Defining the greatest authors of all time is nearly impossible. This is because “greatest” is largely a matter of opinion. What is a more concrete list, however, is that of the most famous authors of all time. These are the authors who, though you may never have read them, you probably know the plot of at least one of their works, but do you know about the men themselves?
William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Shakespeare (1564-1616) may be the single most famous author of the western world. His plays and poetry are considered by many to be the most important works of all time. He was not exactly born to the task though. The son of an illiterate glover, he was given an education only by virtue of the fact that his father was also an alderman, which, during this time, came with a free education for one’s children. After his education, Shakespeare went on to become the “Bard,” as we know him today. His plays and poems were often met with equal parts controversy and acclaim and he was able to earn a healthy living off their successes. By the end of his life, Shakespeare was the author of 37 plays, 5 narrative poems, and 154 sonnets.
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
Sometimes referred to as the “Master of Macabre,” Edgar Allan Poe was the precursor to some of the great horror writers of today, such as another man on this list, Stephen King (who won win an Edgar Award in 2007). His dark, dreary work, such as The Masque of the Red Death, is a staple of American literature, but it was not always received as such. He was often reduced to begging for money and other forms of assistance. Eventually though, The Raven, by far Poe’s most widely known piece, gained him literary fame, if not financial security. In fact, for all the fame the poem earned him, he received only nine dollars for its publication. His life, one of genius, repeated loss, and alcoholism, came to an end at Washington College Hospital after being found delirious and in otherwise poor health on the streets of Baltimore.
Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
Along with William Thackeray and the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens gained his literary fame during the Victorian era. Unlike these authors, however, Dickens, the most famous of the group, would publish his novels in serial form through magazines. This is not to say that other authors did not serialize their novels, only that these novels were usually finished first and then broken up into episodes. Dickens, however, wrote episodically, which is why a major characteristic of his work is a cliffhanger at the end of each chapter. He wanted the readers to buy the next magazine, and they did so in droves. His works, which include, among others, A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist, and David Copperfield, were such a mix of high literature and social commentary, which often brought attention to the plight of the Victorian poor, were accepted and revered by many. He died at 58, with his last words reported by The Times being, “Be natural my children. For the writer that is natural has fulfilled all the rules of art.”
Lewis Carroll (1832-1898)
Born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, Lewis Carroll would become one of the most noted successes in literary history. After toiling for a time as a poet, and with moderate success, Carroll met the new Dean at his Alma Mater, Christ Church, a Mr. Henry Liddell. While the meeting of the two men would form a friendship, the meeting between Liddell and one of his daughters, Alice, would bring about one of the most beloved works of literature in history. Alice Liddell was the first person to hear what would become Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and begged him to put it to paper. Published in 1865, the book became an immediate commercial and literary success. While Carroll would continue to publish both fiction and mathematical papers for years, no work would match the success of Wonderland. After travelling for a time through Europe and Russia, Carroll died of pneumonia on January 14, 1898.
Mark Twain (1835-1910)
With the November 2010 publication of the first volume of Mark Twain’s autobiography, there has been a recent resurgence of interest in the life of this American master. Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the man who would become known as Mark Twain left a legacy as alluring as it was undeniable. After an early life of travel up and down the Mississippi River as a steamboat pilot, Clemens set to work cultivating one of the first examples of a truly American work of literature by combining his genius and social critique with an ability to set down on paper the regional accents of the American people. After publishing some reasonably successful travelogues, Clemens eventually wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which was a resounding success. After publishing the less successful The Prince and the Pauper, Clemens published what is arguably his greatest work The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which some believe to be the first great American novel. Despite the undeniable success of his novels, Twain would work to stave off destitution for much of the remainder of his life, writing feverishly for increasingly meager compensation. He died of a heart attack in 1910, having become, in the words of President William H. Taft, “… an enduring part of American literature.”
George Orwell (1903-1950)
What Mark Twain was to America, a national social critic whose ideas were universal, Eric Arthur Blair (who would later be known by his pen name, George Orwell) was to Great Britain. A literary critic, journalist, poet and novelist, Orwell would become best known for his works 1984 and Animal Farm. During his life, however, Orwell was known as an essayist and, according to Irving Howe, “the best English essayist since Hazlitt, perhaps since Dr. Johnson.” Today’s readers undoubtedly know him best for 1984, which was likely written to warn of the dangers of totalitarian rule, and Animal Farm, a reflection of life in Russia after the rise of Stalinism. Though his literary career was prolific, the two works mentioned above are how most readers will remember Orwell, who died in London in 1950.
J.D. Salinger (1919-2010)
As a result of his recent death in 2010, there has been a recent resurgence in the public interest of J.D. Salinger, the reclusive American author who gave the world Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey, and, most well-known of the bunch, The Catcher in the Rye. Born and raised in Manhattan, Salinger’s debut novel The Catcher in the Rye gained him such fame (and consequent scrutiny) that, after the resounding success of his subsequent short story collection, Nine Stories, he moved to Cornish, New Hampshire to get away from it. It was from this locale that Salinger wrote a collection of two novellas, entitled Franny and Zooey. The two novellas were originally published separately as Franny (1955) and Zooey (1955), and were finally published as a book in 1961. Salinger’s last publication was another collection of two novellas, entitled Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, and was the number three bestselling book of 1963. J.D. Salinger would not publish again for the rest of his life, though, according to Joyce Mayard, who lived with him for a time after his final publication, he had finished and decided not to publish two novels. Adding to the allure of Salinger in his solitude, both his daughter and a neighbor claimed he had as many as fifteen finished unpublished novels.
Stephen King (1947-present)
One of the most famous and prolific writers of modern times, Stephen King may be a direct reflection of the public’s change in literary taste. Having sold more than 350 million books throughout the course of his career, King has written everything from horror and suspense to memoir and criticism. In 1973, at the age of 26, King was thrust into the literary spotlight with his horror novel, Carrie. Since that time, King has written 49 novels, 18 novellas, 10 short story collections (featuring 105 short stories), 6 pieces of non-fiction, and 2 screenplays. He has also written for comic books, composed poems, and has many unpublished and uncollected works. While literary critics like Harold Bloom are quick to make the distinction between popularity and talent, believing King to be a less talented writer than, for instance, Edgar Allan Poe, there simply can be no denying that King has become easily one of the most celebrated and prolific American writers in recent times.