20 People Who Are Beloved Now but Were Surprisingly Unpopular When They Were Alive

Ever wondered about those unsung heroes, the underdogs of their eras, who are now hailed as legends? Let’s talk about something pretty mind-boggling- the crazy rollercoaster of popularity that some people ride, even beyond the grave.

One Redditor asked, “Who is someone that’s beloved now but was surprisingly unpopular when they were alive?” This thread received insights from many users, and we have compiled the top comments for you.

1. Edgar Allen Poe

Baltimore, Maryland / USA - October 5, 2019: Old Cemetery with Edgar Allen Poe Grave Site and Headstone.
Image Credit: Joseph Skompski/Shutterstock.

A discerning Reddit user commented, “Edgar Allen Poe. I read the book “Mystery of Mysteries: The Death and Life of EAP” and was surprised to learn how relatively broke he was during his adult life and how strained his relationship with his wealthy step-father really was.”

Another person pitched in to say, “I just read this earlier today. His own official editor, Rufus Griswold, published this obituary for Poe: it said, “Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday.

This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it. The poet was well known, personally or by reputation, in all this country; he had readers in England and in several of the states of Continental Europe, but he had no friends.”

Now, he’s the master of macabre, and every October, his stories are resurrected!

2. Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln Memorial at night.
Image Credit: Patrice Oehen/Shutterstock.

One said, “While visiting the Abraham Lincoln Museum in Springfield, IL, I was shocked at how virulent the political cartoons and articles of that time were.”

Another user responded, “It’s been a long time since I went to the Abraham Lincoln Museum, but that exhibit is what I remember most. People hated Lincoln. The newspapers hated Lincoln.”

People knew him, sure, but he was more like that guy who was always telling stories at the local tavern. Fast forward, and he’s practically the superhero of American history. Who would’ve thought?

3. Alan Turing

London, England - June 21, 2015: Slate statue of Mathematician Alan Turing at Bletchley Park, Bletchley, Milton Keynes, Britain.
Image Credit: Lenscap Photography/Shutterstock.

You’d think a guy who paved the way for our digital world would be hailed as a hero, right? Nope.

A Reddit user wrote, “Alan Turing. Ya know, kinda saved the world from Nazis.”

Another replied, “I mean if present times are any indication, a lot of people will even support nazis over queer people just existing. But didn’t they force him to get castrated just for being gay?”

4. Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson silhouette, high quality vector.
Image Credit: OMIA silhouettes/Shutterstock.

Someone commented, “Emily Dickinson. She was rejected as a poet while she was alive, and now she’s in every American Literature textbook.”

Another person agreed to it and said, “Yes, and many people in her town gossiped about her being a recluse and wearing fashion that was popular decades before.”

During her lifetime, her poetry was unheard of. Fast forward to today, and she’s celebrated as one of the most innovative and unique voices in American literature.

5. Vincent Van Gogh

Glowing moon on a blue sky abstract background. Seamless vector pattern in the style of impressionist paintings.
Image Credit: Rroselavy/Shutterstock.

One said, “Vincent Van Gogh. He wasn’t popular until his death.”

Another person pitched in to say, “I went to a Van Gogh exhibit in Detroit, and they had an exhibit/wall explaining this. Vincent left his paintings to his brother Theo, who was an art dealer. Theo died 6 months later, leaving the paintings to his wife.

The wife, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, was broke, and one of the only ways for her to make money was to sell the paintings. She promoted Vincent tirelessly to make some money. If not for her, we may never have heard of Vincent.”

His paintings hardly fetched a handful of coins, and he struggled with more mental demons than a whole season of your favorite drama series. But fast forward to now, and this guy’s art is priceless!

6. Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach monument in Leipzig.
Image Credit: hydebrink/Shutterstock.

Johann Sebastian Bach- the musical maestro!

A discerning Reddit user commented, “JS Bach, towards the end of his life.”

Another replied, “I learned that Bach’s great popularity today is mainly due to the work of his compatriot Felix Mendelssohn, who brought his compositions out of oblivion. Without Mendelssohn, Bach would probably not be as famous today.”

7. Sinéad O’Connor

VENICE, ITALY - APRIL 02: Irish singer Sinead O'Connor during the first concert of "THE CRAZY BALDHEAD TOUR" at the Teatro la Fenice and for the first time in Venice. April 02, 2013 in Venice, Italy.
Image Credit: Matteo Chinellato/Shutterstock.

Sinéad O’Connor, the powerhouse with a voice that could shatter glass. In her early days, she was the rebel with a cause, but not everyone was on board with her vibe.

One said, “Sinéad O’Connor. She was definitely ahead of her time and so talented.”

Another user responded, “She was vilified, ostracized, and made into a joke because she dared make a statement against a powerful and popular religion. It took 20 years for people to see how right she was.”

