Less-Famous Works By Famous Writers

Top-tier authors are often known mostly for certain novels, and some people read only those books without delving into the writers’ lesser-known work…unless they do.

If they do, they might find gems or disappointment or a combination thereof. But, not surprisingly, it’s frequently worth the effort.

My latest foray into this realm was with James Fenimore Cooper. Before last week, I had only read the novels with which he is most associated — the five “Leatherstocking” books featuring Natty Bumppo’s wilderness and frontier life, and his memorable interactions with Native Americans (most notably Chingachgook) and other characters. All five novels are excellent, with The Last of the Mohicans the most known and The Deerslayer my favorite.

But Cooper penned about 25 other novels, so I decided to try one of them: The Spy, set during the Revolutionary War. It’s…okay, not much more. Perhaps partly because it’s James F.’s second novel, and not all fiction writers find their footing that early in their careers. Still, The Spy has some anniversary cred — it was published in 1821, exactly 200 years ago.

I’ve usually had more positive experiences trying the lesser-known novels of notable authors. One example is L.M. Montgomery, who’s of course most remembered for Anne of Green Gables. But some of the Anne sequels are also quite good (especially Anne’s House of Dreams and Rilla of Ingleside), Montgomery’s semi-autobiographical Emily trilogy is excellent, and her standalone novel The Blue Castle is fabulous. All set in Canada, of course.

Speaking of that country, Willa Cather’s Quebec City-set Shadows on the Rock is an under-appreciated gem by an author who’s remembered primarily for Death Comes for the Archbishop and secondarily for My Antonia. Her The Song of the Lark is pretty compelling, too.

The six words most associated with Erich Maria Remarque are those in the title of All Quiet on the Western Front — his antiwar masterpiece. The riveting Arch of Triumph is probably his second-highest-profile novel. (As with All Quiet, it didn’t hurt that the book inspired a major movie.) But equally good or perhaps even better books in Remarque’s canon are his less-famous The Night in Lisbon and A Time to Love and a Time to Die.

Indeed, an author’s best-known novel is not always his or her best novel. Consider Colette, whose supposedly signature work is her late-career Gigi even as quite a few of her earlier books are better than that rather slight concoction. The Vagabond, for example, and even her debut novel Claudine at School — one a semi-autobiographical look at a music-hall performer who values her independence and the second…well…just plain hilarious.

Edith Wharton is most remembered for her novels The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth, and Ethan Frome — all stellar — but her ghost stories are also as good as that genre gets.

I’ve obviously only scratched the surface here. What are some of your favorite novels that are not as known as other novels in the canons of famous authors?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about a leaf-blower ruling and some COVID-related matters — is here.

107 thoughts on “Less-Famous Works By Famous Writers

  1. Dave, as we know Kurt Vonnegut was a brilliant Novelist.
    His first two Novellas were never published until his Daughters published them after his passiong.

    We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.
    ~Kurt Vonnegut

    Liked by 1 person

    • “The first novella is called “Basic Training”, and according to Vonnegut’s daughter has hints of autobiography.

      . In the story an orphaned city boy named Haley is displaced to a farm and a life managed by a strict former general for whom discipline is the only game in town. “Basic Training” seems to be about the ways we can love someone. The “General” comes across as a harsh unfeeling man, but Vonnegut undeniably endows him with a sense of pride,
      This book contains the first story he wrote in the 40’s, Basic Training. He had never found a publisher before, but I found it very engaging. It is a pretty straightforward narrative, and greatly enhanced by the commentary provided by his daughter in the forward. ”
      Actually dave, I loved the first Novella.

      But the second novella ruined that for me. I thought that Gil was a thoroughly unlikeable character…looks was sort of unfinished work..

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, bebe! I remember reading those novellas a few years ago on your recommendation. Not even near Vonnegut’s best work, of course, but they were both interesting. And “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be” is an amazing quote!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hello Dave!
    Here I am again, under-read and over excited.
    Nonetheless, I’d read a lot of Lucy Maud Montgomery when growing up.
    Later, in my early career, I did get to work on TV adaptations of some of her lesser known work. I was a seamstress at that point.
    I worked on Jane of Lantern Hill tv movie, and Road to Avonlea tv series.
    I still have my team jacket that the crew got at the end of filming Avonlea!
    Well, that’s about it for this week.
    I enjoyed this post! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Resa! 🙂

      Nice that you read much of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s writing when growing up — and later worked on some TV adaptations! What a great addition to anyone’s résumé. 🙂 And that team jacket is a terrific keepsake!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Leo Tolstoy’s late novel Resurrection is not that well known. It is not rated very highly by literary critics but there are passages that are well written and the heroine Katyusha is one of the author’s better female characters. On the whole though, this novel is overly didactic.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The Signal Man is a short ghost story by Charles Dickens that’s not as well known as his major works, also it is less humorous and sentimental than most of Dickens’ writings.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ooooh fun question. I agree that some of the later Anne books in the Montgomery series, while they don’t as often get the mention, are just as worthy of the read time. Especially the way later books involving her kids! 🙂 I’m having a hard time thinking of others but Beverly Cleary actually popped into my mind, probably because I’ve been thinking of her a lot since her recent passing. Her books were one of the gems of my childhood. While she’s most often praised and remembered for the Ramona Quimby series and the many resulting spin off novels, she wrote a lot of other great books including “Ellen Tebbits,” which was actually one of my favorites of hers!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, yes, the title of that Willa Cather novel was based on the title of that painting! (Like Donna Tartt later did with “The Goldfinch.”)

