Great Novels Revered Not Sooner But Later

Some notable novels don’t catch on at first — taking years, even MANY years, before getting the respect they deserve. Initial sales and critical reaction can range from poor to so-so, with the reverence not coming until later.

Why? The books might have been “before their time,” controversial, out of “the mainstream,” too challenging, or not marketed well. Or maybe there was no discernible reason for the lack of early thriving — just one of those fluky things. Sometimes, “failed” books get noticed more when the authors write later classics, causing readers to look back at their earlier work. Other times, screen adaptations might bring delayed attention to the novels.

The first title that came to mind for this post — the theme of which was suggested by blogger Endless Weekend in a comment under one of my previous posts — is Moby-Dick. As I’ve discussed before, Herman Melville’s classic bombed with readers and critics when first published in 1851. Too deep? Too metaphysical? Too diverse a crew? Too much minutiae about whales? Other reasons? Anyway, Moby-Dick wasn’t “rediscovered” until nearly 30 years Melville after died, when the 1919 centennial of his birth spurred scholarly interest in the author.

Soon after, in 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece The Great Gatsby was published to generally favorable reviews — but sales were kind of modest. Hard to know why given how good the novel is, and it’s a fairly short work that has the additional selling point of being a pretty quick read. One way strong interest in the novel finally kicked in was when the Council on Books in Wartime gave free copies of Gatsby to American soldiers during World War II — not long after Fitzgerald died in 1940. The novel’s popularity continued to surge from there, and three more Gatsby movies were released in 1949, 1974, and 2013.

Then there was Jane Austen. Sales of her novels — including Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Emma — were okay during her lifetime and soon after her death in 1817 (when Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published posthumously). But Austen’s work didn’t explode in popularity until decades later. One thing that helped was 1869’s A Memoir of Jane Austen by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh. In our present time, her novels obviously remain widely read, and the subject of various screen adaptations. Why weren’t Austen’s novels not as favored as they should have been two centuries ago? Perhaps one reason is that they were wrongly seen as somewhat “inconsequential” works written by a woman during a very patriarchal era. Hardly inconsequential, of course.

A later-in-the-19th-century author, Alexandre Dumas, saw his compelling Georges novel published in 1843. It wasn’t remotely as popular as his soon-to-come The Count of Monte Cristo (which contains some elements similar to Georges) and The Three Musketeers. One obvious reason is that Georges was the only novel by Dumas that focused on race and racism — with a positive, non-stereotypical protagonist who’s partly Black (as was the author). A revelation during that time. But the long-out-of-print Georges became greatly appreciated in the 21st century — even being reissued by Modern Library in a 2007 edition.

Well, those are just a few examples. Any others you’d like to mention? Any thoughts on the ones I discussed?

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 Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about a petition against a local over-development and two more harassment accusations against a suspended township manager — is here.

99 thoughts on “Great Novels Revered Not Sooner But Later

  1. A great discussion post. I am not at all surprised that The Great Gatsby took such a long time to gain its popularity. This is a book whose tragedy need careful and prolong digesting, and I am not at all sure if the public back then were really that sympathetic regarding the main character described by Nick. The context of Fitzgerald’s publications must have a lot to do with the situation, too. He made his name on one book, and then followed his play disaster. The first star shone the brightest, his debut. The general thought then it is a bit hard to surpass something what made your name.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Diana! You make eloquent, convincing points about why “The Great Gatsby” wasn’t immediately as successful as it would be. And, yes, quite a checkered career for Fitzgerald after his masterpiece.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Not quite sure of the exact date for Katy Carr’s trip to Europe, as it’s a sequel, but she was wise enough to know her ‘beloved Miss Austen” – and surprised by the response,. when she visits jane Austen’s grave in Winchester cathedral.
    Catullus disappeared for a few centuries – suspect our Latin teacher enjoyed sharing poems we wouldn’t have been allowed to read in English. Not on the curriculum..

