In the course of researching for Books on the Wall poster designs and various blog posts and infographics, we come across some pretty neat stuff. When we find some interesting facts about literature, we make a scribble in the Books on the Wall notepad, bookmark the link…and move on.
Looking back on that notepad recently, though, we realized that we’ve collected quite a few random but really interesting facts about some of our favorite writers—including their lives, backgrounds, habits, and interests.
To share the literary love, we compiled 10 of those facts into this brief infographic. Scroll down below the infographic to see the full list along with 140 bonus facts about interesting authors around the world. We hope you enjoy learning these surprising author facts as much as we enjoyed finding them!
Since making our 10-fact infographic, we’ve taken a deep dive into the world of author facts. We’ve augmented our original 10 facts with 140 more! Check out 150 facts about authors, both well-known and relatively unknown, below.
Jane Austen, one of England’s finest novelists, almost died at the age of seven. Both Jane and her sister Cassandra caught diphtheria while in Oxford. Thankfully, Jane’s cousin Jane Cooper sent a letter to Jane’s mother who rushed to her two daughters with an herbal remedy.
Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll was terrible at finances. Although he paid his debts on time, he would often overdraft upwards of £7,500. This is all the more ironic considering Carroll was a mathematics scholar at Oxford.
Mary Shelley started writing Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus when she was 18 years old. It was published only two years later.
Victor Hugo‘s Les Miserables wasn’t only popular with 19th century Parisians. This massive novel was one of the most widely read books amongst American soldiers in the Civil War.
Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud once attended a lecture given by American icon Mark Twain. The subject of Twain’s talk, however, had nothing to do with the intricacies of the human psyche. Twain’s central lecture topic was about a watermelon he stole as a child
Irish author James Joyce loved Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen’s plays so much that he learned basic Norwegian just to send Ibsen a fan letter. In addition to Norwegian, Joyce was fluent in French, Italian, Latin, and German. He even uses words in more obscure languages like Old English, Gaelic, Provençal, and Swahili in his most difficult novel Finnegan’s Wake.
Mark Twain was the next-door neighbor of Harriet Beecher Stowe in Hartford, Connecticut.
George Eliot was actually a woman. Mary Ann Evans wrote under this pen name because women authors were not as highly regarded as men. As George Eliot, Evans wrote several novels considered among the best of all time.
Not just a world-famous author, Vladimir Nabokov was also a serious lepidopterologist, or studier of butterflies. He was a Comparative Zoology research fellow at Harvard, where much of his butterfly collection remains today.
Before he made it as a writer, Salman Rushdie wrote copy for Ogilvy & Mather. He came up with several famous campaigns, including “naughty, but nice” and “irresistibubble!”
Virginia Woolf (author of To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, and A Room of One’s Own) was related by marriage to William Makepeace Thackeray, author of Vanity Fair. William’s daughter, Minie, was the first wife of Virginia’s father.
Cormac McCarthy wrote with the same typewriter for more than 50 years. When it broke, he auctioned it off to raise proceeds for the Sante Fe institute. It sold for over $250,000 in 2009.
Lord of the Rings author J. R. R. Tolkien worked as both a scholar of languages and on the Oxford English Dictionary before writing his bestselling novels.He researched and explained the etymology of words starting with W. Known words of his include “waggle” and “walrus.” For a man of such erudition, it’s somewhat odd that he consistently told reporters “cellar door” was the most beautiful phrase in the English language. Who knows; perhaps it takes a PhD in Old Norse to understand.
William Shakespeare‘s legacy survives not only in his many plays, but also in his contributions to the English language. Did you know these phrases originally came from Shakespeare?
dead as a doornail
all of a sudden
in a pickle
wear your heart on your sleeve
off with his head
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the inventor of the Sherlock Holmes series, had a very public friendship with master illusionist Harry Houdini. However, once Houdini heard that Doyle believed in spiritualism and thought Houdini had real magical powers, the friendship swiftly ended.
American author William Faulkner wrote the outline to one of his novels on the walls of his writing office in Oxford, Mississippi. Visitors to Faulkner’s Rowan Oak can still see the author’s hand-written notes for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Fable on these walls.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter, helped start a Transcendental commune near Boston in 1841. However, Hawthorne left this commune a few months later after he found it difficult to write with all the blisters he got from cutting straw and shoveling manure. His lesser-known novel The Blithedale Romance recounts this experience.
Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe tried his hand at many unsuccessful business ventures before he became a well-known pamphleteer and novelist. One of the weirdest things he ever tried to sell was perfume made from the secretions of cats’ butts.