      Hope you get to visit that Chicago museum! When I spent a year at Northwestern University, I THINK I visited the museum, but am not sure. That was years before I read “The Song of the Lark,” so the painting might not have “drawn” me as much as it would now.

      Thank you for the comment, lulabelle!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Carel Fabritius (1637-1673) painted “The Goldfinch”. He was killed by an accidental gunpowder explosion, known as the Delft Explosion, which destroyed most of his paintings as well, killed 100 people and wounded thousands. There are small indentations in the surface of “The Goldfinch”, possibly caused by the explosion.

        Though the painting is now strongly associated with Donna Tartt’s book, I always think of Merwin’s earlier translations of a selection of Osip Mandelstam’s poems. I saw the little painting there first.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thank you, jhNY! What a tragic loss of life and art. 😦 Interesting that “The Goldfinch” painting found its way into literature before Donna Tartt’s novel — which I thought was fantastic.

          Like

  6. I also had one more idea! I thought of Patricia Highsmith and her “The Price of Salt”, which she seems to have written in 1952 and is about the love of two women, thing absolutely not tolerated then. It was only in 1990 not many years before she died in Locarno that this very personal book was published under the name of “Carol” and under her own name.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Martina! That’s a terrific mention!

      Patricia Highsmith definitely wrote some high-profile novels (“Strangers on a Train,” the “Ripley” books), and one wonders if “The Price of Salt”/”Carol” would be just as famous if not for the “controversial”-for-its-time subject matter.

      Reminds me of E.M. Forster’s gay-themed “Maurice,” written many decades before it was published posthumously.

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  7. I had to dig deep for this week’s challenge (A challenge for me only because I seem to go for the most popular of authors works!!). Many years ago I read Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder which I found a really good read and, I recall, it was very well received at the time. Some years ago I read The Solitaire Mystery by the same author and rereading some of my notes It seems I cared for it not a jot! I haven’t read any reviews recently but I wonder if it was as well received as Sophie’s World? I think possibly not.
    The other one I’m going to suggest, but it may be a controversial inclusion, is Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set A Watchman’. I’m sure it must have been incredibly popular on release but clearly it won’t ever stand up to ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ for all the reasons that were suggested why it shouldn’t have been released in the first place.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Sarah!

      Intriguing mention of “Go Set a Watchman”! I haven’t gotten to it, but, from everything I’ve read about it, it’s nowhere near as good as “To Kill a Mockingbird.” And of course there was much debate about whether it’s actually a separate novel or, rather, as most people seem to think, an earlier draft of “TKAM.”

      I’ve never read Jostein Gaarder. I’ll see if my local library has “Sophie’s World” during my next visit. (In October or November; I took out five novels when I visited a few days ago. 🙂 )

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi Dave, another fabulous post. I loved the Emily books and have re-read them more often than the Anne books. I read all of those too. I think James Clavell is best know for the book, Shogun, but I also enjoyed Noble House, King Rat, and Tai-Pan. I read Shirley and Villette by Charlotte Bronte, Hard Times and Bleak House by Charles Dickens (if one can say that any Dickens book is less well known). I also love A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe which is less well known [I think] than Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Robbie! 🙂 Many great mentions!

      I thought “Shogun” was riveting — very long, but just the right length. 🙂 Coincidentally, I just borrowed “Tai-Pan” from the library a few days ago! Will get to it within a month or so.

      “Villette” is very good and “Shirley” is pretty good, but the transcendent “Jane Eyre” is deservedly better known in Charlotte Bronte’s canon. I also liked a lesser-known Anne Bronte book (her debut novel “Agnes Grey”) but her “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” is far superior.

      Ha! Yes, most Dickens works are well known, but some (such as the two you mentioned) are somewhat less famous than others. Also in that category are “Barnaby Rudge,” “Dombey and Son,” “Little Dorrit,” “The Old Curiosity Shop,” and a couple more. I liked them all in varying degrees, especially “Dombey and Son.”

      Last but not least, you’re definitely right about the popularity pecking order of those Daniel Defoe works!

      Liked by 2 people

      • The “Emily” novels are indeed great, Robbie, and readers who are writers can especially relate to them. I like “Anne of Green Gables” and “The Blue Castle” a bit more, but the “Emily” trilogy is fabulous.