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Esther! Nice to hear confirmation that Jane Austen had a strong reputation during that part of the 1800s.

      And I appreciate the mention of Catallus, a name I wasn’t familiar with. I enjoyed just looking him up on Wikipedia. I guess some ancient writers went through centuries of not being known much and then getting “rediscovered.”

      Like

  3. I think Stephen King’s earlier works are becoming more and more popular particularly The Dead Zone. Then again, his novels wouldn’t fit in this theme re “great novels” so my only contribution, in that respect, would be Dostoevsky’s Demons. When we consider our current political, cultural, and/or environmenal climates, both books are well-suited to any disaster du jour–whether it is here in USA or globally. Yikes! Great theme Dave. I’m really more hopeful about the future though this post appears that such is not the case.
    https://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2020/04/stephen-king-trump-quarantine-the-stand-if-it-bleeds

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I can’t think of a literary equivalent for Vincent Van Gogh in the visual arts, someone who was almost totally ignored during his lifetime who became a household word in popular culture. Perhaps Herman Melville or Emily Dickenson came closest.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Anonymous! Emily Dickinson is definitely in the running, as is Kafka and perhaps a few others. Herman Melville fell into obscurity, but was relatively famous early in his literary career — mostly thanks to his debut novel “Typee.”

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve never read “A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole but that novel would qualify for the subject of this blog because it was not published until AFTER the author’s death.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Interesting example because, even though there was a very sad delay from writing to being published, the novel did really well when finally published and in fact won a Pulitzer. I liked but didn’t love “A Confederacy of Dunces,” but it IS absolutely hilarious.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I was surprised to see some of these on the list, Especially Moby Dick and the Great Gatsby. I read both as assignments but the discussion of them didn’t include the fact that they weren’t appreciated when first published. I still feel like I owe Melville a leisurely read of Moby Dick

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I still haven’t had the guts to tackle Moby Dick yet. One of these days I will get around to it!!! I would put Edgar Allan Poe as a whole in this category. His work (and especially his short novel) definitely saw a lot more appreciation in later years.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, M.B.! Herman Melville’s whale will still be around when you’re ready. 🙂

      An excellent observation about Edgar Allan Poe. While he did have a certain amount of success during his lifetime, it wasn’t a whole lot of success — and his posthumous fame and influence have been on a whole other level!

      Liked by 3 people

      • In the 1850’s and ’60’s, Charles Baudelaire translated Poe into French, to the delight and appreciation of readers there, and enhanced his stature internationally, which, in turn, had a bit of influence on literature readers and critics here.

        Also, he’s one of those writers that have compelling power to lead one into dark places of their own making, where chills and fear take over the imagination of the reader, so that all it takes is reading him to appreciate his disturbing gift. Not many of his literary contemporaries can attract and appeal as he can.

        Liked by 4 people

          • Yes, so far as I’ve read. In the wikipedia entry under Poe, there is an illustration by Eduard Manet made to accompany Stephane Mallarme’s 1875 translation of “The Raven”–that’s a lot of artistic and literary celebrity visited on one poem, and I’d take it as proof that what Baudelaire began, a great many others in France carried forward.

            (Sorry if this week I seem monomaniacally bent on citing wikipedia. it’s more a case of corroborating what I thought I knew, and sometimes, I’m right!)

            Liked by 2 people

  7. Hi Dave, the novel that comes to mind for me is Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. It was not well received during the author’s short lifetime and only gained momentum later.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. I read in Wikipedia that the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865), the author of “Cranford” and “North and South” was not highly regarded by literary critics until the 1950s and 1960s.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. There’s a very popular Indian author by the name of Munshi Premchand. His short stories and novels, all written in Hindi, received their due only after he lived no more to enjoy their success. I hope this isn’t an unlikely addition to your list.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Interesting topic this week Dave. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that an author might not have achieved overnight fame for some of their works!
    So, the only author I could think of was Nella Larsen with her novels ‘Quicksand’ and ‘Passing’. I know I mentioned her a couple of weeks ago for something else. She was one of two female authors considered part of the Haarlem Renaissance. However, because of various personal reasons she only ever published these two novels (to my knowledge). Interestingly ‘Passing’ fits in with last week’s theme as this 1929 novel was made into a film a couple of years ago with Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson. I haven’t seen the movie but the novel was excellent.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Sarah! Excellent mention!

