Obscure Authors, Later Famous?
October 28, 2010 7:03 PM   Subscribe

Who are now-famous authors who died while they were still obscure?

Note: I'm not looking for then-famous people who are NOW obscure, nor do I want authors whose best-known works were flops during their lifetimes. (For instance, The Great Gatsby and Moby Dick sold terribly initially, but Fitzgerald and Melville were already well-known authors for other works.)
posted by estlin to Writing & Language (42 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: None of John Kennedy Toole's novels were published while he was alive. His A Confederacy of Dunces was published posthumously and he was then posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize. You can't get much more obscure than that.
posted by googly at 7:08 PM on October 28, 2010 [10 favorites]

Stieg Larsson. His novels weren't published until after he died, but are now phenomenally popular.
posted by Joey Joe Joe Junior Shabadoo at 7:11 PM on October 28, 2010

John Fante
posted by notyou at 7:13 PM on October 28, 2010

Stieg Larsson. His best selling novels weren't even published until after his death.
posted by spinifex23 at 7:13 PM on October 28, 2010

Best answer: Franz Kafka published only a few short stories, and finished none of his novels, in his lifetime.
posted by xil at 7:14 PM on October 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

John Donne was broken out of obscurity by T.S. Eliot, roughly 300 years after he died.
posted by griphus at 7:14 PM on October 28, 2010

Kafka. Wait, is he still obscure?
posted by mittens at 7:14 PM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Dang it!
posted by mittens at 7:15 PM on October 28, 2010

Best answer: American Puritan poet Edward Taylor never intended for his (gorgeous, brilliant) work to be published and remained undiscovered until 1937. Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins . . . I'm forgetting several other celebrated poets who were either largely ignored or purposed hid their light under a bushel.
posted by FelliniBlank at 7:16 PM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

er, purposely.
posted by FelliniBlank at 7:16 PM on October 28, 2010

H.P. Lovecaft was an obscure writer limited to pulp magazines during his lifetime.
posted by wayland at 7:17 PM on October 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh duh, William Blake.
posted by FelliniBlank at 7:20 PM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Roberto Bolano has gained posthumous notoriety (in the US at least). He was, however, famous in South/Central America prior to his death.
posted by jz at 7:23 PM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Kilgore Trout! Sorry, seriously, though -- Emily Dickinson. She only published a few poems in her lifetime.
posted by Buffaload at 7:30 PM on October 28, 2010

Anne Frank springs to mind.
posted by axiom at 7:30 PM on October 28, 2010

Yeah, but Stieg Larsson was a respected journalist while he was alive. It's not like he was some nobody.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:37 PM on October 28, 2010

Edith Holden
posted by unliteral at 8:07 PM on October 28, 2010

The problem with this question is that the concept of 'famous' is only about 100-200 years old. Before that, poets, writers, none were particularly well known in their lifetimes among folks who weren't also writers or patrons or lived in their neighborhood. So this question limits us to the relatively short time since the invention of popular culture. In a way, the entire history of culture is a list of folks that fit the bill: Plato was just a lone Greek scribbler. Virgil was the court poet of a minor meddeteranian kingdom. Li Po was a drunk Chinese peasant.

Anyway, since the invention of famousness, I'd say there are more minor examples than major ones. Someone like James Wright who died relatively young and unknown has become...pretty well respected among people who like that sort of thing. One of the sad facts of globalization and the superadvanced state of self-promulgating greatness on the web is that there will never be another Emily Dickinson.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:20 PM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa published his only novel, The Leopard, posthumously. Machiavelli's The Prince was similarly posthumous, as were Boethius' The Consolation of Philosophy, the essays of Montaigne, though all were known in certain circles, but not for their writings.

A whole bunch of poets were not recognized during their lifetime, there are the original poètes maudits, Villon, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Corbière, Desbordes-Valmore and Villiers de l'Isle-Adam. A whole bunch of other French greats were similarly unknown at their death, Jarry, Lautréamont and Laforgue. Romantic English poets Keats, Shelley and Clare were all little known when they died. Of Americans I can think of Kate Chopin and Sylvia Plath.
posted by Kattullus at 8:20 PM on October 28, 2010

Melville _might_ qualify. He was not at all well-regarded (though obscure might be a bit too strong) in his time and it wasn't until the twentieth century, when his work got picked up by academics looking to build an American canon, that he became really huge.
posted by synecdoche at 8:21 PM on October 28, 2010

Stendhal comes to mind.