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      • You are very well read, Dave. I have only read Little Dorrit of the four Dickens you mentioned, but I have read many of the more well-known novels. I didn’t enjoy Anne’s novels as much as Charlotte’s and Emily’s. I loved Wuthering Heights and have read it a few times.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thank you, Robbie — as are you! I agree that Anne Bronte’s novels are not as good as “Jane Eyre” and the stunning “Wuthering Heights” — both of which definitely reward rereading! But I thought “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” was excellent — and perhaps the most feminist work a Bronte sister ever wrote.

          Liked by 1 person

  9. As you know, Dave, I always go on about Virginia Woolf. I think her novel “Orlando” has grown to some renown overtime (perhaps in part due to contemporary preoccupation with gender and gender roles). But in fact, as I think I remember from one of biographies sitting in my bookcase, Mrs. Woolf herself called it a “writer’s holiday”, as if it were something she almost wrote off the cuff, a break from what she herself saw as her more substantive writings. Still, I think many who have read Orlando will agree it’s a very pleasing novel with more than a touch of the surreal (quite apart from all the fast forwards in time and sex changes going on).

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you! That’s another great mention! Virginia Woolf’s most famous novel is probably “Mrs. Dalloway,” with “To the Lighthouse” probably second, but “Orlando” is definitely a surreal (as you noted), memorable, ahead-of-its-time work.

      Liked by 2 people

  10. As you know, I have been into non-fiction for most of my life, thanks to the influence of my father. Even so, I was a voracious fiction reader when I was young. Think J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Victoria Holt (aka Jean Plaidy) and even Mario Puzo.

    In my later teens, I discovered Leon Uris and read several of his books:Battle Cry (1953), Exodus (1955) and Mila 18 (1961), but it was “Armageddon: A Novel of Berlin” that he wrote in 1963 that opened my eyes to complexities of living within a diverse and ever changing environment. That life was not objective, but subjective – that our decisions would influence our quality of life. To chose wisely was essential for decisions had exponential impact. As Leon Uris wrote in Armageddon: “The moment of decision is the loneliest in human life. It must be come upon in stillness and darkness and brooding thoughts and doubts torn out from the deep reaches of the soul.”

    Another marvelous post, Dave. Isn’t it fun to be a bookaholic.

    Liked by 6 people

    • Thank you, Rebecca! 🙂 It is indeed fun to fun to be a bookaholic! 🙂

      Your mention of Mario Puzo brought back memories of reading “The Godfather” and how big a thing “The Godfather” movies were back in the day. And of course Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” were beyond riveting.

      I will definitely try a Leon Uris novel in 2021! I appreciate your memories of the consequential thoughts his work evoked in you — and that’s quite a Uris quote you cited!

      Liked by 3 people

      • I have often wondered what I would think if I revisited a Leon Uris novel. It is always difficult to read challenging novels based on world events. You may be interested in what started me on my non-fiction journey. My father gave me “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” by Dee Brown. It was a difficult book that took me ages to read. My great great grandmother was Santee Sioux, so it was pivotal in my reading quest.

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    • Hi Rebecca, I am also a Leon Uris fan but I have not read Armageddon. I’ve read a few that aren’t on your list. I will go and see what Armageddon is all about. Your comment about ‘living within a diverse and ever changing environment’ has piqued my interest.

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      • Armageddon is the fictional portrayal of Europe in the earliest days of the Cold War. It is also about the Berlin airlift. I found that Leon Uris is an excellent storyteller. There is a mix of reviews on Goodreads. Some felt that there were stereotypes. As I mentioned to Dave, I wonder how I would feel reading it in 2021 rather than 1970, which was closer to the time of the events in the book. I find even the classics run out of favour because they are read within our context rather than the context in which they were written. That is why I like finding out about the author as well as reading a book.

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  11. Challenging topic, which I think I woukd find more to contribute to than time to do so (as currently with blogging in general). I’m presently reading Northanger Abbey by Jane Austin, which Sarah (https://piratecaturbancowboy.wordpress.com/) drew my attention to. Clearly not a mature work, published posthumously, but immensely enjoyable and with many irreverent references (thank you Sarah!). Elizabeth Gilbert is of course famous for Eat, Pray, Love, and The Signature of All Things, but Pilgrims, Stern Men and The Last American Man are definitely worth reading, and in my view certainly not less so than EPL.

    Liked by 4 people

  12. For me this is a very difficult and challenging question, Dave, and one I have never really thought about!! But there is one novel, which I liked, I can probably mention and that is “An edible woman” by Margaret Atwood, in which she speaks about a young consumeroriented young lady, whose body somehow gets separated after her engagement! In that period to remain unmarried had much to do with uncertainties, but marriage had other negative sides!
    Thank you very much for this thought-provoking post:)

    Liked by 5 people

  13. Lol, prob repeating myself re Golding’s The Inheritors and De Bernieres’ Birds Without Wings. I’d add Eliot’s Romola though. Probably bad of me to say but I liked it so much better than Adam Bede. Great post. Love the picture of the Emily books

    Liked by 5 people

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