From Known to Less Known to More Known Again

Octavia E. Butler (photo credit: Curious Fictions)

Sometimes, a novel falls into obscurity or semi-obscurity before returning to wider public consciousness many years later. This leap might happen because of a new screen or stage adaptation of the book or a change in societal conditions, or for both reasons, or for other reasons.

A current example is Octavia E. Butler’s mind-boggling 1979 novel Kindred, which inspired a 2022 TV series that just began streaming on Hulu. New York Times critic Mike Hale expressed mixed feelings about the production (which I haven’t seen), saying it only did partial justice to Butler’s book (which I found riveting). But it’s hard for even a so-so screen adaptation to totally ruin a searing, compelling, intricate story — in the case of Kindred, about a 20th-century Black woman repeatedly yanked back in time to the plantation where her ancestors lived in the slave-holding American South.

Turning Kindred into a TV series is timely this year because of the recent rise in overt racism in the U.S., partly “thanks” to white supremacists such as Donald Trump (who still has the support of about a third of Americans) and other prominent Republicans. Also in the news have been the efforts by U.S. conservatives to try to prevent schools from teaching the country’s disturbing racial history, the harrowing murders of George Floyd and other victims of police brutality, the protests against those killings, and more.

There’s renewed interest, too, in Butler’s 1993 novel Parable of the Sower, with its prescient theme of climate change’s disastrous effects.

Butler (1947-2006) was considered a science-fiction writer but her novels are wider in scope — offering more social commentary (including anti-racist and pro-feminist elements) and more diverse casts of characters than many other sci-fi authors. She grew up in a low-income family, and became an avid reader with the help of her mother, who, as a housemaid, would bring home her employers’ discarded books and magazines for young Octavia to read.

Another novel that recently saw revived interest was Sinclair Lewis’ gripping It Can’t Happen Here (1935), about the rise of an American dictator. That dystopian political novel was never a totally obscure part of the Lewis canon, but for decades was not as well known as the author’s 1920s classics such as Main Street, Babbitt, and Elmer Gantry. Then, when the authoritarian/admirer-of-authoritarians Trump became president in 2016, It Can’t Happen Here suddenly felt prescient — and jumped up best-seller lists again. Trump of course went on to embellish his fascistic credentials by never conceding the 2020 election he convincingly lost and encouraging his followers to storm the U.S. Capitol in early 2021.

Zora Neale Hurston achieved some renown for books such as her excellent 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, but was mostly forgotten in her later years and after her 1960 death — with one reason being the difficulty for an African-American woman of that era to maintain a high profile in a mostly white-male publishing world. Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and her other books were eventually “rediscovered” largely thanks to another author, Alice Walker, finding Hurston’s unmarked Florida grave in 1973 and writing an influential article about her for Ms. magazine in 1975 (seven years before the release of Walker’s The Color Purple). Obviously, Black authors had a somewhat better chance of attaining prominence in the 1970s and beyond than they did decades earlier.

After some early-career 1840s writing fame, Herman Melville also become largely unknown by the time of his death in 1891 — the year Hurston was born. Nearly three decades later, the 1919 centennial of Melville’s birth moved some scholars to revisit his life and his Moby-Dick opus — which had garnered notice when published in 1851 but mostly for negative reasons: the novel was given a thumb’s down by many critics and sold poorly. Those 20th-century scholars helped turn the profound saga of Captain Ahab and crew into a belated sensation in the 1920s and after. Also, the manuscript for Billy Budd was found among the keepsakes of Melville’s descendants and published for the first time in 1924, to great acclaim.

Part of Melville’s “problem” was being so ahead of his time. A 2019 Columbia magazine article by Paul Hond contained this quote: “Melville was a nineteenth-century author writing for a twentieth-century audience,” explains Columbia professor Andrew Delbanco, author of the 2005 biography Melville: His World and Work. “He used stream of consciousness long before Stein or Joyce; he acknowledged America’s predatory power as well as its great promise; he defied convention in writing about sex; and perhaps most shocking of all, he took seriously the possibility of a godless universe. In his time, there was a limited market for these insights and innovations.”

Miguel de Cervantes’ iconic 1605 novel Don Quixote has nearly always been famous, but it jumped even more into public consciousness after inspiring the hit Broadway musical Man of La Mancha that made its debut in 1965. An appropriate decade for that to happen, because Don Quixote’s idealism and unconventionality made him a 1960s-type character of sorts.