Actually, if I was going to fabricate statistics, I would say that a reasonable percentage of authors of past ages died in obscurity.
posted by ovvl at 8:25 PM on October 28, 2010

The poets throughout history who were recognized during their lifetime for their poetry may be a minority of poets.
posted by ovvl at 8:29 PM on October 28, 2010

Henry Darger, author and illustrator of The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 8:35 PM on October 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

Nathanael West did not achieve much success while living, but it seems he did move within pretty impressive literary circles.
posted by Maxwell_Smart at 8:41 PM on October 28, 2010

Jane Austen

Her work brought her little personal fame and only a few positive reviews during her lifetime, but the publication in 1869 of her nephew's A Memoir of Jane Austen introduced her to a wider public, and by the 1940s she had become widely accepted in academia as a great English writer.
posted by oreofuchi at 8:57 PM on October 28, 2010

Mervyn Peake might fit. He wasn't unknown but I think has received somewhat broader recognition since death, including a fair number of works released posthumously.

Possibly John O'Brien, writer of Leaving Las Vegas (which then became the Cage/Shue movie). Only Leaving Las Vegas was published before his death, two novels have been published since.
posted by 6550 at 9:51 PM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Emily Dickinson
posted by dancestoblue at 9:59 PM on October 28, 2010

B.S. Johnson gained what notoriety he has after his death.

Also: Nietzsche.
posted by CutaneousRabbit at 10:10 PM on October 28, 2010

Edgar Allen Poe.
posted by zardoz at 10:32 PM on October 28, 2010

Oreofuchi's synopsis of Jane Austen is, indeed, what's listed in Wikipedia. However, it's not actually true. Austen's work was successful in her lifetime, and although some of the early work was published anonymously, the name of the author wasn't really a secret. In 1814 the Prince Regent requested that she dedicate her new novel, "Emma," to him; an honor that was only extended to authors whose work the Royal had enjoyed in the past. Her brother Henry was her agent, and struck -- for the time -- some financially impressive deals for her.
posted by kestralwing at 1:30 AM on October 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

Hart Crane is kind of a squeeze - he was published and reviewed (poorly) in his lifetime and was always fairly well-known amongst other poet - but his reputation and stature have grown year on year.

He was also one of the most ambitious, visionary and talented American poets ever to have lived.
posted by Ted Maul at 1:54 AM on October 29, 2010

Robert Tressell.
His classic 'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists' was published a few years after his death. It went on to become a novel that brilliantly encapsulated the times in early 20C Britain - incidentally, a few notable leftest politicians and others nominate this book as a life changer.

Read it now!
posted by micklaw at 2:14 AM on October 29, 2010

Emily Bronte, Anne Bronte, Keats (to some extent), Chesterton, John Clare, Christina Rossetti (again, to some extent).
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 2:18 AM on October 29, 2010

Sei Shonagon's diary was discovered and known to at least a few during her lifetime but was only recognized as of historical value much later.

Robert Musil might fit, though it'll be dependent upon what you're taking into account as far as obscurity. No commercial success, but he was nominated for the Nobel so was at least recognized in those circles. (The Nobel sounds like a big thing–and it is on the whole–but look at the entire list of laureates and see how many you've never heard of.)
posted by Su at 3:01 AM on October 29, 2010

Seconding BS Johnson. Jonathan Coe's autobiography helped a lot with that.

Emily Bronte didn't publish Wuthering Heights under her real name during her lifetime.
posted by mippy at 4:33 AM on October 29, 2010

Bruno Schulz
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 7:19 AM on October 29, 2010

Margaret Mitchell -- I believe she died right before Gone With The Wind was published . . .
posted by MeiraV at 7:40 AM on October 29, 2010

Actually, Mitchell died in 1949.
posted by Madamina at 7:55 AM on October 29, 2010

Seconding Musil.


Jane Austen

Sylvia Plath


posted by Lutoslawski at 10:14 AM on October 29, 2010

Franz Kafka. Funnily enough, he would have remained in obscurity if his friend and literary executor had destroyed his work after death, as he requested.
posted by Susurration at 6:03 PM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Poe may not have been particularly successful with his own fiction while alive, but he definitely had a reputation for his criticism.
posted by Su at 4:47 AM on October 31, 2010

Huh. I read what Madamina wrote and thought to myself, "Then it must be that she died right before the movie came out?"

Nope. She won a Pulitzer for the book shortly after it was published and the movie came out 10 years before she died. Which makes me wonder -- what the heck was I thinking, and where did I get that idea?
posted by MeiraV at 4:42 PM on November 17, 2010

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