John Donne's poetry brought his work to attention.
William Blake was thought of as mad until Northrop Frye's Fearful Symmetry caused a reassessment of his works. 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 one of the greatest American poets, and her formatting idiosyncrasies have only added to her fame.
Gerard Manley Hopkins wasn't even generally known to be a poet during his lifetime. But after his death, the publication of his poetry was sponsored by his friend and British Poet Laureate Robert Bridges. And when it comes to Hopkins, the obscurity was partly chosen, because he didn't believe literary recognition was proper for a Catholic priest.
The 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 lot 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 of Grass is considered one of the finest examples of early American poetry.
Heinrich Heine had to spend most of his life in exile in France and was never really accepted there either (in part due to his Jewish ancestry), yet today his works are required reading material in most German high schools. It helps that his snark is rather accessible.
Even Goethe, now Germany Poet #1, had a mixed reception during lifetime (not exactly needing vindication but popular glorification began only long after his death, in the 1st Reich).
The Dr. Seuss book The Lorax, famous for being one of the first children's books to have a Green Aesop, was considered by general audiences to be too anvilicious when it was first published. The book became more popular as environmental activism became more mainstream, and today the book is one of the good doctor's most popular works.
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.
Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, now considered one of the greatest works of Western philosophy, was largely ignored on publication. (Kant did admit that the neglect might be caused by the book being "dry, obscure, contrary to all ordinary notions, and moreover long-winded.")
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 nineteenth 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 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.
Critics were not impressed with Alice's Adventures in Wonderland when it was published in 1865, believing that John Tenniel's illustrations were of greater value than the story. It slowly gained in popularity when its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, was published, and nowadays both books are considered to be two of the greatest pieces of literature ever written.
Upon publication in the 1870s, Anna Karenina was not a well-regarded novel by any means. But 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, but he also predicted that it would happen. Like 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. So 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 d'Urbervilles 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 at the time.)
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 resurrecting 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. But 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.
Finnegans Wake, which delved into extreme narrative experimentation, alienated the pre-WWII British public. Today it's regarded as another masterpiece, in spite (or perhaps because) of the fact that it's still pretty much incomprehensible.
F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby had a mediocre debut and only became famous sometime after Fitzgerald's death.
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 renewed 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, with 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.
H. P. Lovecraft spent his career in relative obscurity. In his lifetime, his stories only appeared in pulp magazines and were not collected in book form. His works only approaching general popularity in The '50s. These days, he is credited as the creator of the Cosmic Horror Story (which is also called "Lovecraftian horror"), and is to the horror fiction field in general what J. R. R. Tolkien was to High Fantasy, with stories such as At the Mountains of Madness being studied at the critical level to the same degree, if not even more so.
The Lord of the Rings actually didn't generate much interest until The '60s — the critics around the time it was written hated it. Certainly a far cry from how it would later become the formative example of an entire genre of fiction.
Philip K. Dick is today regarded as one of the most influential 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 in 1969, his mother took up the cause, and following several rejections, she finally got it into print in 1980, 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 it was turned into a surprise hit play on Broadway by Nick Stafford.
Blood Meridian, one of the early works of Cormac McCarthy, started off a poor seller, but it has gradually built a fandom following the author's later success.
Frances Burney, the writer of Evelina, published several large novels that did pretty well, but at best was considered 'proto Jane Austen' or Jane Austin-Light. But in the 1980s, the critics would realize that her type of humor is very different.
As much as 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.
The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad sold poorly during his lifetime and many critics disliked it due to his unsympathetic characters. It is now considered one of Conrad's finest works.
Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God received negative reviews by many famous Black authors when it was published during the Harlem Renaissance. In general, Hurston was criticized for writing her novels in African-American vernacular, as well as her conservative politics. Later in life, she worked various odd jobs to make ends meet. Hurston died in obscurity in 1960 and was buried in an unmarked grave. In the 1970s and '80s, the Black Power movement revived interest in her works and Their Eyes Were Watching God is now a staple of American school reading.
A Songof Ice And Fire: A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons were criticized for having unnecessary storylines and character POVs which dragged the main plot. When the TV adaptation reached Season 5, many of these storylines and characters were cut, streamlined, and altered, leading to the most controversial and divisive seasons of the show. Many realized just how intricate Martin's writing really was, since the "butterfly effect" caused by removing and altering these beats radically altered the show and the characters beyond recognition, while also cheapening the verisimilitude for the sake of Rule of Drama and Easy Logistics which would require viewers to have Willing Suspension of Disbelief. As such, fans realize that the seemingly meandering plots written by Martin are indeed important and essential for the Worldbuilding and overall denouement. The fact that new readers came to the books with all five published, and without the long waits in the interim has also made the reception to these works fare better over time.
Hermann Hesseknown for novels like Siddhartha and The Glass Bead Gamewas a German writer who has always been well-known in his own country (as an example, the German composer Richard Strauss, one of the great 20th century composers, set three of his poems to music as part of his Four Last Songs cycle), but international recognition wouldn't come to him until the 1960's due to relation to the counterculture of that era, as well as writings by influential several counterculture figures praising his work, but by 1962 he was dead.
Jonathan Swift was by no means unsuccessful during his lifetime, but he was far less popular than his Whig counterparts like Joseph Addison or Richard Steele. Fast forward 250 years, and Swift's work is universally known, and Addison and Steele are pretty much only remembered by historians, and not for their writing but for founding the newspaper The Spectator, at that.