Boris Pasternak, the Russian writer behind Doctor Zhivago, was the first author in history to refuse the Nobel Prize for Literature. A few months after Pasternak was awarded the prize in 1958, he formally refused the award fearing that it would cause the Soviet government to arrest him or his family. It wasn’t until 1989 that Pasternak’s son collected the award in Sweden for his father.
French novelist Stendhal has a clinically recognized disease named after him: Stendhal syndrome. Symptoms of this disease include fainting, shortness of breath, and heart palpitations while viewing exquisite art. Stendhal’s name was chosen for this disease because he almost passed out after seeing Florence’s Basilica of Santa Croce.
Wuthering Heights author Emily Brontë certainly had a faithful pooch! Her dog, named Keeper, actually followed Brontë’s coffin to her gravesite in 1848 and was said to whimper by Emily’s room for weeks after her burial.
Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was one of literature’s first prominent vegans. He was persuaded to start this diet after he read the work of Dr. William Lambe and John Frank Newton, both of whom wrote the first tracts in the English language advocating a vegan lifestyle. Shelley also wrote pamphlets of his own advocating veganism.
Romantic legend Lord Byron always traveled with his dozens of animals. Just a few of the pets that made it from Byron’s English estate to Venice include ten horses, three monkeys, three peacocks, eight dogs, five cats, one crane, one falcon, one eagle, and one crow.
John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, had a huge influence on America’s Founding Fathers. His political pamphlet Areopagitica, which argued in favor of the freedom of the press, was a key influence on the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.
Before Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges was celebrated for his fiction, he earned a living by writing advertisements for yogurt. Hey, we’ve all got to start somewhere, right?
Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell bought a home in Hampshire without telling her husband. Unfortunately, Gaskell had a severe heart attack and died in this house in November of 1865 while she was having tea with her daughters. Gaskell’s husband was doubly shocked: first that his wife had died and second that she bought a secret house.
When Victor Hugo was running behind on his deadline for The Hunchback of Notre Dame, he locked himself in his room with nothing but a shawl, paper, and a pen. He did this so he wouldn’t get distracted from finishing his work, despite the fact that it was freezing outside his home.
Emily Dickinson was one of the most reclusive poets in American literary history. From the 1850s till her death, Dickinson mainly stayed within her Amherst family home and only went outside to tend to the garden. She didn’t even leave her upstairs bedroom to attend her father’s funeral downstairs.
19th century French short story writer Guy de Maupassant was one of many Parisian intellectuals who hated the Eiffel Tower. Maupassant often ate lunch inside the tower’s restaurant just to avoid seeing the Eiffel Tower’s profile.
Russian author Vladimir Nabokov wrote most of his major novels on index cards. Nabokov believed this method of writing helped him figure out the best way to structure his plots. He even kept a pack of cards under his pillows at night so he could quickly write down any ideas that came into his head.
Truman Capote, author of In Cold Blood, only wrote while reclining on a sofa. He wrote in pencil with one hand and used his hand to smoke a cigarette, sip a cup of coffee, or pour a sherry.
Victorian writer Thomas Carlyle lent his first draft of The French Revolution to friend and fellow philosopher John Stuart Mill in 1835. When Carlyle returned to pick up his manuscript in London, Mill told Carlyle the document accidentally burned. Amazingly, Carlyle wrote the entire 800-page text again and published it to great acclaim in 1837.
Before Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women, she worked as a Civil War nurse in Washington, D.C. Alcott recorded her experiences tending to soldiers in her first bestselling work Hospital Sketches (1863). Unfortunately, Alcott contracted typhoid and was “treated” with mercury afterwards, which led to Alcott’s untimely death in 1888.
Although English poet John Donne was the great-nephew of Catholic martyr Sir Thomas More, he became one of London’s most famous (and feared) Protestant ministers. Before he died in 1631, John Donne commissioned a statue of himself and had it placed in Saint Paul’s Cathedral. This John Donne bust is the only original statue in St. Paul’s that survived the Great Fire of London in 1666.
Authors Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton both hated James Joyce’s Ulysses with a passion. After reading the work for the first time, Woolf said, “I don’t believe that [Joyce’s] method…means much more than cutting out the explanations and putting in the thoughts between dashes.” Wharton was even harsher in her denunciation of Joyce’s novel, calling it a “turgid welter of pornography.”
Famous Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott wrote most of his epic poem Marmion while on horseback. Scott was a member of the Light Horse Volunteers, which were preparing for a possible French invasion of the British Isles. Most likely Scott drew inspiration from the horsemen he saw around him in Marmion‘s description of the 1513 Battle of Flodden.
The obscure German poet Gottlob Wilhelm Burmann (1737 – 1805) is better known today for his intense hatred of the letter “R” than his actual poetry. Burmann so hated the letter “R” that he refused to use it in his poetic work and in daily conversation.
