Writers of Worth Who Spent a Short Time on Earth

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.

Prolific Prose Practitioners

There’s a saying that “everyone has a book in them,” but some authors have a LOT of books in them. They’re terrific at being prolific, churning out novels and other works as fast as cartoon bird Road Runner moves (but with fewer feathers).

Many high-speed authors average at least a book a year, with some putting out even more. The vast majority of prolific novelists write mass-audience fiction, because that kind of book can be rather formulaic and thus more quickly created than literary fiction. But there are challenging novelists who also write fast.

Some quick authors, such as James Patterson, have help from assistants — meaning they are not quite as personally prolific as they seem. According to Wikipedia, the 68-year-old Patterson has 150 books to his credit!

Of course, the number of books a novelist writes is not the only proof of productivity; the size of the works has something to do with it, too. For instance, Charles Dickens penned “only” 20 or so novels before dying at age 58, but a number of them are quite long.

And Dickens is an example of an author who also kept busy in other ways — giving speeches, performing in theatrical productions, etc. Meanwhile, some writers pack their schedules by not only penning novels, but short stories, plays, poems, children’s books, nonfiction books, articles, and/or reviews as well. Yes, all that quantity can make the quality suffer, but not always. Some people just write like the wind!

First, let’s look at some literary and classic authors with many books to their credit. For instance, France can boast of Honore de Balzac and Emile Zola, who each wrote about three dozen novels (among other works) before dying at ages 51 and 62, respectively. Given that they obviously weren’t published authors as kids and teens, that’s a ton of output during their adult years. Fellow French author Alexandre Dumas penned about 40 novels, 10 travel books, several plays, and more during his 68 years.

Some prolific novelists from other countries:

Sir Walter Scott wrote a whopping two dozen or so novels and other books between 1814 and his 1832 death at the age of 61. That was after he focused on his widely read poetry during the earlier part of his career.

Henry James, who lived to 72, authored about 30 novels and novellas plus tons of other fiction and nonfiction. And his subtle, intricate, psychological writing was not the kind to be knocked off easily.

Edith Wharton, who died at 75, had nearly the same output as her friend Henry even though she didn’t become a published author until her late 30s.

W. Somerset Maugham wrote 36 novels and short-story collections, 25 plays, 15 nonfiction books, countless articles, and more before dying at the age of 91.

John Updike penned nearly 30 novels, 17 short-story collections, and other works during his 76 years.

A very prolific living author with a literary bent is Joyce Carol Oates, 77 — who has written an astounding 44 novels, 11 novellas, and 38 short-story collections under her own name; 11 other novels under a different name; and more.

Alice Walker, now 71, has written a total of 30-plus novels, short-story collections, poetry collections, and nonfiction books.

Mass-audience novelists? One of the most productive of the past was mystery writer Agatha Christie, who penned 66 novels under her own name, six novels under another name, 17 plays, and more during her 85 years.

Prolific living authors in the mass-audience (but sometimes literary) realm include Dean Koontz (well over 100 novels since 1968), Stephen King (55 novels since 1974 — plus lots of other work), Sue Grafton (24 novels since 1982), John Grisham (29 novels since 1989), Lisa Scottoline (25 novels since 1993), David Baldacci (32 novels since 1996), and Lee Child (20 Jack Reacher novels since 1997).

Last but by no means least, the great Isaac Asimov wrote or edited an incredible 500-plus books — many not science fiction — before dying at age 72.

Oh, and William Shakespeare penned 37 plays and 154 sonnets during his 52 years.

Who are some of your favorite prolific authors? (You can also name some you don’t like. 🙂 ) Can there be quantity and quality?

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I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.