8. Martin Luther King Jr.

WASHINGTON DC - OCT, 2011: Martin Luther King Jr Memorial, portrait of the civil rights leader carved in granite, dedicated by President Barack Obama in 2011.
Image Credit: MDart10/Shutterstock.

A Reddit user wrote, “Martin Luther King Jr. White people *hated* him when he was still alive, and said he was “hurting the civil rights cause”.”

Another person agreed with it and said, “A lot of people don’t understand the strategy behind what Martin Luther King Jr. was doing. He wanted to make racist white people feel uncomfortable about the status quo so that they would change their mind and things would change.”

And now? Now, he’s the symbol of hope, courage, and change. His words echo through time, reminding us all to dream a little bigger.

9. John Kennedy Toole

NEW ORLEANS, LA, USA - MAY 21, 2021: Historic marker for home of John Kennedy Toole, author of A Confederacy of Dunces.
Image Credit: William A. Morgan/Shutterstock.

Someone commented, “John Kennedy Toole. Couldn’t find anyone to print his novel and ended up taking his own life. Years later, his novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, published after his death, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981 and is still about as universally praised as a novel ever gets.”

Another person pitched in to say, “Just to add context here. After Toole’s death, his mother became his biggest champion. She found her way to the LSU (Louisiana State University) campus and met with English professor Walker Percy. She began pestering him, and he tried to put her off. He finally read the stained and worn manuscript pages and found himself unable to put it down.”

Now, his book is a classic, taught in classrooms and cherished by bookworms everywhere. Imagine that, being ahead of your time by a century or so!

10. Ignaz Semmelweis

HUNGARY - CIRCA 1955: Stamp printed in Hungary with portrait image of Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician known as pioneer of antiseptic procedures, circa 1955.
Image Credit: Gwoeii/Shutterstock.

Ignaz Semmelweis- the man who told doctors to wash their hands before delivering babies. Back then, they probably scoffed at the idea. Now? Now, he’s the reason our hospitals aren’t breeding grounds for diseases.

One said, “A little niche, but in health fields, Ignaz Semmelweis is regarded as the father of hand washing. In his time, he was harshly ridiculed for suggesting the absurd notion that healthcare workers should clean their hands before delivering babies.”

Another user responded, “Semmelweis’s story makes me SEETHE. Is there anything worse for a person than being so right, with such huge stakes, and everyone telling you not only are you wrong, you’re so wrong we have to tear down your entire person to the point of insanity and undignified death?”

11. Socrates

Marble statue of the Great ancient Greek philosopher Socrates.
Image Credit: Richard Panasevich/Shutterstock.

Yep, he’s the ancient Greek dude who basically laid the foundation for Western philosophy.

A Reddit user wrote, “In the end, the sentence of death was passed by a greater majority of the jury than that by which he had been convicted. More people wanted him dead than thought he was actually guilty! That is a hilarious level of ancient trolling.”

Another replied, “The weirdest fun fact I ever learned while studying the classics was that “Socratic Dialogue” was a genre, not a record of what Socrates said. So all this time, people have been using his name to say whatever they want to”

12. John Keats

UNITED KINGDOM - CIRCA 1971: A stamp printed in the United Kingdom shows John Keats, circa 1971.
Image Credit: tristan tan/Shutterstock.

Then there’s John Keats, the poet who penned odes so beautiful they could make a rock cry.

A discerning Reddit user commented, “John Keats. Called a failed poet in his day.”

Another person pitched in to say, “I believe his gravestone even reads “Here lies one whose name was writ in water” or something close to that.”

13. Paul Cézanne

AIX-EN-PROVENCE, FRANCE, JUNE 18, 2017: Interior of studio of Paul Cezanne in Aix-en-Provence, France.
Image Credit: trabantos/Shutterstock.

Paul Cézanne, the painter who dared to defy the norms of his era. And today, his work is celebrated for its revolutionary take on form and color.

One said, “Cézanne. The locals thought his art was bad and banished him to the edge of town. They’d post abusive notes through his door.”

Another person agreed to it and said, “Poor guy. His hometown didn’t deserve him, and I’m glad they have basically none of his work.”

14. Malcolm X

Rome, Italy - January 31, 2023, detail of the covers of the books "I have a dream". The Autobiography of the Prophet of Equality, Autobiography of Malcolm X, A Promised Land by Barack Obama.
Image Credit: Stefano Chiacchiarini ’74/Shutterstock.

Malcolm X was the fiery activist who shook the world with his powerful words. Back then, some people thought he was too radical.  Now, he’s a symbol of fighting for justice and equality. His legacy lives on, inspiring generations to stand up for what’s right.

A Reddit user wrote, “Malcolm X. I think there has certainly been an increase in positive reception from most anti-racists, but he is still sort of held up as a foil for MLK in the mainstream discussion to compare the ‘right way’ and ‘wrong way’ to go about making change and attempt to dissuade people from more radical action.”