Arnold Bennett, the author of The Old Wives’ Tale and Clayhanger, has an omelette named after him. The omelette, which consists of cream, Parmesan cheese, and smoked haddock, was invented at London’s Savoy Hotel where Bennett often stayed. You can still order an “Omelette Arnold Bennett” at the Savoy Hotel today.
When one Booker Prize judge finished Canadian author Margaret Atwood‘s The Year Of The Flood, he hurled the novel across the room in a rage. Eyewitnesses say he threw the book so hard that it actually dented a wall. But don’t feel too bad for Atwood; she had already won the 2000 Booker Prize for her novel The Blind Assassin.
When asked where she came up with the plots for her famous murder mysteries, Agatha Christie said she liked to think out her stories while eating apples and relaxing in a warm bath. As of today, Christie remains the bestselling murder mystery novelist of all time, so her method obviously worked!
18th century poet Alexander Pope has the most popular poetic quote according to Google Analytics. The award-winning quote, which has over 14.8 million hits on Google, comes from Pope’s An Essay on Criticism: “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” Rounding out the top three are William Ernest Henley’s “I am the master of my fate,” and William Wordsworth’s “The child is father of the man.
While poet Sylvia Plath is better known for Ariel and The Bell Jar, she also wrote a popular collection of children’s rhymes that were published posthumously as The Bed Book. The original printed version of The Bed Book featured illustrations by Quentin Blake, the award-winning artist behind almost all the illustrations in Roald Dahl’s books.
Irish novelist James Joyce was one of world literature’s most famous astraphobics. In case you didn’t already know, astrophobia refers to an intense fear of thunder and lightning. Biographers believe Joyce developed this fear when his Catholic teachers told him thunder was a sign of God’s wrath.
Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, formally gave away his birthday to an American girl while he was living in Samoa. The reason he did this was because the young girl, A. H. Ide, had her birthday on Christmas, so she didn’t get as many presents as her friends
Hanson Robotics created a life-size android of sci-fi author Philip K. Dick in 2005. The life-like robot has won numerous accolades in the tech industry. You can check out videos of this intelligent android-author on YouTube.
Classical music lovers probably already know that novelist Aurore Dupin (better known as George Sand) was the lover of Polish composer Frédéric Chopin. In addition to Chopin, Sand had relationships with the playwright Alfred de Musset and the short story writer Prosper Mérimée. Before she embarked on these famous romantic relations, Sand was married to François Casimir Dudevant and bore him two children.
There are many eerie parallels between John Brunner‘s 1964 novel Stand on Zanzibar and the current world. This novel, which is set in 2010, predicted the rise of China, the formation of the European Union, overpopulation, Viagra, and even had a president named Obomi!
Most novelists have some pretty odd ways of getting “inspired,” but British novelist D. H. Lawrence‘s method was pretty extreme…even for a writer. Lawrence would actually climb mulberry trees totally naked to help stimulate his imagination. Well, whatever works, right?
The Anglican Church honored Victorian poet Christian Rossetti with her very own Feast Day on the second Sunday of Easter. Rossetti is well known for her devotional verses, especially her Christmas poems. British composer Gustav Holst actually set Rossetti’s “In The Bleak Midwinter” to music.
American author Ernest Hemingway once stole a urinal from the bar Sloppy Joe’s and brought it to his Key West home. He argued that he had “pissed away” enough money in this bar that he deserved to own the urinal. Today, visitors can still see this famed urinal, which was soon transformed into a garden fountain.
Candide author Voltaire helped spread the story of Sir Isaac Newton getting hit on the head with an apple. Voltaire wasn’t the first to write about how Newton came up with his theory of gravity, but his account in 1727’s “Essay on Epic Poetry” is one of the most famous versions. Although Voltaire (real name François-Marie Arouet) greatly admired Newton’s work, the two great Enlightenment thinkers never met.
In 1886, science fiction legend Jules Verne was almost killed by his nephew Gaston. Only one of Gaston’s two bullets hit Verne in the left shin, which resulted in a lifelong limp. Police quickly arrested Gaston and locked him away in a mental institution.
American playwright Eugene O’Neill was born in a hotel room in New York and died in a hotel room in Boston. His famous last words were, “I knew it. I knew it. Born in a hotel room – and God damn it – died in a hotel room.”
Many film critics believe sci-fi author Ursula K. Le Guin‘s novels were the main sources of inspiration for the 2009 blockbuster Avatar. In particular, critics see stark parallels between Avatar and Le Guin’s novella The Word for World Is Forest. Fans of James Cameron’s epic film should really give this short book a read-through.