I’ll conclude with a strange tale involving Colleen McCullough, whose novels include the terrific The Thorn Birds and the nearly as good Morgan’s Run. She also wrote The Ladies of Missalonghi, which, when published in 1987, turned out to be a blatant rip-off of L.M. Montgomery’s exquisite 1926 novel The Blue Castle. McCullough said this one blot in an exemplary career was not intended — she called it a case of “subconscious recollection” — but the situation did have the positive result of reviving interest in The Blue Castle, an underrated part of the wonderful Montgomery canon best known for Anne of Green Gables.

Any thoughts or examples relating to this week’s blog theme?

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” topical-humor column for every Thursday. The latest piece — about an imagined tour of my town by a cynical fake Santa — is here.

94 thoughts on “From Known to Less Known to More Known Again

  1. I’m thinking of “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad.
    Acclaimed in literary circles, it did not achieve any popular success.

    It was published (1902) as 1 of 3 stories, and was the least favourite.
    It did not gain popularity until the 1970’s, when Chinua Achebe “Things Fall Apart” trashed it.

    “Apocalypse Now” (1979) the movie by Coppola, was based on this novel. It was after seeing the movie that I read the book.
    I find it interesting that in a sense it was ahead of its time. It is criticized now by many for things that were commonplace back then, but are racist, antifeminist and extolling colonialism.
    Some now regard it as a masterpiece.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dave, the year is almost ending and what a wonderful post. You do so much extensive research on books that is amazing.
    We are in subzero temperature in OH, and worried about losing power.The climate change and what not.
    The horrible past President refuses to leave when I thought he would be all done by now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Bebe! 🙂

      Fingers crossed that your power and heat will stay on. The bitter cold has started to hit New Jersey, too. Yes, climate change has something to do with crazy weather like this. 😦

      As for Trump, leaving is not his thing…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. So many great books out there to read!!! I LOVED Kindred: read it last summer (well, ‘devoured it’ might be better wording) when I was visiting my daughter and found it on her bookshelf. It was a riveting read. I’m ashamed to admit I have never read Moby Dick but I think you will have been the one who finally inspired me… he sounds like a fascinating person, not to mention a fine author. Thanks for the inspiration!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Dave, I’m late to this week’s party as we’ve been in the bush with limited Wi-Fi. I enjoyed your mention of The Man of la Mancha. I never saw it but my mother had the record so I have listened to it a few times. I loved my mother’s Broadway records when I was a girl. I do know the whole story of The Blue Castle and The Ladies of Missalonghi. I have read The Blue Castle. I can’t think of any books other than banned books that fit into this category. One is Cry the Beloved Country which was banned in South Africa during the apartheid era.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Have been reading crime/political thrillers by the French novelist Jean-Patrick Manchette, who died in the midst of what he intended to be his most ambitious and far-reaching works– after which, for various reasons, including the passage of time and change in tastes, he fell into relative obscurity. No more, thanks to the many efforts of his son, and to the unique contributions he made to French crime fiction, which have enjoyed a renewed appreciation of late.

    Manchette has been described, and I think accurately, as an inheritor of Hammett”s aesthetic– spare and speedy accounts of action, and pointed description of characters and settings. There is nearly no description of thought or interior monologue. When things start to happen, the effect is immediate and seems to mirror the speed of events– almost. Manchette’s novels, the three I’ve read: “The N’Gustro Affair”, “Nada”, and “Fatale”, are filled with conspiracies and unscrupulous actors, some in the name of belief, and some in the name of nihilism and power– especially the first two. “Fatale” seems to be a sort of personal and literalist approach to the implications of predatory capitalism, in which the capitalists become prey to a person who hunts them, literally, for her own gain.

    But obscurity can befall all sorts, in literature, but also, elsewhere. Just today, reading the Guardian, I learned that Botticelli languished in obscurity for centuries, ranked as a minor order of painter by the influential biographer Vasari. Today of course, his most famous works are ubiquitous and beloved.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, jhNY! Great example of a writer becoming better known again. Having a descendant work on the writer’s behalf can’t hurt. 🙂 A comparison to Dashiell Hammett is flattering indeed, and your description of Jean-Patrick Manchette’s work is excellent. I guess he might have made my list of favorite French novelists last week if I had read him; he’s now on my list.

