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10 Early Scathing Reviews of Works Now Considered Masterpieces

CHIP EAST/Reuters/Landov
CHIP EAST/Reuters/Landov

Many pioneering artists have endured abuse from critics and naysayers. But once in a blue moon, time brings acceptance and acclaim, making those early detractors look silly to future generations. Check out how the following works—whose ‘classic’ status now seems self-evident—were once butchered by the Simon Cowells of yesteryear.

1. Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman (first pub. 1855)

Modern Status: “If you are American, then Walt Whitman is your imaginative father and mother, even if, like myself, you have never composed a line of verse… candidates for the secular Scripture of the United States…might include Melville's Moby-Dick, Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Emerson's two series of Essays and The Conduct of Life. None of those, not even Emerson's, are as central as the first edition of Leaves of Grass.” – From Harold Bloom’s introduction to the 150th anniversary edition

Early Reaction: Upon reading the newly published Leaves, Whitman’s boss at the Department of the Interior took offense—and gave his underling the axe.
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Fellow poet John Greenleaf Whittier supposedly hurled his 1855 edition into the fire.
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"A mass of stupid filth" -Rufus Wilmot Griswold, The Criterion, November 10, 1855
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"It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote Leaves of Grass, only that he did not burn it afterwards." –Thomas Wentworth Higginson, The Atlantic, “Literature as an Art,” 1867
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“… the book cannot attain to any very wide influence." –The Atlantic, January 1882

2. Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, by Ludwig van Beethoven (1824)

Modern Status: A mainstay of the Western classical canon, Beethoven’s 9th (composed when old Ludwig was deaf!) is believed by some to be the greatest piece of music ever written, and pretty much universally considered among his choicest works.

Early Reaction: “We find Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to be precisely one hour and five minutes long; a frightful period indeed, which puts the muscles and lungs of the band, and the patience of the audience to a severe trial…” –The Harmonicon, London, April 1825

3. Carmen, by Georges Bizet (1875)

Modern Status: One of the most beloved operas of all time, Bizet’s Carmen (1875) was savaged by the reviewers of its day, who regarded the opera’s flashy score and lurid subject matter with suspicion and hostility. Within a few years, however, the punters were going mad for its tempestuous love story, foreign setting and lush melodies—and over the next century it became one of the most oft-performed operas in the world. Sad to say, Bizet kicked the bucket before he could savor Carmen’s rise to glory.

Early Reaction: “The characters evoke no interest in the spectators, nay, more, they are eminently repulsive…” -Music Trade Review, London, June 1878
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“As a work of art, it is naught.” –New York Times, October 1878
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“The composer of Carmen is nowhere deep; his passionateness is all on the surface, and the general effect of the work is artificial and insincere.” –Boston Gazette, January 1879

4. Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville (1851)

Modern Status: “For me, Moby-Dick is more than the greatest American novel ever written; it is a metaphysical survival manual—the best guidebook there is for a literate man or woman facing an impenetrable unknown: the future of civilization in this storm-tossed 21st century.”
– Nathaniel Philbrick, Vanity Fair, Nov 2011

Early Reaction: When Melville died in 1891, Moby-Dick had moved a grand total of 3,715 copies…in 40 years! The below was typical at the time of the book’s release:

“…an ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact. The idea of a connected and collected story has obviously visited and abandoned its writer again and again in the course of composition…Our author must be henceforth numbered in the company of the incorrigibles who occasionally tantalize us with indications of genius, while they constantly summon us to endure monstrosities, carelessnesses, and other such harassing manifestations of bad taste as daring or disordered ingenuity can devise...” -Henry F. Chorley, London Athenaeum, October 25, 1851

5. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë (1847)

Modern Status: Back in horse-and-buggy days, critical consensus gave the nod to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre as the best of the Brontë sister novels. But many book snobs nowadays prefer Emily’s Gothic romance Wuthering Heights. Regardless of which Bronte’s work you think would survive a steel-cage Battle-to-the-Death, Heights’ status as a landmark of Gothic romance and Brit Lit classic is in the vault. Plus it was crowned the greatest love story of all time in a 2007 poll of Guardian readers.

Early Reaction: “The general effect is inexpressibly painful. We know nothing in the whole range of our fictitious literature which presents such shocking pictures of the worst forms of humanity....” –Atlas, January 22, 1848
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"How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors." –Graham's Lady Magazine

6. Ulysses, by James Joyce (1918)

Modern Status: Joyce’s notoriously difficult, stream-of-consciousness tour de force is synonymous with the modernist sensibility and spawned generations of Joycean scholars and societies. In 2000, the Modern Language Association appointed Ulysses as the single greatest novel of the 20th century.

