An author has a unique opportunity to create a work that can withstand the test of time. Sometimes their work is not adequately recognized during their lifetime but decades—or even centuries—later their work survives and their legacy truly begins. Consider some of these authors:
Emily Dickinson: during her lifetime, only one or two poems were printed and attributed to her, though several more appeared in newspapers under the byline “Anonymous”. It wasn’t until after her death that her sister Lavinia discovered nearly two thousand unpublished poems. Fortunately for us, Lavinia didn’t set them out with the refuse but worked with editors Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson to publish the first volume of poems four years after Emily’s death.
John Keats: though he apprenticed as an apothecary, he never practiced but turned instead to writing poetry. His first book, Poems by John Keats, was published in 1817 when he was 23 years old but did not see much success. His second work, Endymion, was a critical failure. A third book of poetry containing Hyperion, Ode to a Nightingale, Ode on Melancholy and Ode on a Grecian Urn, was published shortly before his death to much better reviews. By that point, however, he had an advanced stage of tuberculosis and died at the age of 25.
Stieg Larsson: he died of a heart attack at the age of 50 after climbing 197 steps up to his apartment, before his first novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was published.
P. Lovecraft: he began writing when he was only six or seven years old. An ardent reader and follower of science, chemistry and astronomy, he was a prolific writer but his stories and poems were generally confined to amateur or pulp magazines. It wasn’t until after his death that his friends began publishing his books, eventually leading to a reputation as one of the greatest fantasy, science fiction and horror writers.
his book, Moby Dick, was panned by the critics, had poor sales and was considered the beginning of his literary decline during his lifetime. He gave up writing novels, turning to poetry instead, until shortly before his death. His books would not become popular and his writing did not earn the respect and praise it deserved until decades after his death.
Edgar Allan Poe: he was so poor that at one point, he burned his furniture to keep warm. Though his first book, Tamerlane, was published when he was eighteen years old, it did not earn sufficient money to pay expenses. While he was living in poverty, he won a literary contest that eventually led to a job as an editor with the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond, Virginia. Dissatisfied and trying to earn a living as an author, he experienced critical acclaim for some of his work but was never able to remain out of poverty for very long. He died at the age of 40 in 1849. Today his works are some of the most recognizable in the world.
he worked for much of his life in his father’s pencil factory. Living at home, his mother took in boarders to help with expenses. In 1845, he built a small house on land owned by his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, on the shores of Walden Pond. Though two books were published during his lifetime, only one—Walden, published in 1854—was a modest success, but it wasn’t enough to keep him from moving back home and returning to work in the pencil factory.
Though in many of the instances noted above, the authors lived short lives and thought of themselves as abject failures, their work lives on today, inspiring countless readers, film makers and other writers. If you think of your own writing as successful only in terms of monetary gain during your lifetime, you may be tempted to become disillusioned. However, if you step back and view your body of work as a separate entity that will live on long past your natural lifetime, you can begin to understand how your writing can influence history.
Writers have changed the tides of history by bringing human tragedies or social injustice into the limelight, as Harriett Beecher Stowe did with Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Charles Dickens strove to do with books such as Oliver Twist. Authors have also inspired inventions and technological breakthroughs, such as Simon Lake’s submarine which drew inspiration from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea or Igor Sikorsky’s helicopter from Verne’s Clipper of the Clouds. Robert Heinlein inspired the invention of robotic limbs. The list goes on.
As you are writing, consider your legacy. Up the ante.