12 Amazing Authors Who Died Far Too Young

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December 6th, 2010

Everyone eventually falls into the chilling embrace of the Grim Reaper, but some manage to leave behind legacies fondly remembered by more than just friends and family. Writers, among other creative types, achieve a sort of immortality when their works fall onto syllabi, win prestigious awards and attain critical success — even if they never received a penny for any of it during their lifespan. Some, unfortunately, shuffle off the mortal coil before they have a chance to truly explore their full potential. But dwelling on what could have been burns off time and energy that could be used to appreciate and understand what's already there.

What one considers "young" or "old," of course, varies from individual to individual and culture to culture. This article does not intend to come off as ageist by any means, but for consistency's sake chose writers under 50 — when Americans attain eligibility to join AARP. Please take no offense to this decision!

  1. John Kennedy Toole: The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the absolutely essential A Confederacy of Dunces unfortunately never lived to receive his accolades…or even see it published. After a lifelong struggle with anxiety and depression — much of which becomes apparent in Toole's seminal novel — and anger from persistent manuscript rejection, the promising author and academic committed suicide at the age of 31. Readers only know of his brilliant body of work, comprised of the aforementioned book as well as The Neon Bible, because of his mother Thelma's insistence on pushing them onto Loyola professor Walker Percy.

  2. David Foster Wallace: Both Wallace and beloved comic writer and jazz critic Harvey Pekar tragically died as a direct result of antidepressants. After switching prescriptions, the 49-year-old author of Infinite Jest, The Broom of the System and more, succumbed to over 20 years of clinical depression and hanged himself in 2008. His father later revealed the struggle to his fans, discussing how the medications did bolster Wallace's productivity, but the negative side effects that would go on to also kill Pekar forced him to wean off the old and start in with something new. Unfortunately, antidepressants manipulating brain chemistry can hurt as much as they can heal, and this dichotomy cost the literary world two of its sharpest observers.

  3. Nathanael West: Author and screenwriter West died in a car accident at the age of 37, along with his 26-year-old wife Eileen McKinney. Sadly enough, the fatal stop sign-running occurred as the couple drove towards Los Angeles for F. Scott Fitzgerald's funeral. Before and after his passing, West influenced such notable writers as Vladimir Nabokov, Martin Amis and plenty of others. Even now, The Day of the Locust remains one of the quintessential commentaries on the frustrating artifice, posturing and shallowness of the Hollywood machine.

  4. Sylvia Plath: As with many other brilliant minds on this list, Sylvia Plath spent much of her tragically short life grappling against depression. Best known for her highly evocative poems drawing from personal experience, she also penned the semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar — her only foray into the format. Towards the end of her life, Plath's mental health rapidly degraded to the point a trusted doctor had to make daily visits to ensure her safety. Unfortunately, however, even his attentive care could not prevent her suicide at the tragically young age of 30.

  5. John Keats: Many literary critics and poetry aficionados consider Keats one of the greatest English-language Romantic poets of all time. He was only 25 years old at the time of his death, following an extended bout with tuberculosis. In spite of his age, however, the poet managed to compile an amazing body of work, with about three complete volumes under his belt. Impressive, considering he had only taken up writing about six years prior and had only been publishing for four. Though at the time most readers dismissed Keats' poems as fluff — he never received any real recognition until well after his tragic passing.

  6. Percy Bysshe Shelley: This contemporary of Keats shared both his Romantic predilections and early death. At 29, Shelley died after his beloved schooner capsized during an unexpected thunderstorm. Perhaps unsurprisingly, conspiracies abound regarding the incident, with many believing his drowning was a means of escaping debt and/or depression. Some blame pirates, others a pitiful sense of direction. Also like Keats, Shelley only attracted a few fans, with most of his lyrical output criticized or ignored. Only after his passing did the literary sphere embrace his Romantic writings and forge a lasting legacy.

  7. Lord Byron: Nineteenth Century Romantic poets sport a pattern of dying young and dying dramatically. In George Gordon Byron's case, a cold turned feverish and infectious thanks to improperly sanitized bleeding implements. He was 36 at the time of his violent passing, after planning a siege against one of Turkey's outposts in Naupactus, Greece. Through poems such as the epic Don Juan, Lord Byron's fondness for certain character archetypes spawned a term commonly wielded in literary criticism. "Byronic heroes," in spite of their glorious and prodigious talents, possess a scorn for societal conventions and hierarchies and frequently submit to self-destructive tendencies — among plenty of other traits.

  8. Ada Lovelace: Like her father, Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace also died violently at 36. She suffered from uterine cancer, and the resultant bloodletting only hastened the process. Unlike her father, however, she earned a name for herself authoring computer programs rather than poetry. Most of her writings regarding the difference engine, analytical engine and algorithms — sometimes created in tandem with Charles Babbage – eventually led to today's contemporary machinery.

  9. Jack Kerouac: Ironically, Jack Kerouac became the cornerstone of the beat generation — a movement he actively despised. The Dharma Bums and On the Road (among plenty of other books and poems) scribe found inspiration in everything from James Joyce to jazz to Buddhism, aligning himself with other pillars of beatnik culture, including William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg. Freewheeling drug and alcohol abuse amongst this crowd eventually took its toll on Kerouac's body, and he passed away at age 47 after cirrhosis of the liver gave way to hemorrhaging.

  10. Yukio Mishima: Kimitake Hiraoka, better known by his nom de plume "Yukio Mishima," committed seppuku after his private army — Tatenokai — failed in their mission to overthrow Japan's Self-Defense Forces. He was 45. Death, extreme patriotism and bushido philosophies all factored into his impressive body of work, which included a screenplay, hundreds of short stories and essays, 18 plays and 40 novels, including The Sound of Waves, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, and The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Considered one of the greatest Japanese writers of the 20th Century (if not all time), Mishima received numerous literary awards in his native country and earned 3 Nobel Prize nominations.

  11. Stephen Crane: To this day, The Red Badge of Courage remains one of the most memorable American war satires ever written. Though Crane passed away at age 28 after contracting tuberculosis, he left behind an incredible bibliography consisting of 6 novels, 2 poetry collections and 3 short story anthologies. Maggie, Girl of the Streets launched his career as a novelist, introducing the world to his naturalist sensibilities and razor-sharp sense of irony.

  12. Emily Bronte: Along with sisters Charlotte and Anne, Emily Bronte published literary works under a genderless pseudonym in order to increase her chances of exposure. Poetry comprised most of her output, though she's most known for her only novel — the romantic homage to relationship abuse Wuthering Heights. Thanks to a combination of a lifetime's exposure to contaminated water, a cold and an abject refusal of medical care, the writer climbed up the curtain and joined the choir invisible at age 30.

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