      There have certainly been too many cases in which an author who wasn’t a straight white male didn’t get as many opportunities or get their due at least partly because of racism, sexism, and/or homophobia. Less of an issue now than in Nella Larsen’s time, but still an issue.

      Liked by 4 people

  11. Georges, the Dumas novel, was it about/based on the actual historical figure in your illustration, Afro-French Fencing Master Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges?

    Also, re Melville: I’d argue that a reassessment of Melville, and possibly “Moby Dick” in particular, began with Brander Matthews, who invited the aging novelist to meet other writers and admirers at the Author’s Club here in New York City. Matthews was a professor at Columbia, who still has a drama library named after him there. As I recall, this was the first sort of recognition given to Melville as a literary figure in some years– and it happened before1920.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, jhNY! Actually, I don’t know the answer to your question. The edition of “Georges” I own has a different cover; I pulled this one off Google Images. I had assumed Dumas’ protagonist was a made-up figure, but he could have definitely been inspired by someone.

      Glad to hear Melville received a bit of late-in-life acknowledgement before he died in 1891. Perhaps that did help somewhat in terms of his later fame that would skyrocket in the 1920s.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. The only novel popping into my head, which comes close to your fun theme, is “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov. However, it’s obscurity was mainly due to Stalin’s censorship and lack of translation. Supposedly begun in the 1920’s and finally published posthumously in whole in the 60’s, it began to garner worldwide acclaim and made its way into various media. One of my favorites!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Bulgakov’s “Heart of a Dog”, a biting satire of Soviet communism’s transformative aspirations, was also suppressed in the USSR, though it does have a pub date of 1925– but not in the USSR, where the tale first saw official light of day in the 1980’s.

      Pertinent to today’s headlines: Bulgakov was born in Kyiv, and studied medicine there.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Thank you, Mary Jo and jhNY! Censorship/repression of a work is an excellent angle on the delayed fame of some novels. As is a translation (or translations) not happening until later. “The Master and Margarita” is an amazing book! I haven’t read “Heart of the Dog” but I can imagine it’s also great. And, yes, interesting Kyiv connection!

        Liked by 3 people

  13. There are three books that I have read and enjoyed that were not well received. As you know, Dave, I search for the backstory before I read a novel. (Promise I do not read the last page first).

    The first one was Brave New World. I was fascinated, horrified and motivated by the narrative. But Brave New World’s reception was quite chilly. I did a quick look-up this morning and found this passage from Caitlin Keiper’s article “Brave New World at 75”

    “The critical reception of Brave New World was largely chilly. Most reviewers were disgruntled or disgusted with what they saw as unjustified alarmism. H. G. Wells was downright offended. “A writer of the standing of Aldous Huxley has no right to betray the future as he did in that book,” Wells said. In fact, Wells felt the bite of this betrayal personally — his own writings, especially his 1923 novel Men Like Gods, had been Huxley’s inspiration. Huxley told a friend in 1931 that he was “writing a novel about the future — on the horror of the Wellsian Utopia and a revolt against it.”’https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/brave-new-world-at-75

    Then there was the brilliant, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. At the time most people believed that it was disrespectful. Even now there is debate.

    The last book – well it is much more there 1 one, is Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. I read The New York Times wrote negative comments. And many reviewers, which is hard for us to believe now, wrote that is was shallow and had no literary merit.