Edgar Rice Burroughs, author of Tarzan, worked as a pencil-sharpener salesman before he tried his hand at fiction. Indeed, Burroughs only started writing at the age of 36 to support his wife and two children.
Irish dramatist Samuel Beckett was close friends with the wrestler André the Giant. André’s father, Boris Rousimoff, actually helped Beckett build his farm in northern Paris. In return for this favor, Beckett agreed to drive the young André into school every day.
The great Swiss-born writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a key contributor to Denis Diderot‘s first French Encyclopedia. Rousseau almost exclusively wrote entries on subjects related to music. Indeed, Rousseau was so fond of music that he actually composed his own opera, The Village Soothsayer, in 1752.
DC Comics didn’t invent the nickname “Gotham City.” Believe it or not, “Rip Van Winkle” author Washington Irving first used this term to describe New York in an 1807 periodical. Irving apparently stole the nickname from a village in Nottinghamshire, England
The city Pippa Passes in eastern Kentucky was named after Victorian poet Robert Browning‘s verse drama of the same name. Locals decided to change the city’s name from “Carney” to “Pippa Passes” after they received financial assistance from the Browning Society in the 1920s.
The Hound of Heaven poet Francis Thompson is listed as a Jack the Ripper suspect. Although there’s no physical evidence to back up this strange claim, independent researchers say the imagery in Thompson’s poetry and his background in medical school are valid grounds for suspicion.
Charles Perrault, the French author behind classic fairy tales like Cinderella, persuaded King Louis XIV to build 39 fountains in the Gardens of Versailles as a tribute to Aesop’s fables. It took workers only five years (1672 to 1677) to complete this remarkable feat of engineering. Besides Cinderella, Perrault is responsible for tales like Bluebeard, Little Red Riding Hood, and Sleeping Beauty.
Although lesser known today, the temperance novel Franklin Evans was one of Walt Whitman‘s most commercially successful works during his lifetime. The great American poet wrote this novel at the start of his career strictly for cash. He later admitted that he penned this work in a drunken stupor over a period of three days.
Colin Dexter, author of the popular Inspector Morse novels, said the most common question he got from fans was about the meaning of the term “boustrophedon” in one of his novels. In case you were wondering, boustrophedon refers to an ancient style of writing in which the lines of text alternate from left to right and then from right to left. Dexter was a Classics major and loved filling his detective novels with Ancient Greek, Latin, and English literature.
Speaking of Colin Dexter, it’s impossible not to think of Oxford, which is affectionately known as “The City of Dreaming Spires.” Few people know that it was Victorian poet Matthew Arnold who coined this phrase to describe Oxford. Just like Dexter, Arnold studied Classics at the University of Oxford.
Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami said he was inspired to write fiction after attending a baseball game at Jingu Stadium. Even though he had never written a novel before, Murakami intuitively knew he could write a great story as he watched Dave Hilton bat a double. He started writing Hear the Wild Sing that very night.
Before he seriously began writing, French author Michel Houellebecq studied to become a farmer…only to discover that he didn’t want to go into agriculture. Shortly after earning his agronomy degree, Houellebecq worked on computers for the French government. He only began to earn a living as a writer once The Elementary Particles was published in 1998.
After Song of Solomon author Toni Morrison‘s house burned down, she spent hours on the phone with fellow author Maxine Hong Kingston trying to process the loss. Kingston also lost one of her homes to a fire.
American author Cormac McCarthy admitted that he sent his first novel to Random House only because he didn’t know any other publishing houses. Amazingly, McCarthy has been able to sell all of his novels from the 1960s onwards without the help of an agent
As a souvenir from his trip to the Middle East, French author Gustave Flaubert brought home a mummy’s foot and kept it on his working desk. Historians note that it was actually quite common for wealthy 19th century travelers to bring body parts from mummies as souvenirs.
Beat author William S. Burroughs‘s novel Naked Lunch was supposed to be called Naked Lust. Burroughs decided to change the novel’s title after fellow Beat Jack Kerouac mispronounced the original title.
Both American writers Ernest Hemingway and Hart Crane were born on the same day: July 21st, 1899. Unfortunately, both of these troubled artists also died by their own hands.
While he was writing Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison supported himself as a freelance photographer. He also earned some money repairing, building, and installing audio systems.
Although the Italian writer Italo Calvino is highly praised for his fantasy novels, his parents suppressed literary studies in favor of scientific learning. Both of Calvino’s parents were science professors. Indeed, Calvino’s father was a well-respected botanist who grew some Italy’s first avocados.
The influential British authors C. S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley died on the same day: November 22nd, 1963. That was also the fateful day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. All three of these coincidental deaths inspired American author Peter Kreeft to write the novel Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialog Somewhere Beyond Death with John F. Kennedy, C. S. Lewis, & Aldous Huxley.