Early Reaction: “In Ireland they try to make a cat clean by rubbing its nose in its own filth. Mr. Joyce has tried the same treatment on the human subject” –George Bernard Shaw

7. Animal Farm, by George Orwell (1945)

Modern Status: Appears on TIME magazine’s 100 best English-language novels (1923 to 2005) list
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#31 on the Modern Library List of Best 20th-Century Novels
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Wins retrospective Hugo Award in 1996
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Included in the Great Books of the Western World
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Estimated 25 million copies sold

Early Reaction: “It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA.” –Publisher’s rejection

8. Endymion, by John Keats (1818)

Modern Status: Highlighting his flair for rhapsodic flights of sensual imagery, Keats’ meditation on beauty concerns a goddess’ love for a mortal. Now regarded as a primo example of the British poets’ romantic worldview, Endymion withstood the over-the-top critical onslaught leveled at it upon release and survived the test of time.

Early Reaction: "To witness the disease of any human understanding, however feeble, is distressing; but the spectacle of an able mind reduced to a state of insanity is of course ten times more afflicting. It is with such sorrow as this that we have contemplated the case of Mr John Keats. …The frenzy of the Poems was bad enough in its way; but it did not alarm us half so seriously as the calm, settled, imperturbable drivelling idiocy of Endymion. It is a better and easier thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; go back to the shop, Mr. John, back to `plasters, pills and ointment boxes.'" –John Gibson Lockhart (pen name “Z”) for Blackwood's Magazine (1818)

9. The Impressionists (mid- to late 1800s)

Modern Status: Impressionism’s success and popularity over the last century hardly needs rehashing—but it sure didn’t start out that way. “Impressionism” and “pointillism” were originally intended as derogatory terms. The practitioners of these styles quickly co-opted these coinages, however, and used them as a badge of honor.

At the so-called Salon des Refusés (“exhibition of rejects”) in 1863, a group of early impressionists, peeved by the Paris art establishment’s continued rejection of their work, exhibited thousands of paintings amid a storm of controversy and critical abuse. Now-famous paintings exhibited at the event include Manet's Luncheon on the Grass and James McNeill Whistler's Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, as well as priceless works by Pissarro and Sisley.

A few years later, Manet’s Olympia (which now occupies a place of honor in the Louvre) would cause an even bigger commotion upon public display. Many current art critics and historians consider Olympia his masterpiece—a view also held by the artist himself.

Early Reaction: “Someone should tell M. Pissarro forcibly that trees are never violet, that the sky is never the colour of fresh butter, that nowhere on earth are things to be seen as he paints them.” –Albert Wolff, Le Figaro (1876)
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“Had he learned to draw, M. Renoir would have made a very pleasing canvas out of his 'Boating Party.'” –Wolff
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“What is this Odalisque with a yellow stomach, a base model picked up I know not where, who represents [Manet’s] Olympia?” –Jules Claretie, L’Artiste
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"Mr. Cézanne merely gives the impression of being a sort of madman, painting in a state of delirium tremens." –Marc de Montifaud, L'Artiste, May 1874

10. Fred Astaire (1899 – 1987)

Modern Status: “…like Bach, who in his time had a great concentration of ability, essence, knowledge, a spread of music…Astaire has that same concentration of genius.” –Balanchine
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“…simply the greatest, most imaginative dancer of our time.” –Nureyev
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“What do dancers think of Fred Astaire? It's no secret. We hate him. He gives us a complex because he's too perfect. His perfection is an absurdity. It's too hard to face.” –Baryshnikov

Early Reaction: “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.” –MGM Testing Director’s response to Astaire’s first screen test

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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12 Facts About Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness
George C. Beresford/Getty Images
George C. Beresford/Getty Images

Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella about venturing into the moral depths of colonial Africa is among the most frequently analyzed literary works in college curricula.

1. ENGLISH WAS THE AUTHOR’S THIRD LANGUAGE.

It’s impressive enough that Conrad wrote a book that has stayed relevant for more than a century. This achievement seems all the more impressive when considering that he wrote it in English, his third language. Born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857, Conrad was a native Polish speaker. French was his second language. He didn’t even know any English—the language of his literary composition—until age 21.

2. HEART OF DARKNESS BEGINS AND ENDS IN THE UK.

Though it recounts Marlow's voyage through Belgian Congo in search of Kurtz and is forever linked to the African continent, Conrad’s novella begins and ends in England. At the story’s conclusion, the “tranquil waterway” that “seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness” is none other than the River Thames.

3. THE PROTAGONIST MARLOW IS CONRAD.

The well-traveled Marlow—who appears in other Conrad works, such as Lord Jim—is based on his equally well-traveled creator. In 1890, 32-year-old Conrad sailed the Congo River while serving as second-in-command on a Belgian trading company steamboat. As a career seaman, Conrad explored not only the African continent but also ventured to places ranging from Australia to India to South America.

