Nine Writers for Whom Success Came Posthumously

Franz Kafka

You know the story of Vincent Van Gogh, and how he only sold one painting during his lifetime. So too will you recognize most of the names on this list, authors and poets whose fame arrived only after they shuffled off this mortal coil. (Note: while it may be argued that any writer can sell more books in the centuries after their death than during the few decades of their career, look at the middling legacies of onetime bestsellers Edgar Wallace and Anthony Trolloppe. It's not unlikely that contemporary novelists like Tom Clancy and Stephenie Meyer will suffer the same fate.)

  1. Stieg Larsson, 1954-2004. Sweden's Man of the Hour, author of the enormously popular "Millennium Trilogy" (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With FireThe Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest), was unpublished during his lifetime. He reportedly wrote the books only as a hobby; his real work was as a journalist and political activist.
  2. Jonathan Larson, 1960-1996. No relation to Stieg, this New York playwright's death is the stuff of legend: he passed away the day before his signature Broadway hit, Rent, premiered. His pre-Rent career was considered minor.
  3. Franz Kafka, 1883-1924. Working in relative obscurity throughout his short life, Kafka published only a few short stories and The Metamorphosis – which was hardly a bestseller – before tuberculosis killed him. His final wish, that his unpublished works (including The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika) be destroyed, was ignored.
  4. Emily Dickinson, 1830-1886. The introverted Massachusetts poet published around 10-11 poems, anonymously, during her life. After she died, her younger sister discovered some 1,700 poems that Dickinson had never done anything with. The first volume was published in 1890, four years after her death.
  5. Philip K. Dick, 1928-1982. The troubled science fiction author was impressively prolific, and managed to eke out a living as a full-time novelist, but the field of sci fi did not pay well. Dick died just as he began making money, a few months before the premiere of Blade Runner, the film based on his 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Since then, no fewer than nine of Dick's stories have been turned into feature films, with more on the way.
  6. John Kennedy Toole, 1937-1969. The frustrated New Orleans author's comic novel A Confederacy of Dunces was rejected by Simon & Schuster when he submitted it. After his suicide at the age of 31, Toole's mother championed the book, which was finally published by the Louisiana State University Press in 1980. It won a Pulitzer Prize the following year and became a bestseller. Toole's only other novel, The Neon Bible, written when he was just 16, was published in 1989.
  7. Herman Melville, 1819-1891. The author of Moby-Dick, considered one of the greatest novels in the English language and the scourge of high school students everywhere, reportedly made just about $10,000 as a writer during his lifetime, most of which came from his early adventure novel Typee. Moby-Dick, published in 1851, earned just over $500. It wasn't until 1921, thirty years after Melville's death, that interest in his work was revived.
  8. Zora Neale Hurston, 1891-1960. The African American writer, best known for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, was unpopular in both white and black literary circles; her Harlem Renaissance contemporaries derided her Ebonics-filled dialogue and her anti-socialist politics. The Color Purple author Alice Walker revived interest in Hurston's work in 1975.
  9. Anne Frank, 1929-1945. Though it may seem cruel to include the young Holocaust victim, Frank did have genuine literary ambitions, and hoped to submit an edited version of her beloved diary to the Dutch government for publication after the end of World War II. The job was left to her father Otto, the only surviving member of her immediate family.