Though death and authors is a well-covered topic on PWxyz (see here and here), we haven’t given due attention to the writers that left an enduring mark on literature without living a full life. In the cases where the writers knew of their impending deaths, it’s worth considering how much that knowledge informed their work, while in the cases of an unexpected death, we can only wonder how much more these writers could’ve accomplished with a longer life.
Thomas Chatterton (age 17)
Before succumbing to arsenic poisoning, English poet Thomas Chatterton never achieved the renown he found after death. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and John Keats, who dedicated Endymion to him, all praised Chatterton posthumously. But during his short life, Chatterton was ignored by publishers and was so poor he couldn’t eat (though he also refused charity his friends offered). Nonetheless, his legacy has lived on: the writings of Thomas Rowley, Chatterton’s fictitious 15th-century monk, was published seven years after his death. More recently, there’s a song about him, a collection of “Chattertoniana” in the British Museum, and, in 1987, Peter Ackroyd wrote Chatterton, a literary re-telling of his life.
John Keats (age 25)
Like Chatterton, Keats’s reputation became what it was after his death. When he died in 1821, he’d only been writing for six years (his first piece of poetry, “O Solitude,” appeared in print in 1816) and copies of his work had supposedly only totaled around 200 copies. Some biographers cite Keats’s exposure to his brother’s sickness in 1818 as the origin of the tuberculosis that would eventually take his life. In his last years, as his condition worsened, he was convinced he’d made no mark on the literary world. Still, even as his health waned, he was productive, making the final revisions to “Bright Star” the year before his death.
Sylvia Plath (age 30)
Plath began writing poetry at age 8, and saw The Bell Jar published just before her death in 1963, the culmination of more than a decade battling her depression. During her lifetime, she had work published in Harper’s, The Spectator, and the Times Literary Supplement, as well as a contract with the New Yorker. Her first book, The Colossus and Other Poems was published in 1960, but it was Ariel (1965), that launched the reputation she has today. Twenty years after her death, she was awarded the Pulitzer for her Collected Poems.
Frank Norris (age 32)
Though he was only 32 when he died, Frank Norris left behind a tremendous amount of writing. Before winding up writing novels, the form for which he became famous, he wrote poetry, short stories, and was a news correspondent. His first novel, McTeague, is naturalist masterpiece and was published when Norris was just 29. Two years later, Norris began his planned but uncompleted trilogy, The Epic of Wheat, with The Octopus. The second book in the trilogy, The Pit, was published in 1903, one year after Norris’s death from a ruptured appendix. The trilogy’s third book, The Wolf, was never finished.
Arthur Rimbaud (age 37)
The poet called “an infant Shakespeare” by Victor Hugo gave up writing altogether before age 20. The last years of his young career included A Season in Hell, a prose work that had a lasting influence on Surrealist writers, and Illuminations, which was published by his former lover Paul Verlaine–the man who ended up shooting 18-year-old Rimbaud in the wrist after their relationship went sour. By 1875, Rimbaud had given up writing entirely, spending the last half of his live traveling, enlisting in the Dutch Colonial Army, and working as a foreman in a stone quarry. In early 1891, he developed what was initially thought to be arthritis in his knee. After he failed to respond to treatment and his leg was amputated, and he was diagnosed with cancer. He died that November.
Flannery O’Connor (age 39)
At 25, Flannery O’Connor was diagnosed with lupus, the disease that her father died of when O’Connor was 15. She was expected to live only five more years, but lived for 14 more, and in the process became a great novelist and one of the great masters of the short story, with her Complete Stories winning the National Book Award in 1972, eight years after her death. Today, the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction is given annually by the University of Georgia to an outstanding collection of short stories.
Franz Kafka (age 40)
While Franz Kafka did publish The Metamorphosis (as well as some of his more famous shorter works) during his lifetime, it was only when his friend and literary executor Max Brod ignored Kafka’s wish to burn his works upon his death that Kafka’s reputation began to ascend to what it is today. The fact that he could never really bring himself to “finish” his longer works never hampered their reception after his death of tuberculosis in 1924.