John Donne's poetry brought his work to attention.
William Blake was thought of as mad until Northrop Frye's Fearful Symmetry caused a reassesment of his works.
The thing is, he was. Throughout his life he had visions and hallucinations (notably, he admitted that when he looked at the sun, he didn't see a round disk of fire: he saw a choir of angels singing hymns).
John Keats didn't have much time to get recognized, since he died at 25. The few reviews he got were mostly negative. Not long after his death he became recognized as one of the greats of poetry.
Most of Emily Dickinson's poetry was only published after her death, and received negative reviews even then. Today, she's considered to be a great poet. This was due in large part to editors cleaning her up to more standardized punctuation.
Gerard Manley Hopkins wasn't even generally known to be a poet during his lifetime. After his death publication of his poetry was sponsored by his friend and British Poet Laureate Robert Bridges. In Hopkins' case obscurity was partly chosen, because he didn't believe literary recognition was proper for a Catholic priest.
Hungarian poet Attila József was relatively unknown during his lifetime. Today, he's considered to be one of the greatest Hungarian poets ever.
Sylvia Plath struggled for years to get her poetry published and faced countless rejections; granted, she did see the publication of one book of poetry in her lifetime: The Colossus and Other Poems in 1960. It wasn't until in 1965, two years after her suicide, that her masterpiece, Ariel (Plath), that contained classic poems such as Daddy and Lady Lazarus, was published. In 1982, Plath was the first poet to ever posthumously win the Pulitzer Prize. Plath is now seen as one of the most important figures in the genre of confessional poetry.
To add, in 2001, Dr. James C. Kaufman of California State University conducted quite a jot of research on the phenomenon of creative writers, particularly female poets more so than any other category, and the increased likelihood of mental illness and suicide. Who did he name this after? None other than Sylvia Plath.
Walt Whitman'sLeaves of Grass was a financial failure on publication and so unpopular that the only positive reviews for it were written by Whitman himself. Over time, people came to appreciate his enthusiastic patriotism and catchy verses, and today Leaves is considered one of the finest examples of early American poetry.
Thomas Hobbes's work Leviathan was hated by both Royalists, Parliamentarians and the Church when it was published in 1651. It's now considered a classic of political philosophy.
The 18th-century publication of Henry Fielding's The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling was a source of outrage for the whole of English society, who believed it to be the work of the Devil. It remained unpopular for 200 years, finally being recognized as a literary treasure in the early 1960s.
Frankenstein received mostly negative reactions from critics in the early 19th century (in some cases, because the author was a woman). It was, however, popular with the general public from the start, and by the 20th century, most literary critics regarded it as a classic.
Stendhal published The Red and the Black in 1830; he stated in his letters that he was writing books for the 1930s. That's around that time he was recognized as one of the greatest French writers of the XIXth century.
Wuthering Heights was too tough a sell when first published in the 1840s, but picked up notability a few years after the death of its author Emily Brontë. Modern readers hail it as a masterpiece.
Moby-Dick got trashed by critics when it was first published in 1851. The negative press for his Magnum Opus caused Herman Melville, who had been a somewhat popular author in the 1840s, to fall into depression and obscurity. Even up until the turn of the century, the Encyclopedia Brittanica described Melville as being a modestly famous writer of nautical stories. It wasn't until the '20s and the '30s — over three decades after Melville's death — when scholars rediscovered Moby-Dick and reevaluated it as one of the classics of American literature.
Most of the bad reviews were a result of the British edition leaving out the epilogue, resulting in an already difficult novel being completely incomprehensible. The American reviewers mindlessly parroted the British reviewers (even though most of their complaints were no longer true) because they were expected to act European to be considered sophisticated.
There's also the fact that Melville's prior novels had essentially been adventure stories; fans who picked up Moby-Dick were in for a Mood Whiplash.
The abolitionist magazine serial Uncle Tom's Cabin was unsuccessful until published in book form, after which it famously became a contributing factor to the American Civil War.
Our Mutual Friend, which came late in the career of Charles Dickens, sold fewer than 30,000 copies back in 1865 ... especially disappointing compared to the hundreds of thousands achieved by the majority of Dickens's previous work. Modern readers are more appreciative of Mutual Friend, citing its more sophisticated writing style compared to the other Dickens works.
Upon publication in the 1870s, Anna Karenina was not a well-regarded novel by any means. In the past century it skyrocketed to its well-deserved status as a classic of Russian literature, and today is arguably Leo Tolstoy's most popular work.
Not only did this happen to Friedrich Nietzsche, he predicted it would happen. As he said in The Antichrist, "Some are born posthumously." He also predicted that a lot of people would probably screw up what he was trying to say, which also happened. In the end, after years of being associated with misinterpreting Nazis and thrill-killers like Leopold and Loeb, it ultimately took the work of Hannah Arendt and Walter Kaufmann to popularize a rehabilitated image of his philosophy.
