What are some classic novels penned when their authors were unusually young?
April 9, 2007 12:56 AM   Subscribe

Help me think of great novels that were written when their authors were unusually young.

I'm trying to make a list of great novels that were written when when their authors were quite young--let's set the author's 27th birthday as an arbitrary cut-off date. This is a slippery area, but I'm also hoping to make a distinction between merely 'promising' novels (i.e., books that offer glimmering hints of what the writer will produce later, but aren't fully-formed works in and of themselves) and 'great' novels (books that can be recognized as such outside the context of a given author's oeuvre). Pynchon's _V_ is an example of the kind of book I'm looking for.

Also, it's not important to me that the book be the *best* work of a writer's life, just that it's vital and important as a stand-alone work (Gravity's Rainbow is better than V, IMHO, but V still applies). Thanks a lot!
posted by scarylarry to Media & Arts (39 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Michael Chabon published The Mysteries of Pittsburgh when he was 25. He finished writing it at 24.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:09 AM on April 9, 2007

Mary Shelley was 19 when she wrote Frankenstein.

Comte de Lautréamont was 22 when he wrote Les Chants de Maldoror.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:19 AM on April 9, 2007

Mary Shelley finished Frankenstein when she was 20.
posted by chickletworks at 1:22 AM on April 9, 2007

Alain Fournier wrote Le Grand Meaulnes between the ages of 24 and 26.

TBH I wouldn't call under 27 unusually young.
posted by fire&wings at 1:24 AM on April 9, 2007

Sun also Rises, by Ernest Miller Hemingway, was published when he was 27

And if you accept plays, Shakespeare likely wrote Henry VI between the ages of 25 and 27.

Borderline, I know. Sorry.
posted by kisch mokusch at 1:25 AM on April 9, 2007

TBH I wouldn't call under 27 unusually young.

It seems to be for writers. Most of the greats seem to have written their masterpieces in their 30s.
posted by kisch mokusch at 1:27 AM on April 9, 2007

The author of Eragon was 15 years old when he started it.
As for great... financially I imagine it's up there, and it was made into a big budget movie. Depends what you mean by "great" :)
posted by -harlequin- at 1:35 AM on April 9, 2007

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan. Sagan was 18 when the book was published.
posted by different at 1:36 AM on April 9, 2007

Does "classic" in your title mean it can't be contemporary? Jonathan Safran Foer wrote Everything Is Illuminated at 25, and for all the annoying media attention around it and him, I'd definitely say it's stand-alone, vital, and important.

See also the slightly informative sidebar on young authors here.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 2:07 AM on April 9, 2007

Response by poster: game warden, yes, it can be contemporary, and Everything is Illuminated is a good suggestion. I was grasping for a word to use besides "great," which I'd already used and which gives me the pretension-shakes.
posted by scarylarry at 2:11 AM on April 9, 2007

Dickens finished The Pickwick Papers aged 25.
posted by tomsk at 2:23 AM on April 9, 2007

This question just reminded me of a related question I've actually been meaning to ask, about a young author: some years ago I read (on Mefi I think, actually) about a young American (?) twentysomething who wrote a novel and then committed suicide after he was unable to get it published. His mother managed to get it published posthumously, and it is now considered a pretty brilliant and funny book. If anyone can name this author/book you might be answering two questions at once! (Provided that this mystery writer is under 27, which I think he might be.)
posted by good in a vacuum at 2:39 AM on April 9, 2007

Oh, and Norman Mailer published The Naked and the Dead at 25.
posted by good in a vacuum at 2:42 AM on April 9, 2007

good in a vacuum, you're probably thinking of A Confederacy of Dunces (Wikipedia).
posted by annathea at 2:48 AM on April 9, 2007

Oh jeez... thanks annathea, I kept scanning my "Books to read" list and Confederacy is on it, but for some reason I kept thinking "No, that's not it." Thanks!

So I guess you can add John Kennedy Toole to the list. I can't seem to figure out how old he was when he wrote Confederacy (although he was 31 when he committed suicide, so it's possible he can squeak in under the 27 limit), but he wrote, according to that Wikipedia article, The Neon Bible at 16 which was also published posthumously.
posted by good in a vacuum at 2:56 AM on April 9, 2007

Jane Austen age 19: Sense and Sensibility (although it was under a different title and wasn't published until years later)
Hellen Keller age 22: The Story of My Life
Akutagawa Ryunosuke age 23: Rashomon
F. Scott Fitzgerald age 23: This Side of Paradise
Samuel Pepys age 26: started writing his diary

All of these are from an old book by Desmond Morris called The Book of Ages, which details what people did when they were various ages. My fiancee also mentions The Outsiders, written when S. E. Hinton was 15.
posted by Paragon at 2:58 AM on April 9, 2007

This might make a good footnote: The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas produced extraordinarily mature poetry when he was still very young. According to Wikipedia, half his works were produced when he still lived with his folks at the family home. Sadly, there's not much older work to compare against because he drank himself to death by the age of 39. His last words were, "After 39 years, this is all I've done."
posted by humblepigeon at 3:19 AM on April 9, 2007

