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Eight Authors Who Were Famous Before Thirty

By Kristin Masters. Nov 15, 2014. 9:00 AM.

What were you doing when you were nineteen years old? Most of us were probably waffling among college majors or learning the ropes at the family business. But before his twentieth birthday, Christopher Paolini was already a New York Times bestselling author. 

Born on November 17, 1983, Paolini grew up in Paradise Valley, Montana. He was homeschooled and graduated from high school at age fifteen through a correspondence program. That same year, he began writing Eragon, which would become the first book in Paolini's acclaimed Inheritance Cycle series. Paolini published the work in 2002 through his parents' publishing company, Paolini International LLC. It may have languished and disappeared, had not Carl Hiassen's stepson stumbled upon the book. He loved it, and passed it on to Hiassen.

Paolini_EragonHiassen was so impressed, he shared it with editors at Alfred A Knopf. The publishing house made an offer to produce not only subsequent editions of Eragon, but also the other books in the series. The second edition of Eragon, published by Alfred A Knopf, appeared in 2003. Eldest followed in 2005; Brisingr in 2008. Paolini originally intended for the series to be a trilogy, but found he needed a fourth book to complete the story; the final book, Inheritance, was published in 2011. By this time, Paolini was no stranger to the bestseller list--and he was still not yet thirty years old! On January 15, 2011, Paolini was actually added to the Guiness Book of World Records as the "youngest author of a bestelling book series." 

Paolini, who names JRR Tolkien and Philip Pullman among his inspirations, has sold over 35 million copies of his books and has become a favorite among lovers of children's literature and science fiction. Here's a look at eight other famous authors who made waves in the literary world before they'd turned thirty. 

Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope had the dubious luck of being born into a Catholic family on May 21, 1688. Thanks to the Test Acts, Catholics could not attend school, go to university, or teach. Thus young Alexander was educated at home by his aunt and later attended an illegal Catholic school. In 1700, the family was forced to move to the countryside when it became illegal for Catholics to live within ten miles of London or Westminster. Pope turned to the classics, and to famous literary figures like Chaucer and Shakespeare. 

Pope's keen interest in literature also led him back to London, to the vibrant literary scene. He managed to befriend figures like William Wycherly, William Congreve, and Samuel Garth. In May 1709, with the help of Wycherly, Pope published Pastorals in Tonson's Poetical Miscellanies. He was only 21 years old. The poem immediately made Pope famous. He didn't squander the attention; Pope published An Essay on Man in May 1711, the same year he befriended Jonathan Swift, John Arbuthnot, and the other Tory writers of the Scriblerus Club. Eager to contribute to the literary community, Pope would also make the acquaintance of accomplished Whig writers like Richard Steele and Joseph Addison. 

Pope's most famous poem, Rape of the Lock, appeared in 1712. He issued a revised version in 1714, a common practice for eighteenth-century authors--and one that makes for interesting collecting today. Already relatively wealthy by this time, Pope set about translating Homer's Iliad. This was a massive undertaking, and Pope published the work in volumes. The proceeds were enough to fund Pope's move to a villa and the construction of his still-famous grotto and gardens. 

Thomas Chatterton

Thomas Chatterton promised to shine from an early age, but his is a tale of genius squandered and extinguished all too soon. Born on November 20, 1752, Chatterton learned his first letters from illuminated capitals on antiquarian music folios. By the time he was eight years old, Chatterton would pass entire days reading and writing if he was left uninterrupted. By eleven years old, the boy was composing poetry. 

Particularly taken with medieval texts, Chatterton loved to go through a chest of old documents in the attic of St. Mary Redcliffe, where his uncle was a sexton. He spent his pocket money at circulating libraries, poring over medieval texts. Chatterton even cozied up to antiquarian book collectors to get access to Spenser, Chaucer, and other medieval works. Eventually he came up with the character of Thomas Rowly, a fifteenth-century monk. Chatterton painstakingly forged poems in Rowley's persona, then tried to pass them off as authentic fifteenth-century texts he'd "discovered" at St. Mary Redcliffe. Only Horace Walpole rebuffed the boy; others embraced the found poetry and made him a celebrity. In 1777, Thomas Tyrwhitt published an edition of Rowleyan poetry, as it came to be called, as if it were genuine fifteenth-century literature. A subsequent, edition, however, acknowledged in an appendix that the work was probably a literary hoax

Death-Thomas_ChattertonThis controversy didn't erupt, however, until after Chatterton died. Though he was apprenticed to a lawyer at age fourteen, Chatteron preferred to write. He wrote political letters, operas, lyrics, and satires. More established writers offered Chatterton mentorship and positive feedback. Nevertheless, Chatterton was plagued by sharp criticism and constant financial hardship. On August 24, 1770, he poisoned himself with arsenic. The already famous poet died before his eighteenth birthday. 

