The stereotype of a starving artist exists for a reason. Unfortunately, some artists are born well before the world is ready for them. Or they are simply living in the wrong place at the wrong time. History is littered with nobodies toiling away in the hopes of becoming somebody. And while some people make a name for themselves, fortune doesn’t always follow fame.
Below are five authors who never seemed to make ends meet from their writing careers. Some live in a hole of obscurity and only made a pittance during their life. But all are well-known authors that wrote influential works you’re sure to know and love.
5.) Herman Melville
Herman Melville is most famous for his novel Moby-Dick. The novel’s iconic character, Captain Ahab, struggles to tame a great white whale. Mirroring this conflict is Melville himself, who struggled with his own personal finances. In fact, Melville’s seminal book only sold some 3,000 copies during the entire duration of the writer’s life.
Despite penning Moby-Dick in 1851, Melville’s finances were atrocious. His financial situation was in such disrepair during the 1850’s, he had to put aside writing. Instead of the written word, Melville turned to the spoken vocation. He tried public lecturing, but found little success in the endeavor. Eventually, Melville’s wife found the writer a suitable job. She was able to obtain for Melville a job as a customs inspector in New York City. There, the author of Moby-Dick continued to write narratives and poetry. However, nearly all of his income came from his civil service profession.
Moby-Dick is, perhaps, one of the most well-known books of American history. So, it can be hard to imagine that Melville was never financially successful as a writer. In fact, it’s estimated that Melville only earned 10,000 dollars from his writing. Still, we acknowledge Melville and his contribution to American literature today. However, the writer died as a mostly unknown nobody.
4.) Philip K. Dick
Fans of science-fiction films and literature know of Philip K. Dick. Even if the name is not immediately recognized, Dick’s influence of the Sci-Fi genre is broad and vast. Dick wrote some of the quintessential science-fiction works of the last few decades. Dick has more than 40 published novels, many of which have been adapted to film and television. The movies Total Recall, Minority Report, Blade Runner, A Scanner Darkly, and The Adjustment Bureau all stem from Dick’s mind. And Amazon recently adapted a popular TV series from Dick’s novel of The Man in the High Castle.
Unfortunately, for Dick, he was as prolific in his writing career as he was with his marriages. Dick was married five times, resulting in a dwindling income. And in 1968, Dick pledged not to pay his U.S. federal income tax. The move came as part of an anti-war movement. The government didn’t approve and Dick’s tax evasion resulted in financial damages and the loss of his only car. During the first twenty-years of his career, Dick was only able to get his novels published with niche publishers. This caused Dick to live in impoverished conditions. It was so bad, that at one point, Dick joked that he wasn’t even able to afford paying the late fees on his library books. Ouch!
3.) H. P. Lovecraft
It’s surprising to know that Howard Phillips Lovecraft was virtually unknown during his lifetime. Many of the American horror-fiction author’s works went unpublished. Others were published in small circulation or pulp magazines. This left the famous author of “The Call of Cthulhu” to later die in poverty. While living, Lovecraft was supported by the income of his wife, Sonia Greene. Greene was a widow before meeting Lovecraft. She married the aspiring author with full-knowledge that she would need to support him financially. Green afforded Lovecraft a weekly allowance.
Even though he is now regarded as one of the more significant authors of the 20th century, Lovecraft never earned a living as a writer. His writing dealt in themes of forbidden knowledge, fate, and the risks of a scientific era. While unpopular during his time, his writing left a strong posthumous legacy. Lovecraft has been cited as a strong influence of many famous writers such as Stephen King, Alan Moore, and Neil Gaiman.
2.) Edgar Allen Poe
The person who is widely considered the inventor of detective fiction couldn’t quite crack the case on why he was so poor. Perhaps, it was because he tried to make his entire living on his writing alone. Or, maybe it was his alcoholism and suspected depression. Either way, Poe has become known for his short stories and poems. They are works that swim in the macabre and are shrouded in mystery, leaving an impression on many.
Poe’s best known work of today, “The Raven”, was also his most popular work during his life as well. Unfortunately, for Poe, he sold it for a meager 9 dollars. The publishing of “The Raven” launched his name to new heights. Yet, many of his contemporary writers were very critical of Poe. W.B. Yeats, Aldous Huxley, and Ralph Waldo Emerson all spoke disparagingly about Poe’s work.
Adding insult to injury for Poe was his timing in the publishing community. Poe’s writing prime was at a time when the periodical and pamphlet industry exploded. It just exploded into an unsustainable boon with yet defined copyright laws. This resulted in many publishers choosing to publish excerpts from old and familiar English texts. Those that didn’t, often refused to pay contributors for their writing. This ended in Poe resorting to begging and other methods for making ends meet. Poe’s famous last words fell in line with his macabre persona. Unfortunately, the phrase of “Lord help my poor soul” turned out to have more than one meaning for Poe.
1.) George Orwell
Seeing a spike in popularity from the current political climate, Orwell’s estate has made quite a fortune. Yet, Orwell himself, experienced many times of tumultuous financial standing during his life. The author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four was born into a family that held superior social standing but the lack of income to sustain it. Because of this, his schooling was bargained a discount rate. And, as a child, he quickly became aware that he was the “poor” one in many of his social circles.
As Orwell grew older, he continued to dedicate himself to his writing. Still, his family, particularly his aunt, continued to prop him up financially. He worked a series of menial jobs while he lived in poor conditions. In his late 20’s, Orwell had to be taken to a free hospital after falling dangerously ill. It is believed that his time spent in these poverty-stricken conditions held a great influence on his writing.
Orwell didn’t break out as a writer until World War 2 broke out across the globe. It was then that Orwell was able to find consistent work relating to his writing. It was also his experiences during the second great war that led to his writing of Animal Farm. Animal Farm’s popularity helped to secure a more stable financial footing for Orwell. The book’s success also allowed for more profitable journalistic work. But as fate would have it, Orwell, was stricken with Tuberculous, and began to decline rapidly. It was in his final years that Orwell penned Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell never got a chance to bask in his newfound wealth nor see his final work become an international bestseller.