Rescued!
September 21, 2016 9:16 AM   Subscribe

Herman Melville was an obscurity when Carl Van Doren (with Raymond Weaver's help) started promoting his work in the 1920s. Domenico Scarlatti was a completely forgotten Baroque composer until Ralph Kirkpatrick wrote his biography and republished his sonatas, which are now part of the keyboard canon. Petrarch discovered Cicero's letters and supposedly kicked off the entire Renaissance. What are some other examples of famous artists, writers, historical figures, etc. whose reputations were revived by a single person?
posted by theodolite to Society & Culture (66 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
 
Not a single person, but Volkswagen using "Pink Moon" in a commercial revived Nick Drake's career....
posted by Lucinda at 9:18 AM on September 21, 2016 [12 favorites]


Quentin Tarantino and John Travolta springs to mind.
posted by Mchelly at 9:24 AM on September 21, 2016 [8 favorites]


Van Gogh's family worked very hard to promote him after his death - like many artists he wasn't recognized when alive or even immediately after his death.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:43 AM on September 21, 2016 [3 favorites]


Alexander Hamilton and Lin-Manuel Miranda?
posted by jillithd at 9:45 AM on September 21, 2016 [9 favorites]


Felix Mendelssohn was maybe not solely responsible for pulling Bach from obscurity, but he played a large part in the Bach Revival.
posted by golwengaud at 9:48 AM on September 21, 2016 [6 favorites]


John Maloof's 'discovery' of Vivian Maier
posted by Mchelly at 9:48 AM on September 21, 2016 [17 favorites]


George Armstrong Custer, for a while at least, by his wife, Libbie.
After her husband's column was wiped out at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in June 1876, many in the press, Army, and government criticized Custer for blundering into a massacre. President Ulysses S. Grant publicly blamed Custer for the disaster. Fearing that her husband was to be made a scapegoat by history, Libbie launched a one-woman campaign to rehabilitate her husband's image....

Her efforts were successful. The image of a steely Custer leading his men against overwhelming odds only to be wiped out while defending their position to the last man became as much a part of American lore as the Alamo.
Libbie was only 34 when George died. She overpowered and outlived all of his would-be detractors until her death at 91 in 1933. It was really only decades later that his reputation became controversial again.
posted by mochapickle at 9:51 AM on September 21, 2016 [3 favorites]




Pablo Casals and the Bach cello suites?

(My viola teacher also said the manuscripts were discovered as butter wrappers during a war but I can't get a source for this.)
posted by batter_my_heart at 10:01 AM on September 21, 2016 [6 favorites]


Vermeer was in obscurity for a couple of centuries until he was rediscovered by ... I want to say it was two Frenchmen in the 19th century.

The Bach cello suites were known before Casals, but were considered just minor practice pieces. No need for a dramatic rediscovery of manuscripts.
posted by praemunire at 10:41 AM on September 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


Walker Percy had a major role in getting O'Toole's Confederacy of Dunces published. Might have been lost to history otherwise.
posted by xenization at 11:03 AM on September 21, 2016 [12 favorites]


Robert Schumann with Schubert's symphonies.
posted by Namlit at 11:05 AM on September 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


Nick Drake's career

Drake was long dead at the time, so his career didn't get a bump, but his work certainly got renewed interest from a generation that otherwise hadn't been exposed to it (including me).

Morrissey and Stephin Merritt had big roles in getting folks to listen seriously to largely-forgotten Jobriath. Michael Stipe championed Vic Chesnutt. I think there are a lot of these stories in contemporary popular music.

RuPaul's drag race aims to perform this service for drag queens. I just saw Bianca Del Rio's movie premiere at the Castro Theater last night, so seems to be working.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 11:06 AM on September 21, 2016 [4 favorites]


Emily Dickinson's redisovery was due to Thomas H. Johnson Her sister Lavinia had collected some of her poetry into a book at one time, but she was largely unknown until Johnson collected and published her works in one book in 1955.
posted by zizzle at 11:38 AM on September 21, 2016 [3 favorites]


Kurt Cobain is pretty much singlehandedly responsible for a lot of late-80s/early-90s indie bands reaching semi-widespread audiences. E.g. the Vaselines, Flipper, a few others. As I recall, he would intentionally wear t-shirts of bands he liked when doing photo shoots so that the obscure band could get exposure.

Max Brod is pretty much singlehandedly responsible for awareness of Franz Kafka's literary output. He was the executor of Kafka's estate, and Kafka ordered him to destroy all his manuscripts after he died. Instead, Brod published them.