Chatterton was memorialized in the painting at left by Henry Wallace. He's acknowledged as a significant influence on the pre-Raphaelite poets. 

Matthew Lewis

Better known as "the Monk," Matthew Lewis was born on July 9, 1775. His father, a diplomat, planned for his son to enter the same profession. Thus young Lewis received his early education at a school where the pupils were permitted to converse only in French. He went on to Westminster School. By the early 1790's, Lewis was already writing original plays and translating existing works. He hoped to earn money for his mother. In the meantime, Lewis was named attache to the British embassy at the Hague. He found the job unspeakably boring and passed plenty of time at the pub.

His tenure at the Hague lasted only from May to December of 1794, but during those months he penned Ambrosio, or The Monk. Lewis reportedly wrote he novel in only ten weeks. It was published anonymously in 1795 and was an instant success. However, the book's shocking scenes earned an injunction against its sale. The following year, the 21-year-old Lewis published a second edition admitting his authorship and omitting what he considered to be the most scandalous passages. Though he earned some leeway (as he was now a Member of Parliament), Lewis' novel remained controversial. 

Lewis published other minor works, but none eclipsed The Monk in popularity. Lewis would ride his reputation as the author of The Monk for the rest of his days. 

Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley was born to William Godwin and Mary Wollenstonecraft Godwin on August 20, 1797. Godwin was a philospher, while his wife was a noted feminist. Godwin often hosted salons for intellectuals in their home. Young Mary was known to eavesdrop on the adults' conversations after bedtime--which is how she likely heard about the case of George Foster, whose body was turned over to Italian scientist Giovanni Aldini for reanimation following his execution. The episode probably later inspired--or at least informed--her classic horror novel, Frankenstein.


In 1814, Mary ran off with Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was still married. When the two returned to England, Mary was pregnant. The baby was born prematurely and died. After Shelley's wife committed suicide in 1816, the couple married. That year, the couple spent the summer at Lord Byron's estate outside Geneva, Switzerland. Matthew Lewis joined the party and regaled the group with five ghost stories. His tales sparked a contest to see who could write the best spooky story. In response, Mary Shelley conceived Frankenstein

In 1818, the novel was published anonymously. There was some confusion about its authorship at first. Percy had written the preface and seemed a more likely candidate than his wife. Some believed that the novel represents a collaboration between husband and wife, and that perhaps others present at Lord Byron's estate also played a part. Meanwhile critical reception of the novel varied, yet Frankenstein was immediately a success among readers. A French translation appeared in 1821, and the novel was adapted for the stage multiple times. 

Shelley would go on to write historical novels, travel literature, and even a handful of biographical articles for Dionysus Lardner's Cabinet Cyclopaedia. But she put most of her effort into furthering her husband's literary career. The couple constantly ran short on money, and Shelley passed away in poverty. 

John Keats

Born on October 31, 1795, John Keats would live only four years after his work was published. Yet even in that short time, he managed to establish himself as a preeminent author, a central figure in the Romantic movement. Keats attended a local dame school in his early childhood before going on to John Clarke's boarding school; his parents had no money for one of the well known institutions of learning. Although Keats earned a reputation as an impetuous child, he'd turned his attention to books and studying by age thirteen. 

After Keats' parents died, he was apprenticed to a surgeon and apothecary. He showed an early aptitude for medicine and went to Guy's Hospital for further training. By 1815, Keats had already been promoted to dresser, a position similar to junior house surgeon. When he wasn't at school, Keats was writing. His first extant poem dates 1814, when Keats was only nineteen years old. 