      And that’s a really interesting link. Yes, some painters and other non-book-writer creative types can also have ebbs and flows in renown.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. When you have billionaire man-babies like Elon Musk, the resurfacing of novels such as The Great Gatsby and Bonfire Of The Vanities comes as no surprise. I would also like to mention Capote’s Answered Prayers, which is also an upcoming TV series by Ryan Murphy. Capote’s Answered Prayers based primarily on his relationship with several famous NYC socialites circa 1950s, was said to be instrumental in his complete breakdown. Certainly all of the above are cautionary tales to say the least, and an example of what I have said on a number of occasions and/or it always gets darkest before it gets totally black. Great theme Dave, and early Happy Holidays to you and yours. Susi

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Susi!

      Ha — 🙂 — “billionaire man-babies”: that’s exactly what Elon Musk and others of his ilk are. People like that can indeed indirectly draw renewed attention to certain novels. And I appreciate the link to the sad, fascinating piece about the fallout from the problematic Truman Capote turning on his high-society “friends.” The rich and their hangers-on can be a very depressing bunch.

      Happy Holidays to you, too!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Finally, getting some time here today to come back and say what a great post. You always blog find another literary subject each week and it never fails to amaze me. So??? From known to less known to known again, I am going to mention F. Scott Fitzgerald, which might seem an unlikely choice in some respects. But he bursts on the scene with his first book, embraces the hedonistic lifestyle, which involves getting evicted from a hotel and coasting by on the box of previously rejected stories under the bed, adapts one into a play that flops, spectacularly. While he makes god know what in Hollywood scriptwriting, well, it’s not quite his bag. But let’s not forget Gatsby which, talking Hollywood is still in front of audiences and one of his best known books.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. I’ve often thought I should read Moby Dick for pleasure. I was forced to read it in high school, and then assigned the Norton Critical Edition in a college course. I noticed earlier this year, that that literature course has substituted Billy Budd for Moby Dick in the syllabus. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

    I hope you have a wonderful holiday, Dave

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Dan! There’s definitely a lot of pleasure to be had with “Moby-Dick” amid the more “sloggish” parts. The great prose, the memorable characters, the laugh-out-loud humor, the suspense…

      “Billy Budd” is of course a much shorter, more straightforward work of fiction, but still interesting enough and “deep” enough to be worthy of study.

      Have a great holiday, too!

      Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Daniel! That’s a great observation! I think Orwell’s later work (“Animal Farm” and “1984”) had a decent amount of success when he was alive, but it certainly became more popular after he died. And that popularity undoubtedly rose and fell somewhat depending on world events of an authoritarian nature. Plus I remember an especial revival of interest in “1984” in…1984.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Bill! Perhaps your excellent books just need some more time to go by. 🙂 Re your “request” for revival secrets, I’m guessing you were being partly droll with that line, but I think a book getting a second life is just random chance in many cases.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Yet another interesting and informative post, Dave, as well as the discussion. As so many of these books demonstrate, some of our great writers were visionaries in their perception of the human condition that transcended their own time. >I share Liz Gauffreau’s ill-feeling “for the writers whose work isn’t widely read until after their deaths.”

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Rosaliene! “…some of our great writers were visionaries in their perception of the human condition that transcended their own time” — so true, and very well put! And, yes, to be a great author and not appreciated in one’s lifetime… 😦

      Liked by 3 people

  10. Kafka is a really interesting case, Dave. He burned most of his work and wished his unfinished work be burned when he died. That would account for his then obscurity. I have mixed feelings about author’s wishes being ignored. For one, the author cannot further edit, comment or defend. That author can then be analyzed ad infinitum in a vacuum of uncertainty. Talk about violation of intellectual property rights!

    Liked by 4 people

  11. I’ve been preaching about “It Can’t Happen Here” for years now, even before Turnip became more than a Noo Yawk curiosity.
    But the part I emphasize is how the real threat in ICHH is not from the blowhard dictator and his comic-opera cadre, but from the local thugs who see a chance at power, prominence and a share of the spoils, at the same expense of the folks whom they blamed for their own fundamental shortcomings.
    (Indeed, — SPOILER! — by the end of the book, the tossed-under-the-bus Windrip is judged to not be worth the trouble of assassinating.)

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Don! A novel worth preaching about! And a great point about how a threat to democracy can come not only from so-called “leaders” but from some of their followers, too. A major source of Trump’s power is that a certain segment of his supporters are willing to threaten or use violence; that’s one reason why many spineless Republican bigwigs have publicly backed (or at least not criticized) Trump when they privately know he’s a clownish idiot.

