Some deceased authors are more famous, as famous, or nearly as famous as they were when alive. Just a few among the many in this group would be Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, George Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Henry James, George Orwell, John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, and Virginia Woolf.
The reasons for their enduring popularity can include the quality of their work and/or having had outsized personalities and/or writing in a universal enough way that what they penned back then still strongly resonates today. (And, heck, it doesn’t hurt that Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four inspired the widely used term “Orwellian,” and that Woolf’s name became part of the title of a famous play.) Whatever the reasons, some long-dead authors are still remembered for a number of books apiece — and remain widely read.
But then there are deceased authors nowhere near as famous as they used to be. In many cases, they’re remembered chiefly for one or two novels while the rest of their canons have largely faded from public consciousness.
Why? Tastes changes, and not all writing ages well — some of it can eventually seem old-fashioned and too “of” a bygone era. Also, many past authors were “merely” great rather than GREAT great. But often there’s no easy explanation for why certain authors fall out of favor. Their writing may be wonderful and even timeless, yet they no longer get as much love as they deserve.
Sometimes, critics are at least partly to blame. For instance, the somewhat-faded luster of Sir Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper might have something to do with them both being slammed to an unfair degree by the influential Mark Twain.
Scott is still widely known for Ivanhoe and perhaps Rob Roy, but many of his other novels are barely remembered even though some (like Old Mortality and The Heart of Midlothian) are better than the two more famous ones I just mentioned. Cooper still gets present-day props for The Last of the Mohicans (the Daniel Day-Lewis movie adaptation helped 🙂 ), even as the other four of his “Leatherstocking Tales” and the rest of his plentiful canon have mostly faded to a Wikipedia list.
Colette is now mostly recalled for Gigi, but she wrote many better novels — including The Vagabond. When hearing Willa Cather’s name, you might think of My Antonia and Death Comes for the Archbishop, but that accomplished author wrote a number of other great novels now undeservedly obscure. Mary Shelley remains justifiably famous for Frankenstein, but she wrote a half dozen more novels (including the amazing apocalyptic work The Last Man set in the year 2092) that most people would now be hard pressed to name.
Erich Maria Remarque also remains justifiably famous for All Quiet on the Western Front, but his other novels — some of them extraordinary, like Arch of Triumph and The Night in Lisbon — are not on the tip of most current readers’ tongues. Same for Aldous Huxley, with millions of people aware of Brave New World even as his excellent non-futuristic novels (such as Point Counter Point) are mostly forgotten.
I could go on and on. Other deceased authors who I think don’t get full kudos these days include Honore de Balzac, Anne Bronte, Erskine Caldwell, Theodore Dreiser, James Hilton, Sinclair Lewis, Bernard Malamud, W. Somerset Maugham, and Emile Zola, to name a few.
Of course, each author has her or his “story” explaining why they’re not better known. For instance, the very talented Anne Bronte was overshadowed by her even more talented sisters Charlotte and Emily.
Balzac and Zola remain literary stars in their home country of France and certain other places but are not as widely read in the U.S. Hilton’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Lost Horizon are still kind of famous (again, film versions helped) but few people could identify Hilton as the author of those two novels or name his other quality books (such as We Are Not Alone). The movie versions of Elmer Gantry and The Natural have helped Sinclair Lewis and Bernard Malamud remain somewhat known these days, plus the religious hypocrisy Lewis exposed in Elmer Gantry still strongly resonates in the 21st century.
Then there are authors who were famous for part of their lives before falling into obscurity that they were rescued from only years after they died. Herman Melville is one prime example, and another is Zora Neale Hurston — whose writing returned to the public eye with a big assist from Alice Walker.
Who are some deceased, once-famous authors you feel aren’t known as much as they should be these days? And, if you’d like, you could also mention great authors (past or present) who have NEVER gotten the recognition they deserve.
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