Tess Of The Durbervilles suffered a similar short-term fate (probably because the subject matter- at least presented in such a way- was found to be too distasteful and/or shocking.)
The Adventure of the Final Problem was despised when first published because of Arthur Conan Doyle's decision to bump Sherlock off. Doyle spent half a decade battling fandom hatred until finally caving in and ressurecting the character. Final Problem is now one of the most respected short stories in English literature, and antagonist Professor Moriarty - - who only appeared this one time in Doyle's canon - - will always be known as THE opponent of Holmes.
Dracula sold poorly in author Bram Stoker's lifetime; back then most of his fame came from The Primrose Path. Currently, Dracula is his most famous work, a masterpiece of horror fiction, and credited with turning vampires into a bankable literary subject.
The Phantom of the Opera by mystery writer Gaston Leroux (regarded by his peers as the French equivalent of Arthur Conan Doyle) failed when initially published in 1910. The first film adaptation with Lon Chaney facilitated the rise of the novel's popularity.
The short stories and novellas (among them The Metamorphosis and The Trial) of Franz Kafka were largely ignored in his time, and most of it went unpublished. He even went so far as to say he wanted his works to be destroyed after his death (although he left the instructions to do so with a person he had good reason to believe would not, and who did not, obey them, so it is questionable whether he intended them to be followed).
The work of James Joyce frequently went through this, some more than others.
Ulysses was quickly banned in the majority of the countries it was published in due to its sexually provocative content, thereby killing the profits.
Finnegan's Wake, which delved into extreme narrative experimentation, alienated the pre-WWII British public. Modern readers particularly adore this one out of all Joyce's works, even though (or because?) it remains extremely difficult to understand.
F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby had a mediocre debut and only became famous some time after Fitzgerald's death.
More like Fitzgerald himself fits this trope. He died in 1940 thinking that he was a failure and he would be forgotten. Less than a decade after his death, a new interest in his works, particularly The Great Gatsby, occurred. Now, along with Gatsby, Fitzgerald is regarded as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century and the voice of his generation, a term that he himself coined: The Jazz Age.
Another of Fitzgerald's novels, Tender Is the Night, was rather poorly received upon its release, with critics mainly expressing distaste for its use of Anachronic Order. A second edition was released which revises the narrative into chronological order. Currently, the former edition is held in much higher esteem than the second.
The Lord of the Rings actually didn't generate much interest until the 60s — with critics around the time it was written having hated it. However, Tolkien at least was able to continue with his career.
Philip K Dick is today regarded as one of the most influental writers of science fiction who introduced many now widely established concepts and with an impressive number of his novels being adapted to film. However, during his lifetime, he was rather obscure, probably in part due to suffering from severe mental disorders. Many of his novels are assumed to be a way of dealing with his problems, with his paranoia being believed to have created the notions of reality being an artificial illusion created for nefarious purposes or people only believing they are actual humans, which have been a common theme in science fiction since the 80s.
One of his novels that picked up a notable amount of belated glory was A Scanner Darkly. American sales in 1977 were a disappointment, and although European reception was warmer, it was not a tremendous bestseller by any stretch.
William Golding's Lord of the Flies sold poorly in 1954. Since the end of the 20th century, however, it has been one of the two or three most frequently taught works of literature in North American high schools.
According to Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are was not only panned by critics when published in 1963 — it was banned in libraries. Two years later, it was discovered that the book was immensely popular among children, and it has become a hit among critics and audiences alike ever since.
The Bell Jar, now considered a classic novel, was ignored when first released.
The Princess Bride was talked up and released countless times, only to completely flop, before Spider Robinson convinced the usually mercenary but suddenly reticent William Goldman that he should allow Robinson to place the duel scene in a collection of short stories, which probably led to the movie.
John Kennedy Toole spent a number of dispiriting years trying to get his comic novel of New Orleans published. After his suicide, his mother finally got it into print, under the title of A Confederacy of Dunces. It's now recognized as one of the great comic works of the twentieth century.
Michael Morpurgo's War Horse did not gain any attention (aside from a handful of readers already familiar with Morpurgo) until out of the blue it was turned by Nick Stafford into a hit play on Broadway.
Blood Meridian, one of the early works of Cormac McCarthy, started off a poor seller but gradually built a fandom following the author's later success.
Frances Burney, writer of Evelina, published several large novels that did pretty well but at best was considered 'proto Jane Austen' or Jane Austin-Light. Up until the 80s when critics realized her type of humor is very different.
While his works live on to this day, Edgar Allan Poe was such an asshole to people that all his combined works probably didn't profit him beyond the double-digits. The Raven, for example, sold for a measly nine dollars.