"Not a single person, but Volkswagen using 'Pink Moon' in a commercial revived Nick Drake's career...." This is the greatest commercial ever made. There is no debate.
posted by kevinbelt at 11:45 AM on September 21, 2016 [14 favorites]


I think there are a lot of these stories in contemporary popular music.

"Popular music" might not be the right word but Irwin Chusid has made a career out of this.
posted by theodolite at 12:01 PM on September 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


jillithd: "Alexander Hamilton and Lin-Manuel Miranda?"

Well, there was a best-selling, award winning biography of Hamilton that came out a few years earlier.
posted by Chrysostom at 12:04 PM on September 21, 2016 [5 favorites]


Two great literary rediscoveries:

1. The poems of Thomas Traherne (1637-74) were lost and forgotten for over 200 years after his death. In 1896 two of his manuscripts were discovered on a London bookstall. The bookseller Bertram Dobell identified them as Traherne's work and published the poems in 1903. Without Dobell's detective work it's quite possible that Traherne would still be unrecognised today; we certainly wouldn't have Gerald Finzi's beautiful setting of his poems, Dies Natalis (which you can listen to here).

2. The poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89) were mostly unpublished in his lifetime, and remained almost totally unknown until his friend Robert Bridges published an edition of them in 1918. The funny thing is that Bridges doesn't seem to have liked the poems all that much; in the preface to his edition, he criticised them for 'faults of taste, which repel my sympathy' and 'definite faults of style'. But without Bridges, Hopkins's poems might still be unknown today, or, at most, regarded as a minor curiosity on the fringes of Victorian literature.
posted by verstegan at 12:37 PM on September 21, 2016 [6 favorites]


David Bowie got Iggy Pop out of a mental institution and Lou Reed out of typist's job at his father's accounting office.
posted by layceepee at 12:38 PM on September 21, 2016 [10 favorites]


John Williams' Stoner was championed by a single bookseller to the point that it was picked up and reprinted by the New York Review of Books.
posted by Miss T.Horn at 12:40 PM on September 21, 2016 [6 favorites]


Not revived as he was unknown before, but the story of Stephen King is that Tabitha, a writer and his wife, rescued the CARRIE draft from the trash, launching his career.
posted by kapers at 1:03 PM on September 21, 2016 [3 favorites]


A friend once told me that J.S. Bach had dragged Vivaldi's music back from obscurity but what I find per Wikipedia was that, though Bach was heavily influenced by Vivaldi, it was Fritz Kreisler and Marc Pincherie who saved Vivaldi's music in the early 20th century.

The sea novels by Patrick O'Brian about Jack Aubrey et al were obscure until a) Starling Lawrence at W.W. Norton published them in the US and b) Richard Snow published a piece about them in the NY Times Book Review.
posted by SemiSalt at 1:05 PM on September 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


William Blake was an obscure figure until Alexander Gilchrist's biography (completed by his wife Anne, who assisted him throughout the research and writing process) was published in 1863. Even then, I believe Blake's prophetic works were largely ignored until Northrop Frye's Fearful Symmetry came out in 1947.
posted by Gerald Bostock at 1:13 PM on September 21, 2016 [5 favorites]


Kafka sort of fits this. While his stories attracted critical acclaim (although not much popular attention), his novels and other unpublished works would have been burned if Max Brod hadn't saved them against his wishes.
posted by Hactar at 1:31 PM on September 21, 2016


And now I realize I need to make sure that I didn't just miss a comment when posting in a thread like this.
posted by Hactar at 1:31 PM on September 21, 2016


HP Lovecraft would likely have remained a relatively unknown author if not for the work of his friend August Derleth who started a publishing company (Arkham House) in order to publish Lovecraft's collected works.
posted by machinecraig at 1:35 PM on September 21, 2016 [6 favorites]


I'm sure I've read that Shelley's poetical reputation owes a lot to his wife's editorial/biographical work after his death - in fact that she dedicated the rest of her life to establishing it.

Minor English writer Frederick William Rolfe would be totally obscure by now if not for A J Symonds's marvellous experimental biography The Quest for Corvo.
posted by glasseyes at 4:02 PM on September 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


"Alexander Hamilton and Lin-Manuel Miranda?"

Well, there was a best-selling, award winning biography of Hamilton that came out a few years earlier.