Sci-fi author H. G. Wells worked as a math teacher shortly before publishing his iconic The Time Machine. Wells’s most famous student was none other than Winnie The Pooh author A. A. Milne. Milne’s father, John Milne, was the schoolmaster at the Henley House school and employed Wells between 1889 and 1890.
While we’re on the topic of important British writers educating future English authors, Eric Arthur Blair (aka George Orwell) was once the pupil of Aldous Huxley. Huxley taught Orwell French at Eton College starting in 1917.
Medieval French poet François Villon murdered a priest and later stole from Paris’s Collège de Navarre. Although he was sentenced to be hanged for his criminal actions, it appears Villon’s sentence changed to exile. Some scholars believe Villon fled to England in his final years, but nobody actually knows what happened to him after 1463.
Wystan Hugh Auden (often referred to as W. H. Auden) drew a great deal from his father’s medical knowledge and his mother’s Anglican faith in his poetry. Indeed, Auden is credited with being the first serious English writer to use the language of clinical psychiatry in verse.
Literary scholars don’t know much about The Faerie Queene author Edmund Spencer‘s first wife Machabyas Childe. All we know is that Spencer married Childe in 1579 in London’s St. Margaret’s Church and that Childe died before 1594. We do know a bit more about Spencer’s second wife Elizabeth Boyle.
Ender’s Game author Orson Scott Card lists feeding local wildlife on his North Carolina patio as one of his hobbies. Besides birds, chipmunks, and squirrels, Card also likes to feed raccoons and possums.
British diarist Samuel Pepys was so relieved after his successful bladder stone surgery in 1658 that he decided to celebrate the occasion every single year. While the surgeon did remove a major bladder stone, Pepys suffered a few complications from the operation.
Catch-22 author Joseph Heller worked on many major screenplays in Hollywood to earn a living. A few major movies Heller worked on include Sex and the Single Girl and the first film adaptation of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale.
British war poet Wilfred Owen thought about enlisting in the French army at the start of World War I. Owen was working as a teacher in France when WWI broke out. Sadly, Owen died shortly before Armistice and was buried in the French town of Ors.
Siegfried Sassoon, another famous British WWI poet, befriended Wilfred Owen as they were both recovering in a Scottish hospital. Sassoon had a huge impact on Owen and encouraged the young poet to write. For those who are interested, Pat Barker based her novel Regeneration on the friendship between Owen and Sassoon.
Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae was inspired to write his iconic WWI poem “In Flanders Field” after his friend was killed in Ypres, Belgium. A few days after his friend was buried, McCrae noticed poppies starting to bloom underneath the hundreds of unmarked graves. Inspired by this image, McCrae quickly composed his iconic poem the next day while riding in an ambulance.
Controversial American author Charles Bukowski was definitely a cat person. He actually wrote an entire book called On Cats. In one section of this book, Bukowski says he only has to look at a cat to regain his courage.
English poet William Blake only spent three years of his life outside of London. During this time in the town of Felpham Blake worked hard on his famous Jerusalem. Blake also got into a serious fight with the soldier John Schofield after he allegedly cursed the king and said soldiers were no better than slaves.
At the age of eleven, Japanese author Shūsaku Endō‘s aunt persuaded him to become a Catholic. After studying in Tokyo, Endō studied Catholic theology in Lyon, France. By the time of his death, authors around the world hailed Endō as “Japan’s Graham Greene.”
Sudanese author Tayeb Salih‘s classic novel Season of Migrations to the North was banned in his home country after it was published in 1989. The government banned the novel due to its frank depictions of sex rather than its political implications. Today, however, Salih’s novel is hailed around the world as a masterpiece of post-colonial literature.
Eighteenth-century Venetian author Giacomo Casanova started writing his epic autobiography History of My Life late in life out of sheer boredom. A Bohemian count in Duchcov, Czech Republic, protected Casanova from 1785 until Casanova’s death in 1798. In case you were wondering, Casanova claims to have slept with 122 women in his dazzling autobiography.
Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope had his servant wake him up every day at 5:30 AM with a hot cup of coffee. Trollope then spent three hours writing before he went to his day job at the post office. Most days, Trollope was able to write an incredible 250 words per 15 minutes.
The International Astronomical Union (IAU) named asteroid 5696 in honor of Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen. Astronomers at San Diego’s Palomar Observatory discovered 5696 Ibsen in 1960.
After the first volume of Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård‘s My Struggle was published, numerous offices in Oslo banned workers from talking about the book on Fridays. Bosses in Oslo complained that their employees were spending far too much time talking about Knausgård’s text and not enough time doing their jobs.
