07/19/2013 12:13 pm ET Updated Sep 18, 2013

Unlike Rowling, They Were Denied Literary Fame

J.K. Rowling tried to go under the radar by using a pen name for The Cuckoo's Calling, but many other great authors spent all or part of their careers involuntarily missing out on the literary cachet and cash they deserved.

Yes, as we endure "the dog days of summer," those authors endured "the dog years." And posthumous fame isn't very satisfying for the deceased.

Why do some stellar authors not get the appreciation they deserve when they're around to enjoy it? Their writing might be too original, too challenging, too quirky, too candid and/or too controversial for many readers. Or publishing companies were too dense to spot exceptional talent. Or authors were women or people of color during a time when most publishing spots went to white men. Or some authors wrote mostly for their own satisfaction -- telling themselves they didn't want or need fame. Maybe they even believed that.

A prime example of an unappreciated-while-alive author was John Kennedy Toole, whose A Confederacy of Dunces didn't come out until 11 years after he committed suicide in despair over rejections of his novel. Toole's mother, with the help of author Walker Percy, finally got the book published by a university press in 1980 -- and, sure enough, it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction the following year.

Only a few of Franz Kafka's stories were published during his lifetime, though he posthumously became renowned for his surreal, existential, alienation-packed works. Breaking new ground with unconventional material isn't always easy.

Edgar Allan Poe didn't become truly famous until "The Raven" came out in 1845 -- 18 long years after he was first published. Poe's brilliant short stories and other work were somewhat appreciated prior to '45, but he was probably better known for occasionally depressed/erratic behavior caused in large part by personal tragedy and constant financial worries.

Then there were writers, such as Herman Melville, who had early success before fading from public consciousness during their lifetimes. Melville's first novel -- Typee, inspired by the author's South Seas adventures -- did quite well. But subsequent novels sold fewer and fewer copies before Moby-Dick baffled many critics and other readers -- and bombed. Melville's next novel, Pierre, infuriated lots of people with its implied incest theme, and he spent his later years working as a customs inspector and writing little-read poetry. A posthumous revival began in the 1920s with a Melville biography and the discovery of the Billy Budd manuscript.

Like Melville, Zora Neale Hurston experienced fame followed by obscurity followed by posthumous fame (author Alice Walker helped with that revival). After an incredibly productive 1930s that saw her write Their Eyes Were Watching God and more, Hurston published just two books in the 1940s before spending the last years of her life as a freelance writer, a maid, etc. Even during the height of her popularity, Hurston was less lauded than contemporaries such as Richard Wright because her not-overtly-political writing (which used dialect at times) and her personal ideology (Republican/libertarian) didn't fit the mold of most other African-American authors of that era. Also, sexism undoubtedly affected the response to her work.

The lesser-known Robert Walser also peaked early in the fame department. He enjoyed a certain amount of success during the first half of his life for The Assistant novel, short stories and other work, but lapsed into obscurity during his later years.

Marcel Proust was fairly well-known for contributions to periodicals and other work before starting In Search of Lost Time, but a number of publishers rejected that sprawling novel's first volume. And Proust's 3,000-page opus was often more admired than read.

A handful of Emily Dickinson's poems ran anonymously in newspapers during her lifetime, probably submitted by family or friends. She showed little outward interest in having her verse appear in print, and the vast majority of her now-iconic poems didn't get published until after she died.

Jane Austen had decent book sales during her lifetime, but didn't rocket to widespread renown until long after her death. Her novels received relatively few reviews (including a positive write-up from Sir Walter Scott) while she was around to read them, and her novels were published anonymously because that was done by some women writers back then.

Rowling -- who named Mrs. Norris the cat in Harry Potter after the annoying character in Austen's Mansfield Park -- thankfully lives in an era where female writers have a better chance for fame.

Who are your favorite authors denied the success they deserved during their lifetimes?


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