14 Famous Books That Were Published Posthumously
Virtually every artist dreams of making an impact with their work, and writers are no different—but in some cases, authors don’t live to see their works become classics. Here are 14 famous books that were published after their authors died.
1. The Diary of a Young Girl // Anne Frank
Arguably the most famous book to be published posthumously, The Diary of a Young Girl is a collection of diary entries written by Anne Frank. The teen—who had received the blank book that would become her diary for her 13th birthday—chronicled what life was like after her family, along with a group of other Jews, moved into an annex located in her father Otto’s Amsterdam-based business in 1942 to hide from the Nazis.
Frank had been writing in her diary for nearly two years by the time she heard Dutch politician Gerrit Bolkestein on the radio, asking Dutch citizens to hold on to documents like wartime journals so that the world could understand what they had been through. Anne, inspired, decided that she would publish her diary after the war and began to revise it; she planned to call her book Het Achterhuis (“The Secret Annex”).
On August 4, 1944, three days after Anne wrote her last diary entry, the inhabitants of the Annex were apprehended. Later, Anne’s writings were discovered by her father’s secretary, Miep Gies (who had helped the people hiding in the annex), and she gave the writings to Otto, the Frank family’s sole surviving member, when he returned to Amsterdam after he was liberated from Auschwitz. Otto oversaw the publication of his daughter’s diaries, which were first published in 1947—two years after Anne died in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany.
2. A Confederacy of Dunces // John Kennedy Toole
John Kennedy Toole wrote the initial draft of A Confederacy of Dunces in 1963 in just a matter of months—then spent the next two years editing it before becoming gripped by mental illness and abandoning the project. Three years after Toole’s 1969 death by suicide, his mother Thelma found a copy of the manuscript and made it her mission to get it published. She didn’t have success until, as Tom Bissell writes for The New Yorker, “she famously cornered the novelist Walker Percy … and demanded that he read it.”
Percy was initially reluctant, but after reading the book (he would later write, “surely it was not possible that it was so good”), he agreed to help. Even then, however, it took years to find a publisher. A Confederacy of Dunces was finally released in 1980, 11 years after Toole’s death, and in 1981, it won the Pulitzer Prize.
3., 4., and 5. Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, and Sanditon // Jane Austen
Completed in 1799, Northanger Abbey was the first of Austen’s works to be accepted by a publisher (in 1803, under the name Susan), but it wasn’t released until a few months after she died in 1817 at age 41. Persuasion, the last novel Austen completed, was published in the same volume.
At the time of her death, Austen was working on a book that would eventually be titled Sanditon, which was initially published in 1925 as Fragment of a Novel. In the time since, a number of authors have added to the 120 pages of Sanditon that Austen left behind—including Austen’s own niece, Anna Austen Lefroy.
6. The Master and Margarita // Mikhail Bulgakov
The first draft of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita ended in flames: He began writing in 1928, but burned the manuscript two years later “when he perceived himself as having no future as a writer in the Soviet Union,” according to A Reference Guide for Russian Literature, due to Stalin’s policies of censorship and oppression. But by 1931, he had started again, and wrote multiple drafts before he died in 1940. It would be more than two decades before The Master and Margarita saw the light of day.
The novel was initially published in two heavily censored parts in the Russian magazine Moskva in 1966 and 1967; that same year, a copy of one manuscript was smuggled out of the county and first published in book form in France. Ultimately, The Master and Margarita was published several times, though it wasn’t until 1973—33 years after Bulgakov’s death—that a fully uncensored version was published in Russia. Now considered a classic of Soviet literature, The Master and Margarita has been referenced in songs by artists like the Rolling Stones and Pearl Jam and adapted into films, TV shows, plays, ballets, and graphic novels.
7. Queen: The Story of An American Family // Alex Haley
Author Alex Haley, who served in the U.S. Coast Guard for 20 years, began his writing career penning love letters on behalf of other sailors on his ship. He published his first book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X—an as-told-to collaboration with the famed activist—in 1965, and Roots: The Saga of an American Family, which combined elements of his mother’s family history with fiction, in 1976. The novel became a bestseller, won the Pulitzer Prize, and was adapted into a highly-rated miniseries in 1977.
After publishing a novella in 1988, Haley decided to write a story based on his father’s ancestors. The result was Queen—which, like Roots, combined history and fiction to tell the story of Alex Haley’s paternal grandmother, the biracial daughter of an enslaved woman and her enslaver.