In 1816, Keats earned his apothecary's license...and promptly informed his guardians that he planned to write for a living instead. In May 1816, "O Solitude" appeared in The Examiner. He penned his six great odes during the winter of 1818-1819 at Wentworth Palace. By this time, Keats had already started exhibiting symptoms of tuberculosis. His condition worsened, and he moved to Rome at the urging of his doctors. Keats settled in a home next to the Spanish Steps, where he died of tuberculosis in 1821. During Keats' lifetime, sales of his poetry probably totalled only about 200 copies. Nevertheless he inspired the pre-Raphaelites and twentieth-century authors like Wilfred Owen and TS Eliot. 

Stephen Crane

How many authors begin writing by age four? Born on November 1, 1871, Stephen Crane claims that distinction. By his seventeenth birthday, Crane had already published several articles in prominent periodicals. A bright student, Crane didn't take well to formal education and dropped out of college in 1891. He published his frst novel, Maggie: a Girl of the Streets, two years later in 1893. Critics consider the book important becaue it's the first example of American literary Naturalism. Crane followed with Red Badge of Courage in 1895. Despite his lack of combat experience, Crane won international attention for his depiction of war. 

Stephen_Crane_Double_Life1896 found Crane at the center of a scandal: he was called to testify as a witness at the trial of a prostitute. Later that year, perhaps to escape public scrutiy, Crane took a position as a war correspondent in Cuba. While awaiting his boat in Jacksonville, Florida, Crane met a brothel madam named Cora Tayor. The two began a long relationship, and Taylor eventually accompanied Crane to Greece on assignment. She's acknowledged as the first female war correspondent. 

The couple settled in England, where Crane befriended both Joseph Conrad and HG Wells. By this time, Crane was already a venerated figure in American letters--though he was still quite young. When Crane was 28, he was struck with a terrible case of consumption and sought treatment at a German sanatorium, where he passed away. Crane's literary career was short, but twentieth-century authors like Ernest Hemingway name him as an important inspiration. 

Daisy Ashford

 Daisy Ashford was born on April 7, 1881. Like Stephen Crane, Ashford started early: she dictated her first story, "The Life of Father McSwiney" to her father when she was only four years old. Ashford recorded The Young Visiters (sic) in a red exercise workbook when she was nine. The society novel contains all the punctuation and spelling errors one would expect from a nine-year-old, along with the paragraph-long chapters.

Ashford hadn't intended to publish the novella. But when she found it buried in a drawer in 1919, she thought it might entertain a friend who was recovering from pneumonia. Ashford's "patient" was so Ashford_Young_Visiters_Barriecharmed by the story, she passed it around to others. Eventually, it wound up in the hands of an editor at Chatto and Windus.  The 36-year-old Ashford soon found herself consenting to publish a story written by her nine-year-old self. 

The Young Visiters preserves all of Ashford's original juvenile errors, one of the factors that contributed to its smashing success. In its first year, The Young Visiters saw eight printings. A stage play was produced in 1920 in London, and the novel was adapted for a musical and for television. JM Barrie, the genius behind Peter Pan, wrote an introduction to one edition of the book. A number of critics, incredulous that a nine-year-old could express such a nuanced and sophisticated view of society, actually suggested that Barrie himself wrote the book. It remains an enchanting and insightful tale that straddles the worlds of children's literature and adult fiction. 

Francoise Sagan

Born Francoise Quoirez on June 21, 1925, Francoise Sagan is credited with writing the first true young adult novel. She was born in Cajarc, but her family passed the war in the Dauphine, then in the Vercors. Sagan loved to write, and her first novel, Bonjour Tristesse (1954) was published when she was only eighteen. Her pseudonym is derived from the character "Princesse de Sagan" in Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time.

Sagan_Merveilleux_NuagesBonjour Tristesse, which recounts the story of a disillusioned teenage girl, was an international hit. It proved the first work in a very long and fruitful literary career. Between 1954 and 1998, Sagan would produce dozens of works. During the 1960's, Sagan experimented with poetry and, finding little success, returned to writing novels. 

Today Francoise Sagan's books find their way into the libraries of collectors with a variety of specializations. True first editions of some of her novels were published in exceptionally small quantities. For instance, there are only 440 true first editions of Les Merveilleux Nuages, published by Rene Julliard. Such editions are often highly sought after among serious collectors. 

Stay tuned for our second installment of authors who were famous before thirty! 


Kristin Masters
Master Content Brain. You think it, she writes it, no good thought remains unposted. Sprinkles pixie dust on Google+, newsletters, blog, facebook, twitter and just about everything else.


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