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High Culture

10 people who got famous from the grave

Really puts the whole “don’t give up until you’re dead” thing to shame.

Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette, by Van Gogh

Key Takeaways
Gregor Mendel

Mendel pioneered genetics back in 1865… but nobody took it seriously until 1915, some 30 years after his death in 1884. His experiments with pea plants established the basic rules of heredity. One of the problems was the simplicity of his discovery. In essence, Mendel was scientifically confirming that genes can be passed down and that some can skip generations, which is what farmers and animal breeders had known anecdotally for centuries. Mendel was the one, however, who both named and proved the existence of “dominant” and “recessive” genes, which he called “factors.”

He knew he was on to something, despite being completely ignored by his contemporaries, allegedly saying “my time will come” to several friends after two well-attended lectures led to nowhere professionally. His work was rediscovered in 1900 by two leading botanists and geneticists at the time—Hugo de Vries and Carl Correns—and this led to a resurgence in his work as his experiments were replicated and shown to work flawlessly.

In the 1850s, Mendel tried several times to get his teaching credentials, but continuously failed the oral presentation part of the exams. Between this time and 1865, he turned his attention to physics, although he didn’t make a ton of money doing so. In 1868, he became an abbot at a monastery.

Van Gogh

Van Gogh famously only sold one painting in his lifetime: the ‘Red Vineyard at Arles’, completed in 1888. He sold it for 400 francs, or roughly $2,000 today. He painted Vineyard roughly two years before he took his own life by shooting himself in the chest at just 37 years old. It was during these last two years of his life that he painted the vast majority of the work he is known for, including The Night Cafe and The Starry Night.

He was apparently not easy to get along with. The widely rumored story that he cut off his ear to give to a woman might actually not be true; a recent book claims that it came off in a fight with a friend of his.

The woman who bought his vineyard painting, Anna Boch, was herself a painter and a friend to many in the artistic community in France at the time, and ostensibly became a prominent art collector of Impressionist artist. When she died, she asked that all proceeds from the sale of her collection go towards a fund that helped the retirement of artists.

Galileo Galilei 

In terms of length of time after death to being discovered, Galileo really takes the cake. He takes so much cake, in fact, that he could pretty much open his own bakery in the afterlife. He died in 1642 but his work wasn’t allowed to be fully published until 1835 thanks, in large part, to an injunction that took place during his lifetime by the Catholic Church. His crime? He built a telescope that proved that the Earth revolved around the Sun, which went against the Earth-centric teachings of the Catholics at the time. He supported the heliocentric theory put forth by Nicolaus Copernicus.

The Catholic Church labeled Galileo as both a heretic and a suspicious character, and ultimately sentenced him to house arrest in 1633 in what is referred to as the Galileo Affair. He finally got one of his books published mass-market in 1638, just four years before his death. In 1668, Isaac Newton builds his own reflecting telescope and picks up where Galileo left off.

Albert Einstein referred to him as the father of modern science, and Stephen Hawking once said that Galileo “bears more of the responsibility for the birth of modern science than anybody else.” He didn’t get a full apology by the Catholic Church until Pope John Paul II in 1992.

Bill Hicks during the taping of Relentless, 1992.

Bill Hicks 

While not a scientist, Hicks’ influence extends far beyond the stand-up comedy circuit. Raised by Baptist parents, he rebelled young and took to stand-up early in his teens. After establishing himself in the mid-’80s, he was discovered by Rodney Dangerfield’s team and promptly moved to New York City, where he performed some 300 sets a year. He became quite popular in England, and toured there in the early 1990s.

Hicks’ material largely focused on expanding your mind via psychedelics, the downfalls of capitalism, and the death of the American dream. While this in and of itself might not seem like “top 10 greatest” material, consider this: While alive, he was a sometimes mentor to other comedians, including Jon Stewart. Hicks encouraged the young Jon to “walk the room” whenever things got rough, and encouraged many others to push their boundaries further and to apply philosophy to their sets; Hicks himself was a big fan of Terence McKenna and Howard Zinn. He’s also been cited by thinkers and philosophers (the late Christopher Hitchens was reportedly a big fan, although citations confirming this are misty at best) and politicians. In 2004, a member of the British Parliament tabled a motion to declare February 26th “Anniversary of the Death of Bill Hicks”.

That this House notes with sadness the 10th anniversary of the death of Bill Hicks, on 26th February 1994, at the age of 33 [sic]; recalls his assertion that his words would be a bullet in the heart of consumerism, capitalism and the American Dream; and mourns the passing of one of the few people who may be mentioned as being worth of inclusion with Lenny Bruce in any list of unflinching and painfully honest political philosophers.

He died of pancreatic cancer at just 32, possibly brought on by his heavy, lifelong cigarette use.