American author W. E. B. DuBois moved to Ghana in 1960 when he was in his 90s. DuBois started work on an Encyclopedia Africana, but he passed away in 1963. Visitors to the capital city Accra can visit the W. E. B. DuBois Memorial Center and see the room DuBois stayed in as well as his final resting place.
Gilded Age author Edith Wharton lived in Paris during World War I and was passionate about helping the French war effort. In addition to working with charities and visiting the Western Front, Wharton wrote numerous articles urging the USA to defend France. At the end of the Great War, the French government gave Wharton a Legion of Honor for her support.
English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge is credited with the first printed use of the words “selfless,” “psychosomatic,” “bipolar,” and “bisexual.” Coleridge is also responsible for the now famous phrase “suspension of disbelief.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s classic short story “Babylon Revisited” sold to the Saturday Evening Post for $4,000 in 1931. Adjusting for inflation, that’s close to $50,000 today. Once he received the money for this story, Fitzgerald told Ernest Hemingway in a letter that he felt like an “old whore.”
It took Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata 12 years to complete his masterpiece Snow Country. He especially struggled with choosing from dozens of possible conclusions. All that hard work definitely paid off for Kawabata; he went on to become Japan’s first Nobel Prize winner in the field of literature in 1968.
After Fathers and Sons author Ivan Turgenev died in 1818, Russian surgeons took out his brain and put it on a weight scale. They found that his brain weighed 2,021 grams (4.4 pounds), which was one of the heaviest to date on Russian records.
Although every student learns about iambic pentameter studying William Shakespeare’s verse, Christopher Marlowe‘s Tamburlaine the Great is the first official play totally in blank verse. Marlowe was a contemporary of Shakespeare, but he died at a younger age after he was stabbed at a dining-house.
With Christopher Marlowe in mind, it’s interesting (and sad) to note that he might have indirectly caused the death of another great English Renaissance playwright: Thomas Kyd. Kyd, who’s most famous for his play The Spanish Tragedy, was beaten up by government agents demanding to know whether his roommate Marlowe was an atheist or not. Thomas Kyd died in 1594, just one year after authorities gave him a good thrashing.
While he was working at the Royal Library in Stockholm, playwright August Strindberg learned how to read Chinese and organized the library’s Chinese manuscripts. Today, millions of Chinese are just starting to get interested in Strindberg’s outstanding oeuvre.
When Journey to the End of the Night author Louis-Ferdinand Céline was a soldier in World War I, he agreed to carry a message for the French army and was shot in the arm in Ypres. For his service in WWI, Céline was awarded a médaille militaire; however, he was denounced by French authorities during WWII for his collaboration with the Nazis.
As Anton Chekhov‘s body was transported from Germany to Moscow, a crowd of mourners mistook General Keller’s funeral procession for Chekhov’s. Chekhov is now buried in Moscow’s famous Novodevichy Cemetery with fellow Russian icons such as Sergei Prokofiev and Nikolai Gogol.
Nineteenth-century Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz was so beloved in his own time that his fellow countrymen came together to buy him a small castle in 1900. Sienkiewicz lived in this castle for a few years before World War I. Today, the Poznań castle serves as the Henryk Sienkiewicz Museum.
Chilean poet Pablo Neruda always wrote in green ink. For Neruda, green was a color of hope and abundance and (apparently) helped his creative process. Children’s authors Pam Muñoz Ryan and Peter Sís paid tribute to the great poet by publishing their 2010 book on Neruda’s childhood The Dreamer in green ink.
At the height of her critical acclaim, British author Doris Lessing sent two new novels to her publisher under the pen name Jane Somers. Her UK publisher rejected both of these novels (The Diary of a Good Neighbor and If the Old Could). Lessing used this experience to illustrate just how difficult it is for a new writer to get published.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, author of the Gulag Archipelago, spent over 20 years in Vermont after being expelled from the USSR in 1974. In all that time, Solzhenitsyn never learned to speak fluent English. Strangely, Solzhenitsyn did know how to read English and had read English literature ever since he was a teenager.
During WWII, Russian author Ivan Bunin lived in southern France and hid dozens of Jews from the Nazis. The Soviet Union welcomed Bunin back after the war, but Bunin chose to spend his final years in France. Bunin was the first Russian to ever win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1933.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the feminist author of The Yellow Wallpaper, was related to Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe. Gilman’s father was Stowe’s nephew, and the Charlotte Perkins Gilman spent a fair amount of her childhood at Stowe’s Hartford residence.
