But I want to tell you about one you may have never heard of.
John Kennedy Toole (born 1937), from an early age, was an unquestionably brilliant individual. He received excellent marks in high school, graduated with honors from Tulane university (to which he'd received a full scholarship at age 17) and got a masters degree from Columbia. He went on to become a professor at Hunter College in New York, becoming (at age 22) the youngest professor in the institution's history.
In 1961 he was drafted into the U.S. Army and stationed in Puerto Rico, teaching English to local recruits. There he began writing a remarkable novel. He left the military in 1963, and completed the book in 1964.
Over the next several years he submitted it to 3 publishers, all of whom rejected it. The disappointments led to him becoming despondent, than an alcoholic, and then paranoid. He was convinced he was being followed and frequently searched his home for electronic mind-reading devices. At one point he began having severe headaches, but refused to see a neurologist (speaking as a neurologist, the personality changes and headaches raise a number of diagnostic possibilities, but I'm not going to address that further).
In 1969 he went on a long drive across the country, finally ending in Biloxi, Mississippi. There, in March, he committed suicide by running a garden hose from his car's exhaust through the window. He left a suicide note which his mother read, then destroyed. He was 31 years old.
His rejected manuscript sat, untouched, on an armoire in his old room at his parent's house. In 1971 his mother tried again to have it published - only to collect 7 more rejections over the next 5 years (modern readers may remember that 2 major studios - United Artists and Universal - both rejected the script for Star Wars during this same time frame as having no potential for success).
In 1976 author Walker Percy was teaching at Loyola University New Orleans. Toole's mother wrote and called him, to the extent that he complained to his wife about her. He tried to dodge her, but at one point she actually pushed her way into his office with the single precious copy of the manuscript. He finally agreed to look at it, figuring it would be so awful that after a few pages he'd be done with it.
He was wrong.
As he wrote later, "I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity; surely it was not possible that it was so good."
Walker Percy was, in the end, stunned by the book, and put his own efforts into getting it published. It finally went to press in 1980. In 1981 it won a Pulitzer Prize, 12 years after John Toole had taken his own life
The book is "A Confederacy of Dunces" and is, in my experience, a love-it-or-hate-it-work. I personally love it. It's the story of one of the most despicable protagonists in English literature trying to find a way to earn money in the early 1960's. It switches randomly between a number of wildly different threads, giving no real clue why. As the story progresses they become gradually tied together, finally ending in one hysterical scene which predated similar endings in Seinfeld by almost 30 years.
Some of you won't like the book. It's not for everyone. But for those who enjoy it, it's a masterpiece.
John Toole only had one other book published (after the success of Confederacy of Dunces) called The Neon Bible. It was written when he was a teenager, and is the only other work we have from this brilliant, but obviously sadly sick, individual. And we will never know what else he might have written if his life hadn't ended so early.