We like to think of our favorite writers as people we would get along with. So much of what attracts us to literature and philosophy is its author’s stated or implied worldview that it’s disturbing to find out that the writers we love have lived morally questionable — or even reprehensible — lives. Laura Miller examined this disappointment in a piece for Salon earlier this week, ultimately concluding that, “needing to believe that your favorite author lived in an exemplary way, embodying all the virtues of his best work, is an adolescent desire, passionate but ultimately unfair. Learning the truth is disillusioning at first, but enlightening in the end.”
In the spirit of hating the author but loving the work, we’ve rounded up a collection of great books by poets, novelist, and philosophers with unsettling biographies, featuring both writers Miller mentions and some of our own favorite scoundrels. Spoiler alert: the modernists were a pretty colorful bunch.
Matilda by Roald Dahl
If you weren’t aware that Roald Dahl was a terrible person, educate yourself with Alex Carnevale’s essay on the beloved children’s author’s “macabre unpleasantness.” It starts with the revelation that Matilda as we know it has basically nothing to do with the character as Dahl conceived her: “the original draft of the book painted the protagonist as a devilish little hussy who only later becomes ‘clever’, perhaps because she found herself without very much to do after torturing her parents. Dahl’s editor Stephen Roxburgh completely revised Dahl’s last novel and, in doing so, turned it into his most popular book.” And Dahl’s misogyny is just beginning — he was also an anti-Semite and fascist sympathizer.
A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul
V.S. Naipaul has racked up just about every literary laureate you can think of — including the Nobel Prize. The Trinidadian-British author has also been knighted. But none of that has stopped him from being a horrible person. First of all, Naipaul’s authorized biography notes that, although he was married for 41 years to a woman who died of cancer, he also carried on a long-term affair, in which he behaved abusively. He’s also known for being big on prostitutes and has said a lot of ridiculous things about women writers. Shaped by his own experience, his generally very good novels belong to the postcolonial tradition. If you’re not too grossed out by his personal life to give Naipaul a shot, his tragicomic novel A House for Mr. Biswas, set in Trinidad and inspired by his father, is a good place to start.
Hugh Selwyn Mauberley by Ezra Pound
Most people consider The Cantos, which he worked on for roughly half his life, to be Ezra Pound’s most notable work. We’ve always been fond of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, a long, semi-autobiographical poem he published in 1920 lamenting failure and obscurity and aging and modern life. Although Pound had more success than he predicted for himself, he also got crazier and crazier with each passing year. By the time World War II rolled around, he was an avowed fascist, living in Italy and endorsing Mussolini. (He liked Hitler, too.) Pound spoke out against the Allies, bitched about the Jews, wrote for right-wing publications, served time in a US military camp for treason, and spent the rest of his life embarrassing the very modernist writers he’d championed. That and writing unnervingly brilliant poetry.
Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot
Next to his buddy Ezra, T.S. Eliot looks like a pussycat. (He did, in fact, have a well-documented fondness for felines.) But let us not forget that the poet and critic was a known anti-Semite in his own right, frequently depicting Jews as stereotypical money grubbers and mentioned in a lecture that too many “free-thinking Jews” will ruin an otherwise pure cultural tradition. As distasteful as we may find those views, Eliot remains one of the 20th century’s best and most influential poets. Everyone reads The Waste Land in high school, and it remains a masterpiece of post-World War I crisis, but his later work is just as powerful. In Four Quartets, written before and during the Second World War, Eliot looks to the spiritual realm, spanning Eastern and Western religious mythologies to examine individuals’ relationship to time and eternity.
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein
Gertrude Stein was a boldly avant-garde writer whose poetry and prose set a high bar for literary experimentation. She also served as a sort of ringmaster and den mother to a cadre of expatriate modernists in Paris, collecting and championing such artists as Picasso and Matisse. Stein was also openly lesbian and lived with her lover, Alice B. Toklas, from 1910 until her death in 1946. Among the most readable of her many wonderful and strange books is 1933’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas — an account of their life together in Europe that, unsurprisingly, focuses largely on Stein. She was, however, far from politically progressive. Not only was she a Republican, but she supported the brutal dictator Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War and supported France’s Axis-allied Vichy regime during World War II. As for Hitler, despite having been born Jewish, she said in 1934 that he should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. “By driving out the Jews and the democratic and left element, he is driving out everything that conduces to activity. That means peace,” Stein said. “By suppressing Jews… he was ending struggle in Germany.” Whether or not she was being sarcastic or purposely provocative, we assume no one was laughing at her comments a decade later.
Being and Time by Martin Heidegger
Part of the grand tradition of German metaphysical philosophers, Heidegger explored such eternal topics as the nature of time and existence, calling into question thousands of years of Western thought. His most important book, 1927’s Being and Time, addresses ontology at its most basic level, redefining “being” itself and examining its relationship to time. This all sounds safely apolitical — and yet, Heidegger was a vocal supporter of Hitler and a card-carrying member of the Nazi Party. Elected rector of the University of Freiburg in 1933, he used his inaugural speech as a platform to endorse the Führer and distanced himself from Jewish colleagues, including his mentor, Edmund Husserl. Heidegger notoriously compared death camps to agriculture. He later claimed that he was more critical of the Nazis than he let on and defended them only because he didn’t have a choice.
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
If you get to know him through his fiction, Charles Dickens doesn’t seem like such a bad guy — defender of the homeless, critic of the underclasses’ deplorable working conditions. His keen eye for political injustice is particularly notable in Bleak House, a lengthy tome that uses an enormous cast of characters to dissect the bureaucracy of London’s unfair and absurd legal system. Sadly, Dickens’ conscience didn’t seem to extend to his personal life. Alongside allegations of racism and anti-Semitism (remember Fagin from Oliver Twist?), Dickens was, by all accounts, a terrible husband. After his wife, Catherine, bore him ten children, he became verbally abusive. Eventually (but before his separation from Catherine), he took up with an actress named Ellen Ternan, retained custody of all but his eldest child, and encouraged his offspring to stay away from their rejected mother.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Among the best-known authors of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston earned her place in literary history with the 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. Structured as a conversation with a friend, the novel follows Janie Crawford, a descendant of slaves who lives in an all-black Florida town and is charged with murdering the last of her three husbands. Although it was controversial among Hurston’s peers for what they saw as a stereotypical portrayal of African Americans, the book’s artistry and feminism are undeniable. Unfortunately, Their Eyes Were Watching God, with its conspicuous refusal to portray black characters in a world controlled by whites, also hinted at some of Hurston’s less laudable views. A political conservative, she was against affirmative action and integration, going so far as to oppose Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 decision that outlawed segregated schools.
Franny and Zooey by JD Salinger
Everyone has their favorite Salinger novel (well, except for the sizable crowd that finds him juvenile and precious); ours is Franny and Zooey, the two-part study of the Glass family’s youngest siblings and their relationship to God, each other, and their enigmatic brother, Seymour. Salinger lived a famously reclusive life beginning in 1953, only a few years after The Catcher in the Rye catapulted him to literary stardom. But, over the years, several unsettling details of his personal life have leaked out: When he married Claire Douglas, he forced her to drop out of collage a mere semester before she would have graduated from Radcliffe. They separated in 1966, after 11 years and two children, because Salinger had cut Claire off from her family and friends. One of their daughters, Margret, published the memoir Dream Catcher, which revealed the extent of Salinger’s cruelty to her mother. In 1972, he initiated a troubled relationship with 18-year-old author Joyce Maynard; their relationship lasted a year until, according to Maynard, Salinger dropped her, despite the fact that she had left Yale to be with him. Another idol-killing memoir followed.