4. LIKE KURTZ AND MARLOW, CONRAD GOT SICK ON HIS VOYAGE.

Illness claimed Kurtz, an ivory trader who has gone mysteriously insane. It nearly claimed Marlow. And these two characters almost never existed, owing to their creator’s health troubles. Conrad came down with dysentery and malaria in Belgian Congo, and afterwards had to recuperate in the German Hospital, London, before heading to Geneva, Switzerland, to undergo hydrotherapy. Though he survived, Conrad suffered from poor health for many years afterward.

5. THERE HAVE BEEN MANY ALLEGED KURTZES IN REAL LIFE.

The identity of the person on whom Conrad based the story’s antagonist has aroused many a conjecture. Among those suggested as the real Kurtz include a French agent who died on board Conrad’s steamship, a Belgian colonial officer, and Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley.

6. COLONIZING WAS ALL THE RAGE WHEN HEART OF DARKNESS APPEARED.

Imperialism—now viewed as misguided, oppressive, and ruthless—was much in vogue when Conrad’s novella hit shelves. The "Scramble for Africa" had seen European powers stake their claims on the majority of the continent. Britain’s Queen Victoria was even portrayed as the colonies' "great white mother." And writing in The New Review in 1897, adventurer Charles de Thierry (who tried and failed to establish his own colony in New Zealand) echoed the imperialistic exuberance of many with his declaration: “Since the wise men saw the star in the East, Christianity has found no nobler expression.”

7. CHINUA ACHEBE WAS NOT A FAN OF THE BOOK.

Even though Conrad was no champion of colonialism, Chinua Achebe—the Nigerian author of Things Fall Apart and other novels—delivered a 1975 lecture called “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” that described Conrad as a “thoroughgoing racist” and his ubiquitous short classic as “an offensive and deplorable book.” However, even Achebe credited Conrad for having “condemned the evil of imperial exploitation.” And others have recognized Heart of Darkness as an indictment of the unfairness and barbarity of the colonial system.

8. THE BOOK WASN’T SUCH A BIG DEAL—AT FIRST.

In 1902, three years after its initial serialization in a magazine, Heart of Darkness appeared in a volume with two other Conrad stories. It received the least notice of the three. In fact, not even Conrad himself considered it a major work. And during his lifetime, the story “received no special attention either from readers or from Conrad himself,” writes Gene M. Moore in the introduction to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness: A Casebook. But Heart of Darkness managed to ascend to immense prominence in the 1950s, after the planet had witnessed “the horror”—Kurtz's last words in the book—of WWII and the ramifications of influential men who so thoroughly indulged their basest instincts.

9. T.S. ELIOT BORROWED AN IMPORTANT LINE.

Though Heart of Darkness wasn’t an immediate sensation, it evidently was on the radar of some in the literary community. The famous line announcing the antagonist’s demise, “Mistah Kurtz—he dead,” serves as the epigraph to the 1925 T.S. Eliot poem “The Hollow Men.”

10. THE STORY INSPIRED APOCALYPSE NOW.

Eighty years after Conrad’s novella debuted, the Francis Ford Coppola film Apocalypse Now hit the big screen. Though heavily influenced by Heart of Darkness, the movie’s setting is not Belgian Congo, but the Vietnam War. And though the antagonist (played by Marlon Brando) is named Kurtz, this particular Kurtz is no ivory trader, but a U.S. military officer who has become mentally unhinged.

11. HEART OF DARKNESS HAS BEEN MADE INTO AN OPERA.

Tarik O'Regan’s Heart of Darkness, an opera in one act, opened in 2011. Premiering at London’s Royal Opera House, it was reportedly the first operatic adaptation of Conrad’s story and heavily inspired by Apocalypse Now.

12. THE BOOK ALSO SPARKED A VIDEO GAME.

In a development not even Conrad’s imagination could have produced, his classic inspired a video game, Spec Ops: The Line, which was released in 2012.

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Dan Bell
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Design
A Cartographer Is Mapping All of the UK’s National Parks, J.R.R. Tolkien-Style
Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park
Dan Bell

Cartographer Dan Bell makes national parks into fantasy lands. Bell, who lives near Lake District National Park in England, is currently on a mission to draw every national park in the UK in the style of the maps in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Kottke.org reports.

The project began in September 2017, when Bell posted his own hand-drawn version of a Middle Earth map online. He received such a positive response that he decided to apply the fantasy style to real world locations. He has completed 11 out of the UK’s 15 parks so far. Once he finishes, he hopes to tackle the U.S. National Park system, too. (He already has Yellowstone National Park down.)

Bell has done various other maps in the same style, including ones for London and Game of Thrones’s Westeros, and he commissions, in case you have your own special locale that could use the Tolkien treatment. Check out a few of his park maps below.

A close-up of a map for Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park in central England
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Cairngorms National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Cairngorms National Park in Scotland
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Lake District National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Lake District National Park in England
Dan Bell

You can buy prints of the maps here.

[h/t Kottke.org]

All images by Dan Bell

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