Dylan Thomas also wrote fiction and autobiography, btw, but I don't think he wrote any novels. I might be wrong.
posted by humblepigeon at 3:22 AM on April 9, 2007

Anne Frank was aged between 14 and 16 when she wrote her diary.
posted by rongorongo at 3:34 AM on April 9, 2007

Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther was published when he was 25, and made the young author a literary sensation throughout Europe.
By the time of his death at age 23, Georg Büchner had written a number of works including the play Danton's Death, and left behind his uncompleted masterpiece Woyzeck.
posted by rob511 at 3:42 AM on April 9, 2007

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by 23-year-old Carson McCullers.
posted by gorillawarfare at 3:45 AM on April 9, 2007

Rudyard Kipling wrote The Jungle Book at 28.
Jack London wrote The Call of the Wild at 27.
Edgar Allen Poe wrote The Fall of the House of Usher and a few other short stores by 27.
D.H. Lawrence wrote Sons and Lovers at 27.

Though in all cases, these marked the start of prodigious writing careers. Most successful authors have their first success at around 30, hit full-stride at 35-40, then die five to twenty years (approximately) later.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:09 AM on April 9, 2007

Not exactly a classic, but Poppy Z. Brite wrote Lost Souls at about 18 and followed it up with three or four more books before her late twenties. (and then after a break of a few years went in a completely different direction)
I don't know if her books would meet your criterion of "great," but they're definitely good, well-written books if you like the subject matter.
posted by catatethebird at 4:11 AM on April 9, 2007

If you're counting kids' books, The Outsiders was published when S.E. Hinton was 15 and is a classic among kid lit.
posted by clavicle at 4:32 AM on April 9, 2007

Less than Zero was written when Bret Easton Ellis was, I think, 19 or 20. I know it's not The-Sun-Also-Rises-great, but it was an important debut for sure. Started the whole series that included Rules of Attraction and American Psycho.
posted by sneakin at 4:42 AM on April 9, 2007

White Teeth by Zadie Smith.
posted by lampoil at 4:49 AM on April 9, 2007

Kenzaburo Oe finished Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids by the age of 23.
posted by The Straightener at 5:06 AM on April 9, 2007

Michael Chabon published The Mysteries of Pittsburgh when he was 25. He finished writing it at 24.

Read this book circa 1992, never could remember the name or author. Thanks, BP!

Donna Tartt was 20 when she started The Secret History, but 28 or so when it was published. Still, there was a bidding war, lots of publicity and delay around the release; I think she was still fairly young when it was completed.

Lots of the Bennington kids had debuts in their mid 20's (Ellis, Tartt, Jay McInerney, Jill Eisenstadt), but don't know how many of those novels I would call classic by the post's definition.

Haven't read Mergers and Acquisitions but Dana Vachon (aged 26) qualifies. But, without having anything else in his oeuvre to consider (no, I don't count his blog), it's hard to call his barely dry debut "classic."
posted by pineapple at 6:30 AM on April 9, 2007

Stephen Crane wrote The Red Badge of Courage at 23.
posted by rubberfish at 6:38 AM on April 9, 2007

S.E. Hinton wrote The Outsiders when she was 16.
posted by headspace at 7:19 AM on April 9, 2007

David Foster Wallace wrote Broom of the System when he was 23.
posted by mattbucher at 8:20 AM on April 9, 2007

Flannery O'Conner's Wise Blood was published when she was 27.

Also, not classic and not exactly literature--but a good literary thriller--Matthew Pearl's The Dante Club was written when he was 24 or thereabouts.
posted by Kronoss at 8:24 AM on April 9, 2007

Snakes and Earrings was written by a 19 year old Hitomi Kanehara. The book did little for me but people seem to like it and it won a few awards.

I think Rimbaud stopped writing poetry when he was 19. My memory could be wrong, though, and he wasn't a novelist.
posted by dobbs at 8:30 AM on April 9, 2007

Kaavya Viswanatha wrote her book at 19- oh wait, no she didn't!

Sorry, I couldn't resist. Anyway, there's this article.

Does Anne Frank count? And add Percy Bysshe Shelley to the list.
posted by Cochise at 10:10 AM on April 9, 2007

David Hume, most influential of the British philosophers, finished his Treatise of Human Nature at 26. (Ok, not a novel, but still hugely important work.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:12 AM on April 9, 2007

Peter Beagle wrote A Fine and Private Place at 19, and it's still in print 47 years later.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 11:38 AM on April 9, 2007

Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks, 25.
posted by londongeezer at 2:30 PM on April 9, 2007

Martin and John was the amazing debut novel (and NYTimes bestseller) by a 25-year-old Dale Peck.
posted by allterrainbrain at 3:26 PM on April 9, 2007

Isaac Asimov was first published ("Marooned of Vesta") at the age of 19, and a story he wrote at 21 ("Nightfall") has been called the greatest Sci-Fi short story ever written. He didn't get a novel published until he was 30, though.
posted by Plutor at 9:42 AM on April 10, 2007

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