There’s no evidence that President Abraham Lincoln said to Harriet Beecher Stowe, “So this is the little lady who started this great big war.” In fact, it’s not even clear whether President Lincoln actually met with Stowe during the Civil War. Historians say this popular rumor can be traced back to Stowe’s 1896 obituary.
Staying on the topic of Harriet Beecher Stowe, one of world literature’s greatest admirers of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was none other than Leo Tolstoy. The author of Anna Karenina called Uncle Tom’s Cabin one of the prime “examples of the highest art flowing from love of God and man.” Strange as it may seem, Tolstoy had far kinder things to say about Stowe’s novel than Shakespeare’s King Lear.
A few years after Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was born in present-day Tepetlixpa, Mexico, she taught herself Latin, wrote a dramatic poem, and passed tests administered by scholars in Mexico City. In 1669, Juana decided to enter into a convent so she would have no worldly distractions to her intellectual pursuits.
French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville initially traveled to the USA in 1830 to study America’s prison system. At the end of his travels, de Tocqueville’s fellow traveler Gustave de Beaumont wrote the majority of the penal system study while de Tocqueville worked exclusively on his influential Democracy in America.
Irish author and politician Edmund Burke had great difficulty with public speaking. Burke’s public speeches at the House of Commons were so boring that many MPs left the building once Burke took stood up.
British author Rudyard Kipling‘s book Kim literally saved a French soldier’s life. French Legionnaire soldier Maurice Hamonneau was shot in Verdun in 1913. Luckily for Hamonneau, the bullet struck his copy of Kim, which was in his left breast pocket, and stopped the bullet twenty pages away from his heart.
Stephen Crane wrote the greatest Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage, even though he was born five years after the war ended. When asked how he was able to write battle scenes with such accuracy, Crane said that he learned all he needed to know about war from football.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is the only American poet to be honored with a bust in London’s Westminster Abbey. Longfellow was born in Portland, Maine, in 1807, but his ancestry can be traced back to Yorkshire, England. During his lifetime, Longfellow was almost as popular a poet as Lord Tennyson in the UK.
Shortly after 19th century critic William Hazlitt passed away, his London landlady hid his corpse underneath a bed. So desperate was this Soho landlady for new tenants that she actually gave tours of the apartment while Hazlitt’s body was underneath the bed.
Although only one of her poems survives intact, artists have hailed the Ancient Greek poetess Sappho as on par with Homer. Sappho wrote at least nine volumes of poetry, but most of the poems that survive today are in fragments on papyrus scrolls.
Two great works by the Roman poet Ovid have been lost to the sands of time: the drama Medea and a poem in praise of King Augustus written in the now extinct Getic language. Luckily for literature lovers and mythologists, Ovid’s masterful Metamorphoses has survived to the present day.
Notorious English occultist Aleister Crowley invented quite a few alcoholic mixtures throughout his life. One of his most famous concoctions, “Kubla Khan No. 2,” consists of gin, vermouth, and laudanum (a commonly available opioid painkiller back in the day)
Spanish artist Pablo Picasso inspired the Polish-Italian poet Guillaume Apollinaire to imitate Cubism in his poetry. Apollinaire literally followed Picasso’s advice in a few poems which he arranged in striking visual patterns. Many critics believe Apollinaire’s work was a major inspiration behind the Surrealist movement.
Shortly after Laurence Sterne died in 1768, grave robbers stole his body and sold it to be used in an anatomy demonstration. Once a Cambridge surgeon recognized Sterne’s face, however, he ordered the body be returned to its grave. The author of Tristram Shandy is now safely buried in Coxwold.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince, was a professional pilot. In 1944, Saint-Exupéry went on a flight to Corsica, but he never made it there. Cops discovered a pilot’s body in Marseilles shortly after he went missing, but experts can’t definitively say it was Saint-Exupéry’s.
Edgar Allan Poe thought of having an owl quote “nevermore” in his famous poem “The Raven.” Some letters indicate Poe was even considering using a parrot. Thankfully for American literature, Poe decided the raven was “infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone” of his poem.
Aphra Behn wasn’t only a revolutionary Restoration writer; she also served as a spy under Charles II. In fact, “Aphra Behn” was her codename. Behn was actually born Eaffrey Johnson in 1640.
Irish dramatist George Bernard Shaw invested a great deal of money and time into creating a new alphabet for the English language. His “Shavian alphabet” was intended to get rid of spelling issues in English by creating a new system of symbols that had a 1:1 relationship to their phonemes. Obviously Shaw’s alphabet hasn’t really caught on in the Anglosphere.
John Steinbeck‘s dog ate his first manuscript of Of Mice and Men. Thankfully, Steinbeck was only halfway through the piece at the time his dog tore it to shreds. Steinbeck reportedly told a friend that this might’ve been a sign that his famous novella was in need of serious revisions.
