We like to think of our favorite writers as people we would get along with. So much of what attracts us to literature and philosophy is its author’s stated or implied worldview that it’s disturbing to find out that the writers we love have lived morally questionable — or even reprehensible — lives. Laura Miller examined this disappointment in a piece for Salon earlier this week, ultimately concluding that, “needing to believe that your favorite author lived in an exemplary way, embodying all the virtues of his best work, is an adolescent desire, passionate but ultimately unfair. Learning the truth is disillusioning at first, but enlightening in the end.”
In the spirit of hating the author but loving the work, we’ve rounded up a collection of great books by poets, novelist, and philosophers with unsettling biographies, featuring both writers Miller mentions and some of our own favorite scoundrels. Spoiler alert: the modernists were a pretty colorful bunch.
Matilda by Roald Dahl
If you weren’t aware that Roald Dahl was a terrible person, educate yourself with Alex Carnevale’s essay on the beloved children’s author’s “macabre unpleasantness.” It starts with the revelation that Matilda as we know it has basically nothing to do with the character as Dahl conceived her: “the original draft of the book painted the protagonist as a devilish little hussy who only later becomes ‘clever’, perhaps because she found herself without very much to do after torturing her parents. Dahl’s editor Stephen Roxburgh completely revised Dahl’s last novel and, in doing so, turned it into his most popular book.” And Dahl’s misogyny is just beginning — he was also an anti-Semite and fascist sympathizer.