This story was first published on The Reading Room.
Writing is a tough business. In the world of literature, authors sometimes have to wait their whole lives for recognition—and some authors aren’t appreciated at all until after they’re dead. Case in point: these seven books, which were panned by critics when they were first released, but have since become classics.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
The extent to which The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was really disrespected when it first came out is still a matter of debate, but it was certainly not immediately recognized as a classic. In addition to controversy over its content (which still continues today), it was also on the receiving end of some pretty harsh reviews. One periodical accused of being “no better in tone than [a] dime novel.”
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
Brave New World’s distraction-filled dystopian future is now recognized as brilliant and prescient, but critics were having none of it at the time. One reviewer went so far as to call it a “heavy-handed piece of propaganda.” Huxley lived long enough to see himself at least partially vindicated, and even wrote a book—Brave New World Revisited—assessing the changes in the real world that echoed his original novel.
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
It’s hard to win critical acclaim when writing genre fiction—even J.R.R. Tolkien didn’t manage it. Though some initial reviews of Tolkien’s work were positive, many were not. High-profile publications like The New York Times panned the series, which many reviewers felt was shallow and had no literary merit.
Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
The great American novel was not considered so great when it first came out. Melville’s book was first published in England, where most critics turned up their nose at it. American critics took their cue from prestigious British publications, and panned the book as well. It wasn’t until after Melville’s death that Moby Dick became widely read and appreciated.
Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman
Whitman was perhaps America’s greatest poet, but few people thought so when he first published Leaves of Grass. In addition to being controversial—the “offensive” content of the collection got Whitman fired from his job—the book was also considered outright bad. No reviewer was crueler than Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who said: “It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote Leaves of Grass, only that he did not burn it afterwards.” Poet John Greenleaf Whittier took things one step further and threw his own copy in the fire.
On the Road, by Jack Kerouac
Kerouac’s On the Road was a challenging book when it first came out, and the literary establishment was slow to recognize its merits. The New York Times stuffily argued that the book was “not so much a novel as a long affectionate lark inspired by the so-called ‘beat’ generation.” Subsequent critics have determined that On the Road is, in fact, a novel—and a rather good one at that.
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë
Initial reviews of Wuthering Heights were decidedly mixed. Critics found the characters in the novel too “forward,” and some were confused by the story. It took a long time for Wuthering Heights to come to be known as a classic, and even longer before critics considered it the equal of Charlotte Brontë’s work. Now, many argue that Emily Brontë was the more talented Brontë sister. Better late than never!