Mary Shelley (1797 – 1851)
Though Shelley is most famous for Frankenstein, she was a writer all her life, entertaining herself as a child by writing stories, reading everything she could get her hands on. she even managed to make a living of it. But for a long time after her death, she was largely remembered as Percy Shelley’s wife — in the introduction to a 1945 publication of her letters, editor Frederick Jones wrote, “a collection of the present size could not be justified by the general quality of the letters or by Mary Shelley’s importance as a writer. It is as the wife of [Percy Bysshe Shelley] that she excites our interest.” It was not until the 1970s that her work really started to garner serious critical attention, due in large part to the rise of feminist and psychoanalytic criticism, and not until 1989 that a serious biography of the writer was published.
Herman Melville (1819 – 1891)
Okay, it’s true: Herman Melville was a literary celebrity in his day — but not for the book you think. Melville’s first three books were very popular at the time of their publication, especially his bestselling debut novel, Typee, but after a few brief years of fame, he fell out of favor and was almost completely forgotten by the time of his death in 1891. “Though I wrote the Gospels in this century,” Herman Melville moaned in 1851, just after the publication of Moby-Dick, “I should die in the gutter.” Probably an overstatement, but we understand how he felt — after all, by 1876, all of his books were out of print. It wasn’t until the 1920s, in the so-called “Melville Revival” that critics began to reassess (and champion) the author’s work, and now Moby-Dick is considered by just about everyone to be an essential literary masterpiece.
Henry David Thoreau
Walden, Thoreau’s 1854 treatise on self-reliance, may still be required reading for many high schoolers, but in his own time he was considered a little… off. He only published two (rather obscure) books during his lifetime, and many of his contemporaries criticized his work, notably Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote a scathing essay on the author in 1880, wherein he described Thoreau’s experience in the woods as “like a plant that he had watered and tended with womanish solicitude; for there is apt to be something unmanly, something almost dastardly, in a life that does not move with dash and freedom, and that fears the bracing contact of the world. In one word, Thoreau was a skulker.” It wasn’t until the 1920s that Thoreau began to get his due.
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