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

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.
*
Fellow poet John Greenleaf Whittier supposedly hurled his 1855 edition into the fire.
*
"A mass of stupid filth" -Rufus Wilmot Griswold, The Criterion, November 10, 1855
*
"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
*
“… 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
*
“As a work of art, it is naught.” –New York Times, October 1878
*
“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
*
"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
*
#31 on the Modern Library List of Best 20th-Century Novels
*
Wins retrospective Hugo Award in 1996
*
Included in the Great Books of the Western World
*
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)
*
“Had he learned to draw, M. Renoir would have made a very pleasing canvas out of his 'Boating Party.'” –Wolff
*
“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
*
"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
*
“…simply the greatest, most imaginative dancer of our time.” –Nureyev
*
“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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Bronte: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock
arrow
literature
10 Facts About Charlotte Brontë
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Bronte: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Bronte: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock

Charlotte Brontë was born in England to an Irish father and Cornish mother on April 21, 1816. And though much of her life was marked by tragedy, she wrote novels and poems that found great success in her lifetime and are still popular nearly 200 years later. But there’s a lot more to Brontë than Jane Eyre.

1. BRONTË WAS JUST 5 YEARS OLD WHEN SHE LOST HER MOTHER.

Maria Branwell Brontë was 38 when she died in 1821 of ovarian cancer (or, it's been suggested, of a post-natal infection), leaving her husband, Patrick Brontë, and their six young children behind. In the years after Maria died, Patrick sent four of his daughters, including Charlotte, to a boarding school for the daughters of clergy members. Brontë later used her bad experiences at this school—it was a harsh, abusive environment—as inspiration for Lowood Institution in Jane Eyre. As an adult, Bronte mentioned her mother (who was also fond of writing) in a letter, saying: "I wish she had lived and that I had known her."

2. BRONTË HAD BEEN WRITING POETRY AND STORIES SINCE HER YOUTH.

Though one of her boarding school report cards described her abilities as "altogether clever for her age, but knows nothing systematically," Brontë was a voracious reader during her childhood and teen years, and she wrote stories and staged plays at home with her siblings. With her brother Branwell, especially, she wrote manuscripts, plays, and stories, drawing on literature, magazines, and the Bible for inspiration. For fun, they created magazines that contained everything a real magazine would have—from the essays, letters, and poems to the ads and notes from the editor.

3. SHE WORKED AS A TEACHER AND GOVERNESS BUT DISLIKED IT.

portrait of Charlotte Bronte
Charlotte Bronte circa 1840.
Portrait by Thompson. Photo by Rischgitz, Getty Images.

In her late teens and early twenties, Brontë worked on and off as a teacher and governess. In between writing, she taught at a schoolhouse but didn't like the long hours. She also didn't love working as a governess in a family home. Once, in a letter to a friend, she wrote, "I will only ask you to imagine the miseries of a reserved wretch like me, thrown at once into the midst of a large family … having the charge given me of a set of pampered, spoilt, and turbulent children, whom I was expected constantly to amuse as well as instruct." She quickly realized she wasn't a good fit for these caretaking jobs, but she later used her early work experiences as inspiration for passages in Jane Eyre.

4. BRONTË DEALT WITH A LOT OF LITERARY REJECTION.

When she was 20 years old, Brontë sent the English Poet Laureate Robert Southey some of her best poems. He wrote back in 1837, telling her that she obviously had a good deal of talent and a gift with words but that she should give up writing. "Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it, even as an accomplishment and a recreation. To those duties you have not yet been called, and when you are you will be less eager for celebrity. You will not seek in imagination for excitement," Southey responded to her. The Professor, Brontë’s first novel, was rejected nine times before it was finally published after her death.

5. SHE USED THE MALE PSEUDONYM CURRER BELL.

English writers Anne, Emily and Charlotte Bronte.
English writers Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Bronte circa 1834, as painted by their brother.
Painting by Patrick Branwell Bronte. Photo by Rischgitz, Getty Images.

In 1846, Brontë paid to publish a book of poetry containing poems she and her sisters Emily and Anne had written. The three sisters used male pseudonyms—Charlotte was Currer Bell, Emily was Ellis Bell, and Anne was Acton Bell. (The book sold two copies.) Brontë also used the Currer Bell pseudonym when she published Jane Eyre—her publishers didn't know Bell was really a woman until 1848, a year after the book was published!

6. JANE EYRE WAS AN INSTANT SUCCESS.

The first page of the manuscript 'Jane Eyre.'
The first page of the manuscript 'Jane Eyre.'
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

In 1847, British publishing firm Smith, Elder & Co published Jane Eyre: An Autobiography. From the start, the book was a success—one critic called it "the best novel of the season"—and people began to speculate about who Currer Bell was. But some reviewers were less impressed, criticizing it for being coarse in content, including one who called it "anti-Christian." Brontë was writing in the Victorian period, after all.

7. BRONTË WAS LUCKY TO AVOID TUBERCULOSIS …

Tuberculosis prematurely killed at least four of Brontë's five siblings, starting with her two oldest sisters, Maria and Elizabeth (who weren't even teenagers yet), in 1825. In 1848, Brontë’s only brother, Branwell, died of chronic bronchitis, officially, though tuberculosis has also been a rumored cause, probably aggravated by alcohol and opium. Her sister Emily came down with a severe illness during Branwell's funeral and died of tuberculosis three months later. Then, five months later in May 1849, Charlotte’s final surviving sibling, Anne, also died of tuberculosis after a lengthy battle.

