Among literature’s “writers for the ages” are many who died at a young or relatively young age. They packed memorable works into their short time on Earth — in some cases, just one or several works; in other cases, quite a few. Pretty impressive.
It’s poignant to think of what else they might have produced if they hadn’t died well before their senior-citizen days because of suicide, disease, alcoholism, hard living, an accident, etc. Some might have never surpassed the “A” quality of their early output, but even “B” work would have been welcome.
In this post, I’m going to focus on writers who never reached the age of 45.
The first I’ll mention is died-at-44 Joseph Roth (1894-1939), an Austrian writer who’s not that well known today but should be. This month I read his novel Right and Left, and was impressed. Not his best or most-remembered work — that’s probably The Radetzky March, which I haven’t read — but Right and Left is a fascinating look at several not particularly appealing characters living in 1920s Germany, just a few years before the Nazis rose to power. Roth conveys what it’s like for Jewish or part-Jewish people to live at that time and place, and we see plenty of politics, wealth, poverty, unhappy relationships, self-hatred, shallowness, melancholy, and more.
Also 44 when they died were four much more famous writers: Anton Chekhov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Louis Stevenson, and D.H. Lawrence.
Chekhov is of course known for his terrific, subtle short stories as well as his plays. Fitzgerald is obviously most associated with his great The Great Gatsby, but one can also find a lot to like in his novels Tender Is the Night and (the unfinished) The Last Tycoon. This Side of Paradise? Meh. I plan to eventually read Fitzgerald’s short stories.
The novels Stevenson is most remembered for include Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — but, as I’ve written before, I think his last book was his best: the exquisite Weir of Hermiston, unfortunately also not completed. Lawrence made his mark with novels such as Sons and Lovers and Women in Love.
I’ll take a brief break here from writers known mostly for novels or short stories to mention some known mainly for poetry during their short lives: Countee Cullen (who lived to 42), Arthur Rimbaud (37), Lord Byron (36), Phillis Wheatley (31), Percy Bysshe Shelley (29), and John Keats (25). In the theatrical realm, we have A Raisin in the Sun playwright Lorraine Hansberry (34).
Nikolai Gogol, who lived to 42, was a playwright, novelist (Dead Souls), and more. Guy de Maupassant, also 42, made his name with short stories and some novels. Jane Austen of course wrote six now-classic novels (including Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion) before dying at 41. Jack London churned out a large number of works in his 40 short years on Earth, with my four favorite novels of his The Call of the Wild, White Fang, The Sea-Wolf, and Martin Eden. Edgar Allan Poe produced many works of horror and some non-horror before dying at age 40. And Franz Kafka (40), is perhaps best known for his surreal novella The Metamorphosis.
There are also Flannery O’Connor (39), most famous for her story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and her novel Wise Blood; Alexander Pushkin (37), the Russian poet, playwright, and novelist; Nathanael West (37) of The Day of the Locust and Miss Lonelyhearts renown; John Kennedy Toole (31), whose Pulitzer Prize-winning A Confederacy of Dunces was published posthumously through the efforts of his mother and author Walker Percy; Sylvia Plath (30), who wrote The Bell Jar and more; and Stephen Crane (28), who penned The Red Badge of Courage and more.
Before concluding, I obviously also have to mention the Brontë sisters: Charlotte, 38; Emily, 30; and Anne, 29 (all pictured in the painting atop this blog post). Charlotte lived long enough to pen several novels, including the iconic Jane Eyre. Emily’s one novel was of course the tempestuous Wuthering Heights, and the best of Anne’s two novels was The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. There was more than a little Brontë poetry, too.
Who are some of your favorite writers (ones I mentioned or didn’t) who died young or relatively young? You can go a few years over 45 if you’d like (as did George Orwell, O. Henry, Henry Fielding, H.P. Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, Margaret Mitchell, Edward Bellamy, Carson McCullers, Stieg Larsson, Honoré de Balzac, William Shakespeare, Richard Wright, Mary Shelley, Kate Chopin, Emily Dickinson, James Hilton, etc.)!
My 2017 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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about a heartwarming fundraiser and not-heartwarming overdevelopment — is here.