    Here is my takeaway. I confess that I have disliked some books at first glance, and came later to find that they were extraordinary and life-changing for me. I have an equation that I recall when I have a dubious feeling about a book: No + Time = Yes. Perhaps the book is not for today, but for another time.

    Liked by 7 people

    • Thank you, Rebecca, for the interesting and eloquent comment! All the novels you mentioned definitely deserved instant critical kudos; a shame that didn’t happen as much as it should have.

      Of course, sometimes books seen as “different” don’t catch on immediately. One way “Brave New World” was offbeat was making a dystopia partly pleasurable (but not really). “Huckleberry Finn” was relatively enlightened racially at a time when one didn’t see that much in literature; plus Twain’s use of dialect — which he employed wonderfully — was off-putting to some people. And Tolkien practically invented a certain fantasy genre; some people had a hard time handling something not in their familiarity zone.

      Liked by 5 people

    • Didn’t know that about Huxley but I think I read somewhere re Orwell’s 1984 getting a semi similar reception in some quarters, although he was famous by then. But you look at how famous that book is now. Lady Chatterley’s Lover was certainly revealed, rather than revered, later rather than sooner seeing as it was banned. But in terms of themes, class, having to get an heir, the terrible affect of that war on generation of young men, of being true to yourself, I think it has stood the test of time better than his other books.

      Liked by 5 people

        • Thank you, Shehanne! 🙂

          Yes, if an author is already famous before a “certain” book comes out, it does help. “1984” was definitely a work that would draw quite a visceral reaction.

          Long-ago or relatively long-ago novels with fairly strong sexual content always faced some strong resistance. And I agree that “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” with all the elements you mentioned, has aged well. Finally read it two or three years (?) ago, and thought it was excellent.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Well, do you know I read it when I sort of worked in that library for a bit and spent my time doing useful things, such as reading Chatterley which along with Lolita was on the shelf through the back where people still had to fill out a form to read them. I found it far more interesting than Sons and Lovers and actually not because of the sex. Even then the themes were more timeless to me. And while people all still do the nudge, nudge bit, it is a classic love story.

            Liked by 3 people

    • Hi Rebecca, I can well understand why Brave New World was not well received, it is hugely critical of society and quite disparaging about human nature. I didn’t know about Lord of the Rings. I thought Tolkien was famous during his life time. I fail to see how it was deemed shallow, but people can be obtuse and lacking in insight.

      Liked by 3 people

      • J.R.R. Tolkien had supporters in W.H. Auden, Iris Murdock and C.S. Lewis, but there was hostility by others, including the literary critic Edmund Wilson who called it “juvenile trash”. The Scottish poet Edwin Muir wrote of The Return of the King “all the characters are boys masquerading as adult heroes….” There are many others who were critical, all of which will be remembered in history for their critical reviews and how they “got it wrong”. I wonder what they would think today. Would they have a different perspective?

        Liked by 2 people

  14. Thank you for taking me up the suggestion, Dave, I’m honored! I do think this is a great topic, and there are way too many authors whose works didn’t get recognized until well after their publication. What does say about us, I wonder?

    Two authors come to mind whose works were mostly unknown until after their death: Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka, who I believe asked his writing to be burnt, and was ignored by his friends?

    Liked by 5 people

    • You’re welcome, Endless Weekend! It was a great suggestion. 🙂

      Yes, one wonders what critics and the public were thinking when certain great novels came out to little acclaim. (Reminds me a bit of how some turned-out-to-be-massively-successful authors were rejected by many publishers in the beginning.)

      You’re right — the work of Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka became famous only posthumously. In their cases, there was also the element during their lifetimes of seeming to have some reluctance to have their writing out there.

      Liked by 4 people

        • From wikipedia:

          “After publication in 1961, Catch-22 became very popular among teenagers at the time. Catch-22 seemed to embody the feelings that young people had toward the Vietnam War. A common joke was that every student who went off to college at the time took along a copy of Catch-22. The popularity of the book created a cult following, which led to more than eight million copies being sold in the United States.”