Before Ron Chernow's 2004 biography of Hamilton, the U.S. Bureau of Engraving made sure that Alexander Hamilton was safe from obscurity.
posted by valannc at 7:41 PM on September 21, 2016 [16 favorites]


Zora Neale Hurston had some success during her lifetime, but died poor and was buried in an unmarked grave. Alice Walker, inspired after reading Their Eyes Were Watching God, found Hurston's grave after posing as her niece and placed a tombstone calling Hurston "A Genius of the South." With Walker's advocacy, Their Eyes Were Watching God was republished to rave reviews.

"I realized that unless I came out with everything I had supporting her, there was every chance that she would slip back into obscurity," Walker said..
posted by runningwithscissors at 8:07 PM on September 21, 2016 [18 favorites]


There are a bunch of stories like this about old blues singers. A bunch of the most famous blues singers were born around the year 1900 in the South. As young men in the 1930's, they became locally famous and made one or two small-release LP's. But without wider success, they mostly went back to doing other things. And then the American folk revival happened in the 50's and 60's, and a bunch of young white men got interested in tracking these old bluesmen down and convincing them to start giving concerts again.

My two favorite stories are:

John Fahey found Bukka White by writing a letter addressed to Bukka White (Old Blues Singer) c/o General Delivery, Aberdeen, Mississippi based on the fact that Bukka White had once recorded a song called the Aberdeen Mississippi Blues and Fahey was hoping that White still lived in Aberdeen. The letter got delivered.

Tom Hoskins found Mississippi John Hurt by scouring through the few John Hurt recordings in the Library of Congress and guessing that Hurt was probably living in Avalon, Mississippi, because Hurt recorded a song called the Avalon Blues where he sings, "Avalon, my home town, always on my mind / Avalon, my home town." So Hoskins went down and found him.

Both White and Hurt went on to have very successful careers as old men.
posted by colfax at 12:38 AM on September 22, 2016 [13 favorites]


Much of the awareness about the "King of Ragtime" Scott Joplin is due to a revival spearheaded by Joshua Rifkin. I learned about this from the very excellent The History of the 20th Century podcast (Episode 17).
posted by El_Marto at 3:49 AM on September 22, 2016 [6 favorites]


I would look at outsider artist figures.

The work of Henry Darger was discovered by his landlords.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 8:22 AM on September 22, 2016 [4 favorites]


Sixto Diaz Sugarman Rodriguez, thanks to Malik Bandjellou's documentary? (previously)

Sam Gilliam, "rediscovered" thanks to Rashid Johnson's retrospective?

My grandfather's investigation and report to the authorities led to the hunt for Joseph Mengele, who would otherwise likely have escaped attention, having gone untouched by the various post-war trials.
posted by progosk at 9:23 AM on September 22, 2016 [6 favorites]


Walker Percy had a major role in getting O'Toole's Confederacy of Dunces published. Might have been lost to history otherwise.

And if Thelma Toole, John Kennedy Toole's mother, hadn't found the manuscript, it certainly would have been lost to history.
posted by zsazsa at 9:30 AM on September 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


Oops, I borked the link to Avalon Blues. Here it is for real.
posted by colfax at 10:04 AM on September 22, 2016


Moby Dick sold very poorly and wasn't especially well-regarded (in America; critics thought quite a lot of the book in Britain). After Melville's death, the books was sort of a cult item, but it wasn't until American author Carl Van Doren championed the book in 1917 that it started to be viewed as an American classic.
posted by maxsparber at 11:00 AM on September 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


Pianist Aldo Ciccolini popularized the music of Erik Satie, who not only is now widely known in his own right, but was also one of the major influences on the development of modern "ambient" music (in particular, on Brian Eno).
posted by en forme de poire at 11:55 AM on September 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


The folk revival also revived the career of Bill Monroe, who had been a country star in the late '40s, but had slipped out of popularity a decade later and been eclipsed by some of his bandmates. Folklorist Ralph Rinzler managed him in the '60s and distanced him from the Country genre and had him tour for new audiences and sort of cemented the idea for everyone that he was the father of bluegrass as it was becoming more nationally popular.
posted by little onion at 12:13 PM on September 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


The_Swerve:_How_the_World_Became_Modern

"Greenblatt tells the story of how Poggio Bracciolini, a 15th-century papal emissary and obsessive book hunter, saved the last copy of the Roman poet Lucretius's On the Nature of Things from near-terminal neglect in a German monastery, thus reintroducing important ideas that sparked the modern age."
posted by erikgrande at 1:57 PM on September 22, 2016 [3 favorites]


Gregor Mendel's work in pea plants was sort of ignored for over 30 years until (quoth Wikipedia):
"Erich von Tschermak, Hugo de Vries, Carl Correns, and William Jasper Spillman independently verified several of Mendel's experimental findings, ushering in the modern age of genetics."
posted by Chitownfats at 6:12 PM on September 22, 2016 [5 favorites]