Just this week, director Richard Linklater announced he’s going to be filming a Bill Hicks biopic.

Wegener on a polar expedition.

Alfred Wegener

Alfred Wegener, a German-born meteorologist and polar researcher, was a pioneer of the theory of continental drift, i.e. the idea that continents are moving very slowly on tectonic plates. He died in 1930 but his theory wasn’t accepted until 1953 when two British scientists revisited his work and began to produce data that confirmed it. He originally posited the theory by noticing how all the continents fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, and that fossils and rock types were similar on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

One of the reasons Alfred’s theory wasn’t accepted during his life is that he overshot the estimation: He figured that the continents drifted at about 250cm (or around 8ft) a year, when in actuality it’s about 2.5cm (just under 1 inch) a year. Another reason, which perhaps falls under speculation more than concrete fact, was that Alfred himself was either too affable to publicly defend his works (he’s noted as not replying during lectures where fellow scientists picked apart his work) or simply not confident in his skill with the English language.

Nowadays, GPS can measure Wegener’s findings down to the millimeter, and the theory of Pangea—a landmass containing all the current continents that broke apart millennia ago, which Wegener called Urkontinent—is widely accepted.

A self-portrait.

Doménikos Theotokópoulos

More commonly known as ‘El Greco’ (‘The Greek’), Doménikos created a style of painting that was laughed at during his time for being too dark and angular, yet lauded in the 20th century, some 300 years after his death in 1614. After settling in Venice, Italy, his profoundly individualistic style (and apparent disregard for being polite about other artists, as there’s at least one record of him dismissing Michelangelo’s painting style) rubbed a lot of the moneyed folks in Venice the wrong way. Because of this, he moved to Toldeo, Spain, which at the time was one of the main religious capitals of Europe.

To say that he wasn’t famous during his time isn’t entirely true, as he did quite well for himself in Toldeo, owning a 24-room, 3-bedroom sprawling apartment from 1585 until his death in 1614, which became not only his studio but somewhat of a hub for the artistic community of Toledo at the time. Yet during his life and even decades after his death his work was described by critics as “sunk in eccentricity”, “strange”, “eccentric,” and “odd.” This was because the gaudy, overwhelming Baroque style was hugely popular at the time, and El Greco’s somewhat more artistic visions just didn’t fit in. In the 20th century, Pablo Picasso was a huge fan and often repainted some of El Greco’s more famous works (in his own style, of course) as a homage to his hero.

Edgar Allen Poe, around 1847.

Edgar Allan Poe

An impoverished writer not making a lot of money is nothing new, but it might surprise you a writer as influential as Edgar Allen Poe spent much of his life scraping by. After getting purposefully discharged from the Army and marrying his 13 year-old cousin, he spent a few years bouncing around editorial jobs while trying to get his work published. The country was just coming out of a recession and the publishing industry was afraid to take on new writers; because international copyright laws were scarce at best, publishing companies often just reprinted (you could say ‘rebooted’!) older works. When Poe did get published, it was often for very little money. ‘The Raven’ was perhaps his best known work printed during his lifetime but he only made $9 from it.

Poe’s wife began to show signs of tuberculosis around 1842 and ultimately died from the disease in 1847. Poe never quite recovered from her death and began drinking heavily. Weirdly, the circumstances around his death remain a mystery. He was found wandering the streets of Baltimore in clothes that weren’t his, and taken to a hospital where he was shown as having “cerebral inflammation”—a term which often, in those times, referred to severe alcoholism.

Poe was far better known known as a critic during his lifetime, often getting into spats with poets and authors of the time, most notably Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. An enemy wrote a scathing obituary that propagated many untruths about Poe (drug addiction, etc) and assassinated his character in a way that echoed for years. But after his death, Poe’s work spread thanks to French translations by none other than Charles Baudelaire. Because of this, he became huge in Europe in the decades after he passed. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote the Sherlock Holmes series, was quoted as saying “Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?”

Du Fu, sometimes known as Tu Fu.

Du Fu

Du Fu was a Chinese poet who lived from 712 to 770. He tried to become a civil servant but failed the test, possibly because his writing style was deemed too imaginative and dense. He then bounced around Shandong and Hebei for 10 years attempting to live the life of a poet-scholar, much like his idol Li Bai. When this didn’t work out as planned (Li Bai was reportedly a “poetry star” at the time), he tried to retake the test in 745 but was failed by the Chinese prime minister at the time, along with every taker of the test, in what is thought to be an attempt to quash a rebellion. He married and had five children, four of whom survived floods and then a subsequent famine that devastated China around 750-755.