8. … BUT SHE DIED AT 38 YEARS OLD—WHILE PREGNANT.

In June 1854, Brontë married a clergyman named Arthur Bell Nicholls and got pregnant almost immediately. Her pregnancy was far from smooth sailing though—she had acute bouts of nausea and vomiting, leading to her becoming severely dehydrated and malnourished. She and her unborn child died on March 31, 1855. Although we don’t know for sure what killed her, theories include hyperemesis gravidarum, based on her symptoms, or possibly typhus. Her father, Patrick Brontë, survived his wife and all six children.

9. ZEALOUS BRONTË FANS TRAVEL TO HER HOME IN ENGLAND.

Charlotte Brontë's writing desk in Haworth.
Charlotte Brontë's writing desk in Haworth.
Christopher Furlong, Getty Images

Emily and Anne Brontë wrote famous books, too—Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, respectively. The Brontë sisters's writing has inspired devoted fans from around the world to visit their home in Haworth, West Yorkshire, England. The Brontë Society’s Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth has a collection of early manuscripts and letters, and the museum invites bookworms to see where the Brontë family lived and wrote, and walk the Yorkshire moors that inspired many of the scenes each sister depicted.

10. SHE HELPED MAKE THE NAME 'SHIRLEY' MORE POPULAR FOR GIRLS.

Thanks to Brontë, the name Shirley is now considered more of a girl's name than a boy's one. In 1849, Brontë's second novel, Shirley, about an independent heiress named Shirley Keeldar, was released. Before then, the name Shirley was unusual, but was most commonly used for boys. (In the novel, the title character was named as such because her parents had wanted a boy.) But after 1849, the name Shirley reportedly started to become popular for women. Decades later in the 1930s, child star Shirley Temple's fame catapulted the name into more popular use.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Denis De Marney, Getty Images
arrow
literature
From A Game Of Thrones to War and Peace: These are America's 100 Favorite Books
Denis De Marney, Getty Images
Denis De Marney, Getty Images

Die-hard classic literature lovers might quibble over Fifty Shades of Grey being placed on the same list as Jane Eyre, but alas, the people have spoken. Both are among America’s 100 favorite novels, according to a national survey conducted by YouGov.

The list was compiled in support of The Great American Read, an upcoming PBS series about the joys of reading. Set to premiere on May 22, the eight-part series will introduce the "100 best-loved novels" and feature interviews with famous authors, comedians, actors, athletes, and more. A few of the featured guests will include George Lopez, Seth Meyers, Venus Williams, and James Patterson. Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, A Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao author Junot Díaz, all of whom have books on the list, will also make appearances.

On the day of the series premiere, PBS will launch a round of voting to determine "America’s Best-Loved Novel." Viewers across the country will have the chance to choose their favorite book from the list of 100 and place their vote online, or through Facebook or Twitter using the #GreatReadPBS hashtag. The winner will be announced this fall.

The oldest book on the list is Don Quixote, a classic Spanish novel by Miguel de Cervantes (1603), while the newest is Ghost (2016), a young adult book by Jason Reynolds. The list includes authors from 15 different countries, and the books span several genres. Many of the novels are staples on high school summer reading lists, including 1984, The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Scroll down for the full list of America's favorite books, arranged in alphabetical order.

1984
A Confederacy of Dunces
A Game of Thrones
A Prayer for Owen Meany
A Separate Peace
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
The Alchemist
Alex Cross Mysteries (series)
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Americanah
And Then There Were None
Anne of Green Gables
Another Country
Atlas Shrugged
Beloved
Bless Me, Ultima
The Book Thief
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
The Call of the Wild
Catch-22
The Catcher in the Rye
Charlotte's Web
The Chronicles of Narnia
The Clan of the Cave Bear
The Coldest Winter Ever
The Color Purple
The Count of Monte Cristo
Crime and Punishment
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
The Da Vinci Code
Don Quixote
Doña Barbara
Dune
Fifty Shades of Grey
Flowers in the Attic
Foundation
Frankenstein
Ghost
Gilead
The Giver
The Godfather
Gone Girl
Gone with the Wind
The Grapes of Wrath
Great Expectations
The Great Gatsby
Gulliver's Travels
The Handmaid's Tale
Harry Potter (series)
Hatchet
Heart of Darkness
The Help
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
The Hunger Games
The Hunt for Red October
The Intuitionist
Invisible Man
Jane Eyre
The Joy Luck Club
Jurassic Park
Left Behind
The Little Prince
Little Women
Lonesome Dove
Looking for Alaska
The Lord of the Rings (series)
The Lovely Bones
The Martian
Memoirs of a Geisha
Mind Invaders
Moby Dick
The Notebook
One Hundred Years of Solitude
Outlander
The Outsiders
The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Pilgrim's Progress
The Pillars of the Earth
Pride and Prejudice
Ready Player One
Rebecca
The Shack
Siddhartha
The Sirens of Titan
The Stand
The Sun Also Rises
Swan Song
Tales of the City
Their Eyes Were Watching God
Things Fall Apart
This Present Darkness
To Kill a Mockingbird
Twilight
War and Peace
Watchers
The Wheel of Time (series)
Where the Red Fern Grows
White Teeth
Wuthering Heights

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios