Call me Ishmael. There’s no opening line more famous than this one from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. But Melville’s epic was received with such critical distaste by his contemporaries, it propelled his steady slide into literary obscurity. His first book, Typee, was received positively, as were subsequent travelogue novels like Omoo; ironically, the whale of a novel that sank his career is now his most transcendent.
Selected Poems of William Blake
If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.
William Blake’s contemporaries considered his revolutionary views to be nothing short of madness. A pioneer in poetry, printmaking, and painting, Blake rebelled against Rationalism and moved toward what we now recognize as Romanticism. Blake’s mysticism and reverence for the natural world has influenced everyone from Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, and Aldous Huxley.
Kafka may not have died in anonymous poverty, but he was certainly not well-known. Metamorphosis, his most studied work, didn’t even appear in English until the late 1930s. As Jonathan Lethem says in But What If We’re Wrong?, “Kafka was conversant with a sophisticated literary conversation, and had, despite the strongly self-defeating tendencies to neither finish nor publish his writings, the attention of various alert colleagues. If he’d lived longer, he might very likely have become a prominent writer.”
The Sound and the Fury
The road to publication was rocky for Faulkner, whose early novel Sartoris (1929) was rejected by most publishers. Embittered and vowing to write only for himself, Faulkner produced The Sound and the Fury, easily considered to be one of the 20th century’s great masterpieces. In his lifetime, Faulkner’s novels received some severely mixed reviews. Critics oscillated between spotlighting his genius and calling him incoherent. 20th century modernism saw many more readers for Faulkner, whose work is now read for its style as much as its representation of race and gender in the American South.
The Master and Margarita
Though it was written between 1928 and 1940, The Master and Margarita was unpublished in book form until 1967. Part of the issue may have been that Bulgakov—disillusioned with writing under Soviet watch—burned his first manuscript, and never fully finished his subsequent efforts. He died in 1940, having finished most of the book, save for some loose ends. In 1966 a censored version was published, making its way to Grove Press in 1967. The Master and Margarita has shown up in a variety of interesting places, from The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” to My Dinner with Andre and Star Trek: the Next Generation.
Heart of Darkness
One of the most critically acclaimed and widely studied works of literature from the twentieth century was far from a success during Conrad’s life. The influential British literary critic F.R. Levis dismissed Heart of Darkness as a “minor work.” It was overlooked by others because of its ambiguity. Today, Heart of Darkness is not only considered a critical smash but is also something of a pop-cultural phenomenon due to its film adaptation into the now cult-classic Apocalypse Now. The horror, the horror!
On the Road
Probably the most canonical work of the Beat generation, On the Road received mixed reviews upon publication in 1957. The New York Times gushed about Kerouac, making him an overnight sensation only to tear him down when the critical backlash began. Reviews from Time and The Atlantic compared Kerouac unfavorably to Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and most read as if to say “what’s all the fuss about?” Today Kerouac remains as enduring a cult figure as James Dean, and ultimately, as widely studied as F. Scott and Ernest.
Complete Tales & Poems
Edgar Allan Poe
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
You say “American Gothic,” I say “Edgar Allen Poe.” But the man we now know as the master of the macabre, the champion of literary classics like “The Raven” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” lived the majority of his life in astonishing poverty. Though it is true that some of Poe’s work was published in his lifetime, he spiraled into alcoholism and financial ruin after a brief success with the 1845 publication of “The Raven.” After his death, his literary rival Rufus Griswold wrote a biography of Poe intended to be defamatory. Quite to the contrary, it actually drove book sales higher than they had ever been during Poe’s lifetime. Fast forward decades later and every middle school English class is still reading “The Raven.” Evermore.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Philip K. Dick
A science fiction writer who dreamed of mainstream success, Philip K. Dick lived in near-poverty for most of his life, and failed to write a big commercial novel that—he hoped—would finally earn the literary establishment’s respect. In the 50s and 60s, only small publishers like Ace were willing to go to bat for Dick, whose work would go on to be famously adapted in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and recently, Amazon’s Man in the High Castle.
The Complete Poems of John Keats
What’s more romantic than poetry? Probably the poetry of Englishman John Keats, which includes “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” and “The Eve of St. Agnes.” Critics didn’t appreciate him during his lifetime, and he died young of tuberculosis, but writers like Tennyson and Borges championed his delicate and vivid poems for centuries after his death. Keats is now taught in most Romantic poetry courses, next to contemporaries Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley. For more on Keats, don’t miss Jane Campion’s gorgeous 2009 film Bright Star, starring Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish.
Brave New World
This 1931 novel was unbelievably ahead of its time, eerily anticipating things like IVF and genetic engineering, and the use of hallucinogens. Huxley was celebrated by some in his lifetime, but Brave New World did not receive the kind of reviews that would presage its status as a classic of dystopian literature. “A writer of the standing of Aldous Huxley has no right to betray the future as he did in that book,” H.G. Wells lamented. Huxley now cuts a more impressive figure, largely considered to be the father of modern science fiction.
But What If We're Wrong?
Chuck Klosterman wants to know: how does a book or artist become accepted as self-evidently awesome? So many of the books we consider to be classics were poorly received when they first came out, with their authors never knowing if their work mattered. In his new book But What if We’re Wrong?, Klosterman talks to some of today’s greatest creative thinkers about the intersection between art and popular opinion. From George Saunders and Jonathan Lethem to Ryan Adams, Richard Linklater and Neil deGrasse Tyson—all of them think maybe, possibly, we are wrong about what will stand the test of time.
We’ve assembled a list of fourteen works that were criminally undervalued then, but are now legendary classics. See if any surprise you.