Haley died before the book was finished, leaving behind what The New York Times called “a 700-page outline” for the novel. At Haley’s request, it was completed by Australian writer David Stevens and published in 1993, a year after Haley died. Also like Roots, Queen was adapted into a popular miniseries, starring future Academy-Award winning actress Halle Berry in one of her earliest roles.
8. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer // Michelle McNamara
Michelle McNamara became interested in true crime at a young age: When the future author was just 14, a woman was murdered near her Oak Park, Illinois, home, and the case was never solved. As an adult, McNamara started the blog True Crime Diary to bring attention to unsolved murders. The case that fascinated her the most was that of a series of burglaries, rapes, and murders committed by the same man (though that fact wouldn’t be conclusively established until 2001) in California from 1974 to 1986. Dubbed the “East Area Rapist” and the “Original Night Stalker,” among other names, McNamara called him the “Golden State Killer” hoping that a better nickname would make the case stand out more.
An article about the case for LA Magazine led to a book deal; McNamara was in the process of writing that book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, when she died in 2016. (It was finished by her husband, Patton Oswalt, and two collaborators, Billy Jensen and Paul Haynes.) The book was released in February 2018; two months later, a suspect in the case, Joseph DeAngelo, was arrested after DNA evidence linked him with the crimes. In 2020, as part of a plea agreement, DeAngelo pled guilty to 13 counts of murder. He also had to admit his guilt in the crimes he hadn’t been charged for. DeAngelo was sentenced to multiple consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole.
9. Ariel // Sylvia Plath
Though she’s one of the most famous poets of the 20th century, Sylvia Plath only published one book of poems (1960’s The Colossus and Other Poems) in addition to her sole novel, The Bell Jar. Despite this, Plath was an extremely prolific writer who left behind volumes of unpublished works when she died by suicide in 1963 at age 30.
Ariel, edited by her estranged husband Ted Hughes, was the first of her works to be published after she died; it features some of her most famous poems, including “Lady Lazarus,” “Tulips,” and “Daddy,” and remains one of her most-enduring works. A restored edition that incorporated poems Hughes had excised and reinstated Plath’s original arrangement was published in 2004.
10. The Millennium Series // Stieg Larsson
Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson started writing his planned 10-book series in 2002 and waited until he had the first two books written (and the third partially written, which he later completed) before submitting them to publishers. He died of a heart attack in 2004 before any of them were released.
The first book of the series, titled Män som hatar kvinnor (Men Who Hate Women) in Swedish, was published the year after Larsson’s death. It was translated into English and published under the title The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo three years later. The series became a bona fide phenomenon around the world: It sold more than 80 million copies and was adapted into multiple films.
The Millennium Series has continued after Larsson’s original books: Journalist David Lagercrantz penned the fourth, fifth, and sixth books in the series, and author Karin Smirnoff has been tapped to write additional books.
11. Juneteenth // Ralph Ellison
Ralph Ellison began working on Juneteenth just a few years after his first novel, The Invisible Man, was released in 1952—but despite publishing eight excerpts of the manuscript, reading portions of it at lectures, and putting in decades of work, Juneteenth wasn’t published during Ellison’s lifetime.
The author said he was bedeviled by writer’s block “as big as the Ritz and as stubborn as a grease spot on a gabardine suit,” and in 1967, “a good part of the novel”—Ellison would later claim it was some 360 pages, and then 500—was burned in a fire at his Plainfield, Massachusetts, home. (Ellison’s biographer, Arnold Rampersand, has cast doubt on this claim, however; he writes that Ellison hadn’t done much work on Juneteenth during the summer of the fire, and right after the blaze wrote to a friend that he “fortunately had a full copy” of what he had written previously.)
Despite these setbacks, Ellison left behind more than 2000 pages worth of material when he died in 1994 at age 80. But the novel ultimately wasn’t published until 1999, after being edited by John F. Callahan to a more digestible 354 pages. A more complete version called Three Days Before The Shooting ..., which clocked in at 1101 pages, was released in 2010.
12., 13., and 14. Amerika, The Trial, and The Castle // Franz Kafka
After completing his education, Franz Kafka worked as an insurance agent until he became too sick to work due to tuberculosis, which he succumbed to in 1924 at age 40. In his spare time, he wrote extensively. While he was alive, Kafka published a number of short stories—he even released a book of them, titled Betrachtung, in 1913—as well as the novellas The Metamorphosis (1915) and In the Penal Colony (1919). But none of his novels were published during his lifetime.
Kafka left his estate to his friend, author Max Brod, whom he instructed to destroy his work. Instead, Brod published the majority of what Kafka had left behind, including three novels—The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926), and Amerika (1927)—all of which are now considered classics.