieved cult status two years after his unfortunate death; the lift was not working at his office building and he climbed up seven flights of stairs. He was fifty years old. The third novel in his Millennium trilogy became the most sold book in the United States in 2010; by 2013 the series had sold 80 million copies worldwide.