15 Famous Authors Who Were Published Late In Life

This article, from Online Colleges and Universities, is reprinted here in its entirety with that site’s permission.

For as much as cultures around the world obsess over youth and its follies and promises, those young whippersnappers don’t always know how to keep up with the experience, wisdom and practice of their elders. Whether a university, life itself or some combination thereof provided them with a valuable education, plenty of celebrated writers never hit their stride until they approached middle age — or even later than that! They defy stereotypes of the temporally advanced as slow and unproductive, offering some excellent, enduring works to the literary canon.

Many of the authors featured here were actually publishing short stories, essays and articles earlier in life. This list zeroes on their dominant mediums; the ones for which they’re almost exclusively known — typically, novels, memoirs and other long-form works.

  1. Charles Bukowski: Much of Charles Bukowski’s adult life was spent puttering around at the post office and in and out of different odd jobs. He published a couple of short stories as a young man, but quickly cut it short when he embarked on a 10-year bender. It wasn’t until age 49 when his most notable works began hitting shelves. Largely semi-autobiographical, novels such as Post Office, Women and Factotum channeled many of the experiences and anxieties of his "lost years." Most of Bukowski’s straightforward, grim prose reflects American society’s teeming, oft-marginalized fringes.

  2. Laura Ingalls Wilder: Inspired by her adult daughter’s writing career, Laura Ingalls Wilder decided to embark on one of her very own in her 40s. She eventually landed a regular column and an editorial position, but it wasn’t until she reached her 60s when her fame really fell into place. Wilder drew from her own pioneer childhood when penning the Little House series (the most famous of which remains Little House on the Prairie). Today, these young adult reads continue to enjoy staggering popularity, even spawning a well-received television adaptation.

  3. William S. Burroughs: As one of the foremost writers from the Beat generation, a movement many typically associate with youth, William S. Burroughs never published his first novel until he was 39. The accidental shooting of his wife during a game of William Tell gone horrifically askance spurned him to start writing. Junky and Queer delved deeply into his gruesome battle with heroin addiction and alcoholism as well as his homosexuality. He had done a small amount of journalistic work while attending Harvard, but never seriously pursued publication, fiction or poetry until much later in life.

  4. Raymond Chandler: Snarky, ironic private detective Philip Marlowe revolutionized the noir genre. The creation of former civil engineer, journalist and other odd job holder Raymond Chandler came about after he started dissecting pulp fiction and writing to make ends meet. His first short stories ended up in various magazines when he was 45, but they’ve remained largely overshadowed by later books. The Big Sleep, Chandler’s first novel and the maiden voyage of iconic Marlowe, ended up published at age 51.

  5. Kenneth Grahame: Most of Kenneth Grahame’s career clicked away at the Bank of England, where he eventually came to work as its secretary. During that stint, he published a couple of short stories here and there as a hobby, but never got serious until after retirement. At 49, Grahame finally achieved literary acclaim. The Wind in the Willows still draws in young and old audiences alike, who delight in the adventures of the memorable Mr. Toad, Mr. Badger, Mole, Ratty and other fantastic characters inhabiting the Wild Wood.

  6. Richard Adams: Watership Down, the terrifying and much-beloved children’s classic packed with warring rabbits, ended up published in the author’s 50s. Richard Adams studied history rather than literature, taking a break to serve in World War II before returning. After completing his degree at Worcester College, the future author went on to join the British Civil Service and worked his way up to the Assistant Secretary position. He pursued writing as a hobby, but never took it too seriously until his daughters persuaded him to share the Lapine epic.

  7. Joseph Conrad: Interestingly enough, many scholars hold Joseph Conrad up as one of the English language’s greatest authors, though he never spoke it fluently until reaching his 20s. He led a life straight out of an adventure romance, with gunrunning, plenty of ships and trips to Africa and other locales. After retiring at 36, he turned his attentions towards writing and published his first novel – Almayer’s Folly – a year later. Some of Conrad’s most celebrated works, especially Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, pulled directly from his exceptionally exciting, dangerous international exploits.

  8. Anthony Burgess: As both an expatriate teacher and a well-regarded critic, Anthony Burgess entered the literary canon already well-versed in common tropes and archetypes. He never pursued writing seriously until age 39, understandably dismissing it as a less-than-stable income, when published the first installment of The Long Day Wanes: A Malayan Trilogy (1956’s Time for a Tiger). Like many pursuing long-form fiction for the first time, these tales pulled from his experiences in Britain’s Asian colonies. However, A Clockwork Orange still remains Burgess’ most controversial, dissected novel. Pity, really. He actually quite disliked it!

  9. Henry Miller: Henry Miller worked as both a proofreader and a painter prior to metamorphosing into a serious author. His positions allowed him a network of exceptionally creative individuals, who eventually inspired the surreal, highly sexual works launching him into infamy. Prior to Miller’s publication of his inflammatory first novel, Tropic of Cancer, he only saw a couple of his articles printed under a contemporary’s name before turning 44. He wrote two other manuscripts prior to its release, but those landed on shelves either much later in life or posthumously.

  10. Flora Thompson: As with many of the other authors listed here, Flora Thompson dabbled in writing and published short pieces until finally springing for longer works. Most of her rich oeuvre consisted of literary criticism, nature essays, observations and short stories. At 63, she published the first volume of her semi-autobiographical Lark Rise to Candleford trilogy. These followed her girlhood, maturation and eventual postmistress position in several British offices.

  11. Marquis de Sade: Considering the Marquis’…ummm…"activities," it probably comes as little to no surprise to anyone that he didn’t come around to publishing much of anything until his later years. He was 51 when Justine unleashed a shockwave of scandal throughout France and beyond. These days, fans of erotic literature and political satire consider it an historical, essential read.

  12. Nirad C. Chaudhuri: During his career with the Indian Army, Nirad C. Chaudhuri served briefly as an accounting clerk and printed up many different articles on the side. After a time, he decided to move on and practice journalism full-time. In spite of this arc, Chaudhuri’s best-known works never hit the literary scene until his 50s. The first of his three major autobiographical and , The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, was published when the author was 54; Thy Hand, Great Anarch! followed at 90; Three Horsemen of the New Apocalypse completed the trilogy at 100. Critics adore these reads for the excellent insight it provides into Indian politics and culture during and after British imperialist rule.

  13. Mary Wesley: Starting in her 50s, Mary Wesley published three modestly successful children’s books before deciding she wanted to reach more mature audiences. After turning 71, her first novel for adults, Jumping the Queue, hit the shelves and launched her second personal creative renaissance Following the auspicious debut, Wesley went on to write even more and saw them all go to print before her death.

  14. Wallace Stevens: One of the most celebrated American modernist poets started out working as a lawyer and executive of an insurance company. He occasionally dabbled in journalism and poetry while attending Harvard, but began composing in earnest around age 38. However, the vast majority of Wallace Stevens’ lauded output came about once he hit his 50s. The Collected Poems earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1955.

  15. Mary Alice Fontenot: Mary Alice Fontenot wrote almost 30 books in her lifetime, and her writing career launched at 51. Most of her output revolved around children’s books, particularly the Clovis Crawfish series, and volumes of thoroughly-researched Louisiana history. This spitfire started out as a journalist, radio host and educator before moving on to the mediums that earned her an Acadiana Arts Council Lifetime Achievement Award. She continued to write pretty much up until her death.