Turns out that the Chinese prime minister who failed him in 745 was onto something, as in late 755 there was a massive rebellion in China, referred to as the An Lushan Rebellion, that lasted for eight years. It upended Du Fu (who had earlier that year accepted a comfy position in local government), who spent much of the rest of his life trying to find a good home for him and his family. Conversely, the rebellion time period was particularly fruitful for Du Fu, who wrote much of his great works during this time.

But—like everyone else on this list—his work wasn’t accepted during its time. In Du Fu’s case, this was mostly due to the fact that he liked to write in different voices, i.e. using more correct language for more affluent characters (written in the first person), and more colloquial language for common people. At the time, this was considered pretty damn weird. But around the 9th century, Du Fu’s work was revisited and taught and indeed lauded far more than it ever was in his lifetime. His work is exceptional (try this one), and definitely holds up today, even when translated into English.

William Shakespeare

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Shakespeare is mega-famous and had to have been super popular during his time, right?

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Well, not exactly. When he was alive, Shakespeare was regarded as a popular poet and a successful playwright, but he was nowhere near being widely recognized as one of the greatest writers to have ever lived. During his life, his poems were bigger than his plays, because his plays were only performed by his own company (which were popular, sure, but only in and around London). The plays themselves had extremely limited print runs because his theater company was protective of his work being performed by others due to copyright laws at the time being minimal at best. Five years after his death, his work—including the plays—was collected in 1623 and compiled as the First Folio (folios being a luxury item at the time) of his work. A 2nd Folio was printed nine years later.

But one of the reasons he got so popular post-death was that all plays and performances were banned in England from 1642 to 1660 thanks to Puritan leadership taking over the country due to the English Civil War. To get around this, actors performed short pieces of larger plays. Shakespeare’s comedic plays were among the most performed during this time. When the Puritans finally were defeated in 1660, there was a mad dash to secure the rights—any rights, really—to plays that people liked. Because he had become so popular during this underground period, Shakespeare became overwhelmingly popular about 50 years after his death.

Interestingly, because Shakespeare didn’t follow established “rules” of writing (unlike his contemporaries Ben Johnson and the writing team Beaumont and Fletcher) and played with concepts of space and time, Shakespeare’s work was therefore more adaptable to different interpretations of his work.

One of only 2 photographs of Robert Johnson.

Photo: Columbia Records.

Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson holds a singular place in music history: He’s often considered the father of blues music. Which isn’t bad for a guy who only released two albums during his lifetime, hardly made any money from them, and died as the result of a bar fight.

Born in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, Johnson moved around the southern United States a fair amount—mostly between Memphis, TN, and the Delta region of Mississippi. Around 1930, after his wife died during childbirth, Johnson moved to Robinsonville, MS to pursue a full-time career as a musician and was struck by the sound of musicians Son House and Willie Brown. Apparently unable to keep up with them, he moved to Martinsville (some 250 miles north of Robinsonville) allegedly to find his birth father, but what is confirmed is that along the way he met guitarist Ike Zimmerman. What happens next is where things get weird: Johnson, before he left to Martinsville, was a terrible guitarist by all accounts including both Son House and Willie Brown, who described his playing as embarrassingly bad. So after two years in Martinsville, Johnson moved back to Robinsonville an incredible guitarist. So what happened?

The legend goes that Robert Johnson sold his soul at a crossroads in Mississippi to attain his incredible skill. But the truth is that Ike Zimmerman most likely taught Robert Johnson everything he knew. Zimmerman is alleged to have gotten his guitar prowess “supernaturally”, allegedly playing his guitar in graveyards at night. As to Johnson selling his soul, what this could be attributed to is the fact that playing secular (i.e. non religious) music at the time could be referred to as “selling your soul to the devil.”

Johnson toured from 1932 onwards, often staying with women he’d met at his shows. He traveled to Chicago, New York, Texas, and even Canada. He often busked on street corners to make ends meet. He recorded his songs in 1936, facing the corner of the studio to make his guitar sound louder. Only one of his songs sold relatively well; ‘Terraplane Blues’ sold about 5,000 copies regionally on 78rpm records. He died in August of 1938 after allegedly drinking poisoned whiskey after flirting with a married woman at one of the bars where he had been playing.

In 1961, a compilation of his work, King of the Delta Blues Singers, became hugely popular and inspired a blues revival that itself spawned the Chicago blues sound. It could be one of the most influential albums ever released; An early copy was given to Bob Dylan, who combined Johnson’s sound with that of Woody Guthrie, another of his idols, to create his own signature sound. The compilation was particularly huge in the UK, inspiring guitarists to play the blues through newly released amplifiers that distorted the sound, thereby creating rock music as we know it. Notable fans include Paul McCartney, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, the guys in Black Sabbath, The Who… the list really does go on and on.


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