The Brazilian singer-songwriter Tom Zé was involved in the Tropicália scene in the late 60s and early 70s, alongside much bigger stars like Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Gal Costa, and then faded into obscurity . In the early 90s David Byrne was in Brazil looking for artists for his Luaka Bop label. Zé was the first one signed; he was about to accept a job at his cousin's gas station at the time. He's been releasing new music and touring ever since.
posted by hydrophonic at 8:10 PM on September 22, 2016 [3 favorites]


John Fante's Depression-era fiction, while well reviewed, had slipped into obscurity in part due to his publisher (correctly) losing a copyright theft claim from Hitler. He reluctantly turned screenwriter for the money. Decades later, Fante was rediscovered after Charles Bukowski raved about him in a book, piquing the interest of publisher John Martin. Martin republished Fante's forgotten novels to solid acclaim. Then Fante, blind and sick from diabetes and having said nothing in months, miraculously rose from his sickbed to dictate a final novel, Dreams from Bunker Hill to his wife, Joyce.

William S. Burroughs beat the drum for Denton Welch, a fey and rather wonderful minor novelist.
posted by Scram at 8:59 PM on September 22, 2016 [4 favorites]


Gottlob Frege, who arguably invented formal logic and started several of the main research programs in analytic philosophy, was apparently obscure in his lifetime and is remembered because he was later championed by Russell and Peano.

(So says Wikipedia. I seem to remember another cycle of his being forgotten and rediscovered, but I can't pin it down and perhaps it didn't happen.)
posted by grobstein at 2:29 AM on September 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


Photographer Eugene Atget was discovered by Berenice Abbott
So precise were Atget’s photographs that libraries and historical societies bought many images, as it would come to be after two wars many of Paris’ architectural treasures were lost. Other artists, such as painters and sculptors, would purchase his images to assist in their painting endeavors. Paris and her old churches, her monuments, her miseries and her treasures were photographed by Atget. Possessed by a sure taste and artistic audacity that was extraordinary; Atget came to be known by painters, sculptors, architects and editors. He sold his documents; proud and happy, he made a living from his work for himself and his companion. The difficulties had appeared to be insurmountable but Atget triumphed over them. Known only within certain circles, it was not until Berenice Abbott who first “discovered” Atget in the studio of Man Ray in 1925, that his fate was to one day be recognized as one of photography’s great masters.
posted by Lanark at 3:15 AM on September 23, 2016 [4 favorites]


Galois's reputation in mathematics is largely due to Liouville's publication of his work. Even he didn't really appreciate the full depth of the theory though.
posted by crocomancer at 7:41 AM on September 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


There are a bunch of stories like this about old blues singers.

Robert Johnson fits into this category, his music was championed by John Hammond who had seen/heard him in the 1930s and who was the main force behind the LP reissue "King of the Delta Blues Singers" in 1961, nearly 23 years after Johnson's death. This LP reissue made Johnson incredibly famous and an influence on countless bands, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton etc.
posted by jeremias at 11:06 AM on September 23, 2016


The story goes that, in the early Forties, William Faulkner's work was virtually unknown outside of a small circle of admirers (and a probably larger circle of non-admirers). It wasn't until the 1946 publication of The Portable Faulkner helmed by Malcolm Cowley that he rose to prominence. He won the Nobel Prize four years later with a speech that was immediately hailed as one of the most articulate and influential Prize speeches ever (or rather, only hailed as such the following morning when its transcript was published in the papers; during the speech itself nobody knew what was going on because Faulkner just mumbled the whole thing and didn't speak into the mike).

Though it's worth noting that the story of him being "rescued" by a single critic and his subsequent meteoric rise has been called into question on multiple occasions (paywalled).
posted by lorddimwit at 12:39 PM on September 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


in France (not so much America), Charles Baudelaire's translations of and essays on Edgar Allan Poe made the latter a key figure for the nascent avant garde.
posted by spindle at 12:41 PM on September 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


Socrates was not obscure in his time, but he was philosophically opposed to writing (apparently), so he left no written records of his work. He is remembered almost exclusively via Plato's accounts of him, but nonetheless is arguably a figure of tremendous influence (sort of depends how much you credit to Plato).

