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Top 10 People That Became Famous After They Died

VO: Rebecca Brayton
Script written by Michael Wynands Some of the most famous and creative minds never achieved fame while they were living, but after they passed, these celebrities, artists, composers and authors all became famous. Some more tragic than others, such as Anne Frank, and others just never getting the respect they deserved for their craft, like Vincent Van Gogh and Johann Sebastian Bach.
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Top 10 People That Became Famous After They Died



They say that legends never die, but these historical figures passed away not knowing their work would live forever. Welcome to WatchMojo.com, and today we’re counting down the Top 10 People Who Became Famous After They Died.

For this list, we’re looking at individuals throughout history who died in relative obscurity, but whose works, accomplishments or feats went on to earn them significant fame after their death. We’re not considering anyone who only became famous as a result of their demise, like victims of high profile murders or sensational deaths. Also, some measure of success during their lifetime is acceptable… as long as their popularity after death clearly and substantially eclipses any name-recognition they had in their lifetime.

#10: Herman Melville

Long before Bear Grylls turned the idea of “man vs wild” into a freakshow that involves sleeping inside camels, this 19th century American writer was exploring man’s attempt to best nature in his novel, Moby-Dick. Herman Melville briefly flirted with success as a writer after publishing his first book, Typee, a highly dramatized account of his time living among the Polynesians. But his subsequently published books, including Moby-Dick, were increasingly less well-received, resulting in financial failure. His shift into poetry proved equally disastrous. By 1876, none of his books remained in print, and he died in 1891 as little more than a footnote in American literature. In the early 1900s however, his work resurfaced to retrospective acclaim, earning him a spot amongst America’s great authors.

#9: Gregor Mendel

Science and religion are often portrayed as being in direct conflict with each other, but for proof of potential harmony between the two, one need look no further than Gregor Mendel. This 19th century European scientist and friar studied plants and animals, and through crossbreeding established early concepts of heredity. Mendel is now considered to be the father of modern genetics. His work was largely dismissed by the scientific community in his own time, however, as it did not fit with current models. But by the early 1900s, a number of researchers revisited or rediscovered his works, and Mendel’s Laws went on to lay the foundation for what we now know as genetics.

#8: Oscar Wilde

Similar to Melville, Oscar Wilde experienced some success and recognition during his lifetime. In the 1890s, after years spent as a journalist, editor and author of essays, short stories, poetry and fiction, he wrote a number of successful plays, including “The Importance of Being Earnest” - an instant hit. Despite this late career success, legal battles over his homosexuality resulted in him serving a two-year prison sentence, after which he spent his final years as a penniless exile in France. Much of his work went unappreciated upon initial publishing, most notably, “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, which was dismissed as immoral homoeroticism. But his collected works, life story, and poetically tragic death earned him significantly greater fame posthumously - a fame that grew exponentially in later decades.

#7: H.P. Lovecraft

Aside from Stephen King, there’s unlikely no bigger name in horror than Lovecraft. But in his lifetime, the reclusive, self-conscious author never earned so much as a modest living from his written works, which were relegated to the pages of pulp magazines. His work was recognized within small circles of writers however, and over the years, an appreciation of his writing by other authors in the genre went on to establish him as a father figure in horror culture. His influence has grown so great since his death, that Lovecraftian Horror is a subgenre of its very own. His creations and mythos, such as Cthulhu, have worked their way into the very fabric of pop culture, and are now seen in anime, film, television, tabletop games, music, and video games.

#6: Edgar Allan Poe

Unappreciated though he was, Lovecraft often cited Poe as one of his major influences. Poe’s work is particularly notable for being at once terrifying and yet undeniably beautiful, a rare quality in contemporary horror. He spent most of his adult life in relative poverty, supplementing his income by writing for journals and periodicals. This work earned him a reputation as a respected literary critic, but these circles were small. His only truly successful work in his own lifetime was “The Raven”. Posthumously, his poetry and short fiction work was translated into French where it became quite popular, before spreading across the globe. Additionally, Poe is also credited with having invented the detective fiction genre, without ever naming it.

#5: Galileo Galilei

The Inquisition… what a time to be alive. Galileo is a household name nowadays, but in his own lifetime, he was repeatedly subjected to censorship and forced to recant his scientific statements, spending the better part of his final decade under house arrest. Gregor Mendel might’ve been the “father of modern genetics”, but Galileo has been called the “father of science” - by the likes of Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein. His contributions to the fields of astronomy, engineering and physics were immeasurable. Sadly, during his own lifetime, the church suppressed much of his work, deeming it heresy. In the years after his death however, his banned works were steadily released, allowing the full impact of his discoveries to be felt by the scientific world.

#4: Emily Dickinson

Although a few of Emily Dickinson’s poems were published during her lifetime, they were heavily edited, and in some cases were even published anonymously. She was a prolific writer until her death at the age of 55, but kept the majority of her writings to herself. After her death, her sister, Lavinia, discovered some 1800 poems, and made it her personal mission to see them published. A number of factors prevented this goal from being fully realized in the ensuing decades, but from 1890 to 1945, various edited volumes of her poetry were released, capturing the attention of critics. In 1955, her completed works were finally published. Since her death, Emily Dickinson has been recognized as one of the most important poets in American history.

#3: Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Bach was certainly relatively well-known in his own time... but not as a composer. Bach was a highly, and widely respected professional organ player. He didn’t keep his compositions a secret; they were simply considered too complex and too challenging for listeners of the musical arts. Interest in his music was limited to peers or contemporaries equally focused on pushing the boundaries of musical experimentation. Eventually however, the world caught up to him. The early 19th century saw Bach rise in prominence as a composer, and with an 1829 performance of his sacred oratorio, St. Matthew Passion, he quickly grew into his current status as one of the greatest composers in history.

#2: Vincent Van Gogh

In his life time, Vincent Van Gogh was a prolific painter, creating around 2100 works in just over ten years, but he only succeeded in selling a single painting in his own lifetime. Considered to be insane and a failure of an artist - partly because of that whole “ear thing” -, he took his own life at the age of 37. Post death, in addition to his substantial contributions to modern art as we know it, his dramatic life and death have helped shape the romanticized depiction of the tortured artist, and the notion that one should suffer for their art.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.
- Henry David Thoreau
- Franz Kafka
- Stieg Larsson

#1: Anne Frank

Even on this list, Anne Frank is truly unique. She died at the tender age of 15 in a German concentration camp, and yet her writing - a simple diary - has gone on to become one of the most famous publications ever. Written between 1942 and 1944, it chronicles Anne’s time in hiding with her family, before their capture and transportation to Auschwitz. In her diary, which was recovered by her father, the only surviving member of her family after WWII, she wrote about her dreams of becoming a journalist. Although atrocious acts of genocide kept her from realizing that dream, the one piece of writing she penned in her short life has made her one of the most famous non-fiction writers in history.

Do you agree with our list? Can you think of any other people who only became famous posthumously? For more time historical top 10s published every day, be sure to subscribe to WatchMojo.com.
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