While Samuel Richardson‘s Pamela was a major success after it was released in 1740, not everyone enjoyed it. One of the most famous Pamela haters was none other than Henry Fielding, the author of Tom Jones. Fielding made his displeasure with Pamela widely known by consistently calling the novel Shamela.
William Makepeace Thackeray wasted his father’s inheritance of £20,000 on gambling and risky investments in the 1830s. It wasn’t until he published the first edition of his famous Vanity Fair in 1847 that he gained financial stability and prestige.
William Golding‘s masterpiece Lord of the Flies really struck a chord with big name rock bands. U2 took the name of their song “Shadows and Tall Trees” from chapter seven of Golding’s novel, and Iron Maiden released a track called “Lord of the Flies.”
A study out of the University of Liverpool found that reading William Shakespeare in the original activates certain areas of the brain associated with memory and reappraisal. Researchers found that simple English “translations” of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan verse didn’t have as profound an effect on the brain.
Meiji Era author Ichiyō Higuchi wrote her greatest stories in her early twenties just before her death of tuberculosis. She was living in a poor area of Tokyo near the red light district at the time. Today, Japan honors Higuchi on the ¥5,000 note.
Famous French philosopher Henri Bergson married the famous French author Marcel Proust‘s cousin Louise Neuburger. Interestingly, Bergson’s ideas about time had a profound influence on Proust’s long novel Remembrance of Things Past.
Although many readers don’t know him today, John Lydgate (1370-1451 AD) is credited with publishing the first epic poem in the English canon. Written in Middle English, the Troy Book is over 30,000 lines long and details the entire history of Troy.
French author Émile Zola died in 1902 from carbon monoxide poisoning resulting from a blocked chimney. There’s still a debate as to whether his death was an accident or if people who didn’t like his support of Alfred Dreyfus murdered Zola.
When the Italian writer Umberto Eco visited Paris for the first time, he would only walk down streets that had survived from the Middle Ages. He was studying medieval history at the University of Turin at the time and was obsessed with the era.
Although Renaissance writer Petrarch knew the poet Giovanni Boccaccio since 1361, he never read Boccaccio’s celebrated Decameron until shortly before his death in 1374. Petrarch also admitted to Boccaccio that he had never read Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Slaughterhouse-Five author Kurt Vonnegut was a huge fan of Cheers. Vonnegut once told reporters he would’ve rather written scripts for this TV show than all his bestselling novels.
Parisian dramatist Jean-Paul Sartre loved to play pranks in his schooldays. He actually convinced the French media that Charles Lindbergh was going to stop at his school and hired a lookalike to give interviews. Sartre’s schoolmaster, Gustave Lanson, was eventually fired due to Sartre’s shenanigans.
When English Romantic William Blake was only four years old he claimed to see God through a window. Throughout the rest of his life, Blake said he often communed with angels and he incorporated these visions into his art.
When the poet John Keats was a child, he was apparently quite adept at sports. Interestingly, many of Keats’s schoolmates believed he would have a great career in the art of war rather than the art of poetry.
After retiring from writing at the age of 19, Arthur Rimbaud traveled extensively throughout Europe and Africa. Records suggest the French poet was the first European to step foot in the Ogaden area of Ethiopia.
Gigi author Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette could only write after she had plucked all the fleas off of her cat. She also said she couldn’t write with shoes and socks on.
The 16th-century poet Girolamo Fracastoro is only well-known today for one word: syphilis. That’s right, we get the word for this devastating STD from one of Fracastoro’s poems.
Every year on December 17th, a group of devotees perform a dervish celebration by Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī‘s tomb at Turkey’s Mevlana Museum. The Sufi mystic (commonly known as Rumi) was born in 1207 and died in 1273.
While everyone knows that Shakespeare is the bestselling poet of all time, many people can’t guess the number two and three spots correctly. In case you’re wondering, the second bestselling poet is the Taoist sage Lao Tzu and third place goes to Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran.
Canadian-American author Saul Bellow didn’t know his own birthday. His parents had just arrived in Québec when he was born in 1915, and they forgot to record whether their son was born on June 10th or July 10th. Unfortunately for Bellow, the city hall that contained his official birth certificate burned down.
Poet Xu Zhimo has inspired millions of Chinese tourists to visit Cambridge University. His incredibly popular poem “Taking Leave of Cambridge Again” remains a staple in the Chinese reading curriculum. To commemorate the poet’s work, Cambridge University put inscriptions of the poem on white stones by the River Cam.
Whew! That’s it for our interesting author facts, at least for now. Are we missing any of your favorite literary trivia tidbits? Let us know in the comments below!