A Brief History of Writers Who Died Untimely Deaths

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We recently read Rachel Maddux’s essay “Here with the Windies” about the sudden, shocking death of Margaret Mitchell back in 1949 (she was hit by a cab on the way to see a movie), and we were inspired to come up with a group of writers who died before their time. To narrow things down a bit, we elected to leave aside the suicides (DFW, Sylvia Plath, Iris Chang… the list goes on), as well as the poets who succumbed to disease (see: Shelley, Keats). That said, if we’ve left off your favorite writer who died too young, be sure to let us know in the comments.

Li Bai / Li Po

This 8th-century Chinese poet, known as one of the greatest Romantics during the Tang Dynasty (China’s “golden age” of poetry), died by either drowning after trying to embrace the reflection of the moon in the Yangtze River or mercury poisoning. You can find much of his work — which, it’s worth noting, frequently celebrates the joys of wine — in the collection, Three Hundred Tang Poems.

The Bronte Sisters

This sisterhood of five consisted of Maria, Elisabeth, Charlotte, Anne, and Emily. Maria and Elisabeth, Charlotte and Emily’s older sisters, both died of tuberculosis from the horrendous conditions at the Clergy Daughters’ School, which they all attended. Charlotte experienced a similar fate years later, when she died while pregnant in 1855, at only 38 years old. A few years prior, Emily died after refusing medical attention, and Anne died of influenza in 1849, after being deeply affected by Emily’s death. In her last poem, she wrote “a dreadful darkness closes in…”

Stephen Crane

Another victim of tuberculosis, Crane died at the age of 29. In spite of having such a brief career, he was able to publish a substantial body of work that included six novels, two poetry collections, and three short story anthologies in his lifetime. He’s probably best remembered for The Red Badge of Courage, the famed Civil War novel that Ernest Hemingway once referred to as “one of the finest books of our literature.”

Jack Kerouac

Kerouac died in 1969 at the age of 47 from alcoholism — his liver was pickled by the time he moved back in with his mother. At the time of his death, he had $91 in his bank account, which is really terrible when you think about the fact that a few years ago, the original manuscript for On the Road sold for $2.4 million at an auction.

Rosario Castellanos

In 1974, Castellanos died while in Israel from accidental electric shock. The jury is out, though some authors and fans believe it was a suicide. El Mar y Sus Pescaditos was the last collection Castellanos wrote before her death, but you can find her in English in the Oxford Book of Latin American Essays.

Roland Barthes

This French literary theorist and semiotician died in late March, 1980, after being struck by a laundry van while walking home a month earlier. You can find his book, Incidents, at the University of California Press free e-books collection here.

Primo Levi

In 1987, Levi fell from his third-story apartment window while living in Italy. The coroner ruled it a suicide but Diego Gambetta, a sociologist at Oxford, argues that since Levi didn’t leave a note and there was no indication that he was planning to take his life in the days leading up to the fall, that it was an accident. After his death, Elie Wiesel was the first to say that “Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years earlier.”

(Winfried Georg) Maximilian Sebald

In 2001, W.G. Sebald, the author of Rings of Saturn, among others, died from his injuries during a car accident in Norfolk, England, after having a heart attack that made him temporarily lose control of the vehicle. He was 57 years old, and died just as he was receiving some well-earned fame.

Stieg Larsson

In November 2004, Larsson died from a sudden heart attack; since then, his Millennium series trilogy has sold over 20 million copies worldwide, making him one of the best-selling authors of the past few years. Larsson is also unsurprisingly the first author to reach a million sales on Kindle, which we featured in our post earlier this week.

Octavia Butler

Butler was 58 when she died in 2006 after slipping and hitting her head on a walkway outside her home in Washington. She was a reclusive writer, and one who didn’t suffer fools lightly. She was also incredibly tall, reaching 6 feet by the tender age of 15, and became a sci-fi writer despite the odds.