Famous Authors Who Died Destitute

Writing is generally regarded as a poorly paid profession.  For every J.K.Rowling, Stephen King and Dan Brown there are infinite struggling authors, dreaming of a day when they too might become rich and famous.  The advent of the era of the Kindle and ebooks has seen a multitude of new authors entering the publishing arena, hoping to follow the likes of self-published authors such as John Locke and Amanda Hocking in striking gold.

In reality only a tiny minority of authors will ever achieve financial wealth and fame in their lifetimes, but that is not to say that one or two might not discover it posthumously.  The following post is dedicated to two world famous and iconic authors, who died poverty stricken and largely forgotten, but went on to achieve the monumental success they deserved years after their demise.

Herman Melville (1819 –1891)


Best known for his epic novel, ‘Moby Dick’, Herman Melville is today regarded as one of the greatest American authors of all time.  During his lifetime however Melville did not always receive the acclaim he undoubtedly deserved.  Melville’s first book, the Polynesian themed ‘Typee’, quickly became a bestseller and by his mid-thirties Melville had achieved considerable success.  But his initial success was short-lived and his career was soon in marked decline as he found himself beset with financial difficulties.  Melville was to become so disillusioned with writing that he quit writing novels all-together and became a custom inspector, though he did continue to write poetry.

When Melville died of a heart attack in 1891, not only were his works out of print but he was virtually forgotten and penniless.  It was not until the 1920s’ that the public rediscovered Herman Melville and he has remained in readers’ hearts and minds ever since.

Joseph Roth (1894-1939)


The Austro-Hungarian Roth is widely acclaimed as being one of the most influential writers of the inter-war years.  In his prime Roth was a renowned and well paid political journalist, in addition to being a prolific novelist.  Roth’s most famous book, The Radetzky March, which chronicles the decline of The Austro-Hungarian Empire, is regarded as being one of the greatest novels of the Twentieth Century.

Hitler’s rise to power saw Roth, a Jew, obliged to leave his adopted home of Berlin. His other mounting woes included severe alcoholism, a wife suffering from schizophrenia and a precarious financial situation.  In 1936 Roth described himself as ‘Half madman, half corpse.’  Three years later he was to die a pauper, of delirium tremens in Paris, but not before he had written the critically acclaimed, ‘The Legend of The Holy Drinker’.  It was to take decades for Roth’s genius to be fully recognised, due in part to the fact that he was largely ignored by the English speaking world.  His correspondence, ‘A Life in Letters’, was not translated into English until nearly four decades after his death.


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  • Thank you for mentioning my favorite writer, Herman Melville. He was ahead of his time by 70 years (his small obit in the NY Times is appalling). Though he wasn’t rich, he wasn’t penniless either. He struggled financially after his writing years, working as a customs inspector, but I believe he came into money (his wife’s family?) toward the end of his life, which eased his situation somewhat.

    Thanks again!

    • It seems that perhaps people, myself included, have exaggerated Melville’s somewhat precarious financial position a little. I’ll make sure to read his NY Times obituary.

  • Guy, A very interesting post and it’s good to know that we’re in great company. Of course, they didn’t have the advantages that are open to us now with the growth of the Internet enabling us to widely promote our own work.
    Incidentally, I don’t know if you’ve read David Gaughran’s two books, “Let’s Get Digital” and “Let’s Get Visible” but they are full of excellent advice regarding book promotion. The first book “Let’s Get Digital” is aimed more at the novice and you are probably already aware of a lot of the information contained there but the second book “Let’s Get Visible” really opened my eyes and I can’t wait to publish my second book so that I can try out some of his techniques. I think it cost about £2.99 and is worth every penny.

  • Fascinating post. I await the inevitable day when I too will describe myself as ‘half madman, half corpse.’

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