      Liked by 2 people

  12. While it has never been out of print, “The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come” by John Bunyan is rarely read in book clubs. It is not an easy read, given it was written in 1678. I read it a long, long, time ago. Even less well known is John Bunyan’s “The Holy War Made by King Shaddai Upon Diabolus”, but I digress.

    What makes The Pilgrim’s Progress so interesting to me is the influence on other writers: C.S Lewis, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott, George Bernard Shaw, William Thackeray and the list goes on.

    I hope this comment comes through. I have been in and out of internet because of travel.

    Another great post, Dave. I will be back for the follow-up discussion.

    “This hill though high I covent ascend;
    The difficulty will not me offend;
    For I perceive the way of life lies here.
    Come, pluck up, heart; let’s neither faint nor fear.”
    John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Rebecca! Yes, some long-ago works can be tough going for a modern audience. With some exceptions; for instance, I found “Don Quixote” pretty readable. I’ve never gotten to “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” Interesting to hear how influential it was on later writers; I had no idea!

      Hope you’re enjoying your travels, and good luck with Internet access!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. And then you have artists like Henri Dagger who never sought recognition during his life time and nevertheless achieved posthumously fame. Just to have some distant third degree cousins squabble over his heritage with the curators of his works.

    Liked by 3 people

  14. Quite a bitter sweet theme this week. I just read ‘Their eyes were watching God’ – what a terrific novel! I think Kafka didn’t receive a great deal of recognition during his lifetime and also Stieg Larsson (apologies if spelling incorrect!!) who wrote the excellent Millenium Trilogy that begins with ’Girl with the dragon tattoo’.
    Nella Larsson also…? I say this tentatively….but she didn’t write anymore after her two excellent novels in the late 1920s because of her negative experiences (I think!), so I wonder if she went through some obscurity before finding renewed interest in her work?

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thank you, Sarah! You’re definitely right about Kafka and Stieg Larsson; very little recognition for their memorable work during their lifetimes. I’ve read a lot of Kafka and all three books of Larsson’s trilogy; riveting. I had only vaguely heard of Nella Larsen until seeing your comment and looking her up on Wikipedia — fascinating. Just put her on my to-read list.

      “Their Eyes Were Watching God” is indeed a compelling novel!

      Liked by 3 people

      • Thank you for correcting my terrible spellings!! Nella Larsen is excellent and I think you will very much enjoy her work. If my memory is correct I think she was considered part of the Harlem renaissance.

        Liked by 3 people

        • I’m looking forward to reading her if my local library has at least one of her books!

          Nella Larsen, Stieg Larsson, Gary Larson (“The Far Side” cartoonist) — all variations on a naming theme. 🙂

          I myself should have noted in my previous comment that Stieg Larsson’s and Kafka’s fictional works were all (or mostly?) published posthumously.

          Liked by 4 people

          • I sort of knew that Kafka wasn’t very recognised during his lifetime but sounds like it was a lot worse than I had imagined! But Larsson’s work – to be on the brink of success and to die so tragically young!!
            And thank you for making me feel marginally better and highlighting the variety of spellings for the one name 😅

            Liked by 2 people

              • Sixty-five years ago, in Chapel Hill NC, I was acquainted, such as a little fellow of tender years could be, with Richard “Mac” MacKenna– I kept a pencil he gave me on the occasion of my sixth birthday for years.

                McKenna was a Navy man who served on the gunboats that patrolled China in the 1920’s. Out of his experiences there, he wrote “The Sand Pebbles”– a book that deserves more readers today– over a long period of time, during which the and his wife lived on his Navy pension.

                When he published, “The Sand Pebbles” became a best-seller, and soon after, he sold the movie rights– and that’s what most people today know, if anything, the movie starring Steve McQueen.

                The financial relief was of relatively short duration, at least as experienced by the author. Richard McKenna died about six months after he sold those rights, and never lived to see the movie.

                Liked by 3 people

                  • Read it 40+ years ago, and foolishly gave my copy to a fellow who didn’t read much, but someone I thought would enjoy, as he was mechanically-inclined, the loving descriptions of the gunboat’s workings– McKenna’s affection was quite apparent. But, like I wrote above, the fellow didn’t read much.

                    I’d imagine the book would not be hard to find, but I haven’t tried.

                    Liked by 2 people

                • Fate (as in when a person dies) can be especially cruel sometimes, jhNY. 😦 I’m also reminded of Jonathan Larson, who died just before the premiere of his play “Rent” — which of course became VERY successful.

                  Liked by 1 person

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