Another replied, “It’s interesting because I’ve seen people theorize (and I think I agree because of my own experiences in organizing) that without Malcolm X and other open proponents of more radical methods, MLK’s nonviolence may not have been as effective.”

15. Brad Nowell

LAS VEGAS - SEPTEMBER 24 - Sublime with Rome's Bud Gaugh, Rome Ramirez, and Eric Wilson at the 2011 iHeartRadio Music Festival on September 24, 2011 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Image Credit: Amy Nichole Harris/Shutterstock.

Someone commented, “Brad Nowell, lead singer for the band Sublime, which only ever released 3 albums but only became popular and acclaimed after their last album was released, and that was just a couple months after Nowell had a fatal OD.”

Another person pitched in to say, “All the Sublime albums are incredible. I want to say not one bad song. Brad Nowell was extremely talented. Such a waste.”

His songs are anthems of rebellion and raw emotion, reminding us that popularity is often just a matter of time.

16. Ian Curtis

BARCELONA - OCT 10: Peter Hook, Joy Division and New Order bassist, performs Unknown Pleasures at Apolo on October 10, 2010 in Barcelona, Spain.
Image Credit: Christian Bertrand/Shutterstock.

Ian Curtis used to play gigs in half-empty rooms, but now his music is etched into the soul of every alternative music lover.

One said, “Ian Curtis of Joy Division. Sort of like Sublime, he died right before the album Closer and single Love Will Tear Us Apart were released, and never lived to see how iconic and influential he and his band ended up being.”

Another person agreed with it and said, “Ian Curtis had his critics but now is universally loved. God, I miss his voice and perspective. One of the few celebrities whose death caused me to cry openly.”

17. Louis Riel

Winnipeg Manitoba Canada. 6-20-2017. View of RIEL statue. Riel who was powerfully to Manitoba. This statue was built in Legislative's Manitoba garden where were government official.
Image Credit: Aewphoto/Shutterstock.

Louis Riel was the Métis leader who fought fiercely for his people’s rights. In his time, he was seen as a troublemaker. Today, he’s hailed as a hero, a champion of indigenous rights and cultural preservation.

A Reddit user wrote, “Louis Riel, if anyone from Canada is reading this. He would fit the ‘unpopular’ description rather than ‘unknown’. Led a rebellion in the 1880s and got executed for treason. Now venerated and seen as a national founder.”

Another user responded, “Louis Riel is always my answer when asked “if you could bring back one person from history, who would it be?” that man was a legend. We need someone like him today in Canada.”

18. Steve Irwin

Crocodile hunter STEVE IRWIN at Nickelodeon's 15th Annual Kids Choice Awards in Santa Monica. 20APR2002.
Image Credit: Featureflash Photo Agency/Shutterstock.

Steve Irwin- the Crocodile Hunter himself. Back then, some might have thought he was a bit too enthusiastic about reptiles. Now? He’s the wildlife warrior who stole our hearts with his passion for animals.

Someone commented, “Steve Irwin was widely parodied as a crazy person. And some animal rights groups were after him to stop harassing wild animals.”

Another replied, “I wanted to say this! In Australia, he was ridiculed when he was alive, and now everyone acts like he’s a national treasure, and you can’t say anything bad against him.”

19. Oscar Wilde

Dublin, Ireland - November 2021: Statue of Oscar Wilde in Merrion Square Park. Famous Irish poet and playright.
Image Credit: Nicola_K_photos/Shutterstock.

Oscar Wilde- the master of wit and sarcasm.

A discerning Reddit user commented, “Oscar Wilde. Dude died poor and alone because he was gay, and now he is a celebrated author.”

Another person pitched in to say, “Yeah, and now he achieved literary fame for his sharp social commentary and comedic genius, with works like “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and “The Importance of Being Earnest””

20. Diana, Princess of Wales

London, UK - October 2018: Madame Tussaud’s Waxwork Museum, Princess Diana, Realistic lifelike model
Image Credit: RichartPhotos/Shutterstock.

And last but not least, Princess Diana. Depending on who you asked, she was either adored or criticized in her royal days. But now? Now, she’s the people’s princess, remembered for her grace, compassion, and tireless charity work. She’s the epitome of kindness in a world that sometimes needs extra love.

One said, “Princess Diana. she was mocked and parodied a great deal. People laughed about the royal divorce and stated they could have no sympathy for two wealthy people who knew nothing of everyday life for the common folk. But the minute she died, people claim to have had a special connection to her.”

Another person agreed to it and said, “This was my response too- she was terribly mocked after the divorce. But the moment she died, she became an angel in everyone’s eyes.”

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Kylie Jenner wearing Balmain arrives at the 2022 Billboard Music Awards
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