13 Authors Who Hit the Big Time (After They Died)

by Brendan Brown | March 4, 2021, 5:54 am

If you’re a writer, it’s likely you’ve spent at least a few minutes fantasising about what it would be like to see your work skyrocket to the top of the bestseller lists around the world.

In reality, though, many (if not most) of the world’s most talented writers never find conventional success or even get their work published during their lifetimes.

Underappreciated literary geniuses can take comfort in one very special fantasy though—the glory of posthumous fame. Some of the world’s most beloved and widely read authors didn’t hit it big until years, or even decades, after their deaths.

Most of them had a pretty good sense of irony, so they probably would have appreciated the twist.

In this infographic, The Expert Editor presents 13 authors who made it big after they died.

Writers love seeing their work in print. Although some writers prefer to publish their works anonymously, many writers hope to achieve fame and glory in their lifetime. They keep putting in the intense work, anticipating that they will garner recognition in their lifetime.  Imagine this: a writer does wonderful work, but their work goes unnoticed until after their death. Then they become household names, literary heroes, with books flying off the shelves of bookstores. Sounds like a tragedy, doesn’t it?

Posthumous fame has occurred not only to some writers, but to those in other professions, such as painter Vincent Van Gogh, the founder of modern genetics Gregor Johann Mendel, the physicist Ludwig Boltzmann, and many others who remained in obscurity until they passed away. We will always be grateful for their contribution nonetheless. Here are 13 authors who became recognized for their achievements posthumously.

John Kennedy Toole

His book, “A Confederacy of Dunces”, is about a large, obese, irritable “hero” who lives with his mother. He has interesting adventures with various French Quarter characters along the way as he looks for a job. Toole’s book was repeatedly rejected by publishers. He committed suicide at 31. When the book was published 11 years later with the help of his mother, it won the Pulitzer Prize. It is now considered an American classic.

Franz Kafka

Kafka led a double life as he pursued his love of writing. By day he worked tirelessly in the field of insurance, and by night, he was writing up a storm. This hectic schedule was very difficult for him. He was frequently sick with tuberculosis, and spent a lot of time in sanatoriums. He died of tuberculosis in a clinic in Vienna.

Kafka published few works during his lifetime. His lack of confidence in his own works caused Kafka to order all his unpublished manuscripts be destroyed, and to not republish the works already published. His friend and literary executor Max Brod went ahead and published a lot of the works anyway.

When Kafka died, he only had a small circle of literary fans. We would not know Kafka today had it not been for his friend, Max Brod.

Sylvia Plath

A writer with a history of severe depression and suicide attempts, Plath managed to be a successful student at Smith College and at Newnham College in Cambridge, England. The Bell Jar was published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. Plath killed herself in 1963. The Collected Poems was published in 1981, and contained many previously unpublished poems. It won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1982. In 2017, a volume of Plath’s letters that she had written in 1940-56 were published.

Stieg Larsson

He was the co-founder of “Expo” magazine, an anti-racist publication. His trilogy of crime novels, which he called the Millenium series, combined sexual fantasy with polical-crime thriller. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one of the novels in this series. He had sold these to a publisher in 2004, and were in talks with a producer regarding a possible film deal. Larrson was a heavy smoker who could smoke as much as 60 cigarettes in a day. On the day of his fatal heart attack, the elevator to Expo’s office was not working properly, so he opted for the stairs instead. Larsson never saw the success of his books that followed. The Millenium series have become best selling books worldwide: more than 48 million copies have sold internationally, in 46 countries. 13 million copies sold in the United States in 2011.

Henry David Thoreau

He was born during a time when the anti-slavery movement was becoming strong. His mentor was Ralph Waldo Emerson. Thoreau was a philospher who was inspired by nature. He was also an abolitionist and social reformer. During his lifetime, Walden took five years just to sell 2000 copies, after which the book was never reprinted until after his death. Now a beloved American classic, Walden

continues to inspire many others to leave society behind to find oneself in the peace of nature.

Emily Dickinson

Though she never received public recognition for her writind during her lifetime, she would often enclose poems with her letters to friends. Dickinson stayed at home during most of her life, and did not entertain many visitors. After she died, her family found 40 handbound volumes of almost 1800 handwritten poems. Her last words before she died were “I must go in; the fog is rising.”

Edgar Allan Poe

“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” written in 1841 inspired the modern detective story. His death was a mystery. He was found half-conscious in a gutter before he died. Poe is known to be an alcoholic, but he likely had a hereditary condition which caused him to not handle liquor very well, so even relatively small amounts of alcohol could have an impact on him.

H.P. Lovecraft

Now considered one of the most important authors in the horror genre, Lovecraft died unknown and in poverty. And yes, he was known to have racist inclinations.

John Keats

He asked his friends to inscribe on his gravestone: “Here Lies One Whose Name was write in Water”. Keats sought fame and fortune through his writing during his life. He feared dying young before he had time to establish himself as a poet. Yet he seemed to predict his posthumous fame. He wrote to his brother George in 1818, before Keats became ill with tuberculosis, and after bad reviews of his first epic poem, “I think I shall be among the English poets after my death.”

Marina Keegan

Keegan, an aspiring writer, had just graduated from Yale, and accepted a job as editorial assistant at the New Yorker. Her boyfriend who drove the car they crashed in was charged with motor vehicle homicide by reckless operation.

Herman Melville

As an adventurous seafarer, Melville was captured by the Typees, a tribe thought to be cannabalistic, for several months. When he returned home alive and well, he wrote Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, which was his first literary success. The second was the comedy, The Redburn. However, Moby-Dick was not appreciated and did not earn much during his lifetime. Pierre; or the Ambiguities and The Confidence Man were also met with indifference at the time. In 1857, Melville ceased writing fiction. He became a customs inspector for the next 20 years. He died of a heart attack in 1891 at the age of 72. In the 1920’s, appreciation for Melville’s works flourished, and he is now a famous writer.

Irene Nemirovsky

She was arrested as a Jew, and died of typhus at Auschwitz. A successful writer during her lifetime, she is now best known for her unfinished, posthumous work, Suite francaise. Notably, these two novellas described life during the Nazi occupation of Paris, which she experienced firsthand.

Zora Neale Hurston

A writer who was proud of the African American culture of the rural South, she published her first novel in 1934, Jonah’s Gourd Vine. Although she continued to publish many books and even an autobiography, by the time she died, Hurston was not well known. Her works have since received wider recognition in the late 20th century.

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