Mary Shelley (1797 – 1851)
Though Shelley is most famous for Frankenstein, she was a writer all her life, entertaining herself as a child by writing stories, reading everything she could get her hands on. she even managed to make a living of it. But for a long time after her death, she was largely remembered as Percy Shelley’s wife — in the introduction to a 1945 publication of her letters, editor Frederick Jones wrote, “a collection of the present size could not be justified by the general quality of the letters or by Mary Shelley’s importance as a writer. It is as the wife of [Percy Bysshe Shelley] that she excites our interest.” It was not until the 1970s that her work really started to garner serious critical attention, due in large part to the rise of feminist and psychoanalytic criticism, and not until 1989 that a serious biography of the writer was published.
Herman Melville (1819 – 1891)
Okay, it’s true: Herman Melville was a literary celebrity in his day — but not for the book you think. Melville’s first three books were very popular at the time of their publication, especially his bestselling debut novel, Typee, but after a few brief years of fame, he fell out of favor and was almost completely forgotten by the time of his death in 1891. “Though I wrote the Gospels in this century,” Herman Melville moaned in 1851, just after the publication of Moby-Dick, “I should die in the gutter.” Probably an overstatement, but we understand how he felt — after all, by 1876, all of his books were out of print. It wasn’t until the 1920s, in the so-called “Melville Revival” that critics began to reassess (and champion) the author’s work, and now Moby-Dick is considered by just about everyone to be an essential literary masterpiece.
Henry David Thoreau
Walden, Thoreau’s 1854 treatise on self-reliance, may still be required reading for many high schoolers, but in his own time he was considered a little… off. He only published two (rather obscure) books during his lifetime, and many of his contemporaries criticized his work, notably Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote a scathing essay on the author in 1880, wherein he described Thoreau’s experience in the woods as “like a plant that he had watered and tended with womanish solicitude; for there is apt to be something unmanly, something almost dastardly, in a life that does not move with dash and freedom, and that fears the bracing contact of the world. In one word, Thoreau was a skulker.” It wasn’t until the 1920s that Thoreau began to get his due.
Edgar Allan Poe
Though we remember him today as the father of the detective story — not to mention a master of the macabre and one of the earliest American short story writers — during his lifetime, Poe was mostly known as a literary critic, and a deliciously caustic one at that. He did attain some success with his fiction, particularly overseas, but nothing compared to the high esteem we hold him in now. After all, how many 19th century authors have had their own mysterious annual toaster?
It’s well known that Emily Dickinson was a serious recluse during her life, but even so, it seems amazing to us that she would have only lived to see seven — seven! — of her poems published, anonymously at that, not to mention heavily edited. The first complete (and relatively untampered-with) collection of her eighteen hundred-odd poems was published in 1955, and now, as we probably don’t have to tell you, she’s one of the most famous American poets of all time.
Though Austen’s works were fairly widely read and modestly acclaimed during her lifetime, they didn’t bring her very much fame, having been published anonymously. They were reprinted with proper attribution in the 1830s, and as far as we can tell, have only continued to climb in cultural importance and acclaim since then. If you ask anyone other than V.S. Naipaul, that is.
John Keats, now considered one of the most important figures of Romantic Poetry, died thinking no one liked his poems. Near his 1821 death at the tender age of 25, he wrote to a friend, “I have left no immortal work behind me – nothing to make my friends proud of my memory – but I have lov’d the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remember’d.” But even by the end of his own century, critics — prodded and cajoled by Percy Shelley — were beginning to realize his worth. His popularity only grew in the 20th century, and now well, pretty much everyone you know has read “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” whether they wanted to or not.
The Brothers Grimm
If you can believe it, the first edition of Children’s and Household Tales (Kinder- und Hausmärchen), was published in 1812. It wasn’t immediately popular at the time, but quickly gained acclaim with each new edition, possibly in part because of the fact that the Grimms added and subtracted based on critics’ opinions, and by 1820 the collection of fairy tales was very popular, and even taught in the Prussian curriculum. However, that’s nothing compared to the cultural impact they have now — every fairy tale movie (and every “realistic” romantic comedy with a fairy tale-like plot), every new novel with ties to folklore, every Disney product owes its existence to the Brothers Grimm. Our fascination with the stories they created — or at least chronicled — will probably never cease.