          Took Heller a while to write it, but it sold fast, and a lot.

          Liked by 4 people

          • I forgot where I originally heard that Catch-22 didn’t do well initially (now it’s on many top 100 book lists…), so I looked up some of the original reviews. From NYT:
            “Catch-22,” by Joseph Heller, is not an entirely successful novel. It is not even a good novel. It is not even a good novel by conventional standards.”
            https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/98/02/15/home/heller-catch.html

            Not a great start for a review 🙂 Maybe it was polarizing? I remember reading somewhere that Heller, at the time, said sales dwindled pretty quickly?

            And, of course, I could be mistaken… Wouldn’t be the first time 🙂

            Liked by 2 people

            • There are of course novels that get poor or mixed reviews yet sell well. I wonder, Endless Weekend, if that less-than-complimentary New York Times review depressed sales temporarily but ultimately not that much?

              Liked by 3 people

              • Related, sorta: “Abie’s Irish Rose”

                from wikipedia:

                “Although the play was a tremendous popular success, it was universally loathed by the critics. Robert Benchley, then the theatre critic for Life magazine, nursed a particular hatred for it. Part of Benchley’s job was to write capsule reviews each week. He described Abie’s Irish Rose variously as “Something Awful”, “Just about as low as good clean fun can get”, “Showing that the Jews and the Irish crack equally old jokes”, “The comic spirit of 1876”, “People laugh at this every night, which explains why democracy can never be a success”, “Will the Marines never come?” and finally “Hebrews 13:8,” a Biblical passage that reads, “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, and today, and forever.” He also held a contest for an outsider to contribute the capsule review, which Harpo Marx won with “No worse than a bad cold.””

                And yet, in a larger sense, “Abie’s Irish Rose” ran for “2,327 performances between May 23, 1922, and October 1, 1927. At the time, this was the longest run in Broadway theater history.”

                Which reminds me of that classic Yogi Berra line: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

                Liked by 2 people

              • Could very well be. I was curious why I had the impression on Catch-22 was revered “not sooner but later” as you said. So I looked that up and found an interview with Heller, https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/3894/the-art-of-fiction-no-51-joseph-heller, where he said:

                “In 1962 I was sitting on the deck of a house on Fire Island. I was frightened. I was worried because I had lost interest in my job then—which was writing advertising and promotional copy. Catch-22 was not making much money. It was selling steadily (eight hundred to two thousand copies a week)—mostly by word of mouth—but it had never come close to the New York Times best-seller list.”

                In retrospect, even with the turbulent path it had to its publication, it probably isn’t the best example for this category?

                Liked by 2 people

        • “Be careful not to encourage me too much, I have more ideas” — ha, Endless Weekend! 🙂

          Re “Catch-22,” I have no idea about its initial reception. But the mid- and late-1960s were certainly a more conducive time for Heller’s novel than its publishing year of 1961.

          Liked by 1 person

      • According to wikipedia:

        Kafka did publish some short stories , but otherwise, periodically burned most of what he wrote himself, and asked author Max Brod to burn what he left after death. (Thankfully, Brod did not, but I think there has been some amount of wrangling and controversy concerning ownership of copyright in recent years.)

        Emily Dickinson saw 10 of her poems published while she lived, some to help raise money for Union soldiers’ medical care.

        Liked by 3 people

          • I intended to mention Franz Kafka and his very sad life, Dave, but the person above was faster! I would therefore just like to add that he had always been very afraid of his father and his mother but rarely helped him out and he lost all his brothers and sisters. We therefore do not have to be shoked that the writer wrote books as sad as the Methamorphosis in which the main character, a salesman, called Gregor Samsa was slowly turned into a small insect and in the end was considered unbearable by his family and thrown away. Many thanks for your interesting proposal:)

            Liked by 4 people

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