Something similar could perhaps be said of Jesus.
posted by grobstein at 12:58 PM on September 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


Pierre Duhem, the late 19th-early 20th C. physicist and philosopher, was pretty obscure until W.V.O. Quine revived (and somewhat distorted) his arguments in the mid-20th century. (Quine was the leading figure in American philosophy at the time.) Duhem's The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory is a rescued classic; an English translation didn't appear till 1954.
posted by grobstein at 1:03 PM on September 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


Ramza (the bastard) Beoulve was killed by the church after the Lion Wars, and his role in history was lost until the publication (much later) of the Durai Papers.
posted by grobstein at 1:06 PM on September 23, 2016 [4 favorites]


Roy Orbison had slipped into semi-obscurity before David Lynch used "In Dreams" in a Dean Stockwell lip-syncing sequence that put him back on the charts in the last two years of his life.
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:34 PM on September 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


Professor Longhair had a career as a musician and singer in New Orleans in the 40s, 50s, and into the 60s, but fell out of it, and wound up working as a janitor. Quint Davis and Allison Miner found him in ill health 1971 and helped revive his career, getting him into Jazz Fest that year.
posted by adamrice at 4:36 PM on September 23, 2016


Alexander Hamilton and Lin-Manuel Miranda?

Not Hamilton, but you might be able to make a case for Hercules Mulligan and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:42 PM on September 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


Kurt Cobain is pretty much singlehandedly responsible for a lot of late-80s/early-90s indie bands reaching semi-widespread audiences. E.g. the Vaselines, Flipper, a few others. As I recall, he would intentionally wear t-shirts of bands he liked when doing photo shoots so that the obscure band could get exposure.

Another one: Daniel Johnston
posted by BungaDunga at 12:05 AM on September 24, 2016 [4 favorites]


Alan Lomax (and his father, John) had a big part in the American and British folk revivals. They also did a lot of field recordings, preserving music so that it could be "rediscovered". Same goes for Moe Asch. The Lomaxes also had a part in Lead Belly's career (not without its own troubles).
posted by bjrn at 1:05 AM on September 24, 2016 [2 favorites]


The story of Mendelssohn pulling Bach from obscurity is a really good one. Apparently, old sheets of music were wrapped around his lunch one day.
posted by xammerboy at 2:13 PM on September 24, 2016 [3 favorites]


Jesus Christ and St. Paul.
posted by oluckyman at 4:34 PM on September 24, 2016 [3 favorites]


Mary Jane Leach is one of the key people in restoring Julius Eastman's legacy as a composer, maintaining a master list of his known works and compiling PDFs of his handwritten scores whenever possible.
posted by ardgedee at 6:09 PM on September 25, 2016


My mind immediately leaps to Catullus. Despite being celebrated in his day, after the 2nd century CE his work seems to have become somewhat obscure. There are scattered references to and quotations of his poems for the next thousand years or so, but it isn't until the early 14th century that a manuscript of his poetry surfaces in Verona. It was copied twice, and then was lost again. One copy today resides in the Bodleian, the other, which was owned by Petrarch, was itself copied twice and then also vanished. Almost all our knowledge of his poetry came down to one single manuscript, so we can thank whoever copied it out.
posted by Bromius at 6:32 AM on September 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


A friend once told me that J.S. Bach had dragged Vivaldi's music back from obscurity but what I find per Wikipedia was that, though Bach was heavily influenced by Vivaldi, it was Fritz Kreisler and Marc Pincherie who saved Vivaldi's music in the early 20th century.

Some credit Ezra Pound
posted by BWA at 1:17 PM on September 26, 2016


F. Scott Fitzgerald was largely forgotten or disregarded by the time of his death, and might have remained that way, were it not for the work of Edmund Wilson and other critics in the years immediately following his death.
posted by ga$money at 9:29 AM on September 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


I'm not buying Roy Orbison - even if he hadn't troubled the charts for a while everyone who knew anything about popular music since WWII knew very well who Roy Orbison was.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 5:57 AM on September 28, 2016


Two very talented and short-lived early twentieth-century French composers, Lili Boulanger and Jehan Alain, are much less obscure for having been championed by their siblings.
Jehan Alain: Litanies played by Marie-Claire Alain
Lili Boulanger: Psalm 130 conducted by Nadia Boulanger
posted by in278s at 7:48 AM on September 29, 2016


Tim Page is largely responsible for bringing the novelist Dawn Powell back into print and to a significantly higher level of esteem.
posted by Jasper Fnorde at 9:17 PM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


Some credit Ezra Pound

I wonder how much of his credit for the Vivaldi revival should be shared with his long-time mistress Olga Rudge, who was a well-regarded violinist and musicologist.
posted by Gerald Bostock at 1:37 PM on October 4, 2016


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