Literary One Hit Wonders

One-hit-wonder usually refers to a musical artist who has only found success with a single song, or album. Think of Clay Aiken, Ashley Parker Angel, Bow Wow Wow, Billy Ray Cyrus, and Aqua. In my opinion (which I’m sure most others agree with), all of the songs produced by these artists are now cringe-worthy; however, literature has its own one-hit-wonders, but they have the ability to make you feel good and think critically. They are often incredibly well-crafted novels that contributed to a molding of society and are still—even hundreds of years later for some of them—read and revered in public school systems around the world. Authors who create one-hit-wonders may have written other novels or collections of poetry or short stories, but those publications didn’t receive as much success as the one he or she is remembered for. These authors seem to have put all of their genius thoughts into one amazing book. Here are thirteen of the greatest One-Hit-Wonders in the history of literature.


1. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Harper Lee was inspired by her experiences with racism growing up in Alabama in the 1930s. She wrote the novel in the 1950s while the Civil Right’s Movement was happening. Tom Robinson’s trial was partly inspired by the Scottsboro Trials. Lee’s childhood friend, Truman Capote, says that everything Lee wrote in To Kill a Mockingbird was true. The characters are entirely based on real people—Boo Radley lived right down the street from her.

Publication: 1960

Achievements: Pulitzer Prize. Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1999, it was voted the best novel of the century.



2. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Salinger was sent to boarding school as a boy, and was booted out of at least one of them. It is believed that he is Holden Caulfield. It took ten years for him to finish writing The Catcher in the Rye, and, after publication, as it grew in popularity, he became more and more of a recluse, rarely being seen in public. Salinger wrote and published a few short stories, a novella, and a few novels besides The Catcher in the Rye, but none of them compare.

Publication: 1951

Achievements: Thirty weeks at the top of the New York Times best sellers list. Reprinted eight times within the first two months of its publication. Banned in several countries, as well as U.S. schools due to its subject matter and casual use of curse words (goddam was used 237 times, and Chrissake 31 times. That’s a major no-no!).

Character to remember: Holden Caulfield



3. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar was originally published under the pseudonym, Victoria Lucas, and was something of an autobiography. Her mother was embarrassed by what was written in the book, so she prevented it from being published in the U.S. as long as possible. Sylvia Plath also wrote short stories and prose, but none got the attention that The Bell Jar received.

Publication: 1963, but 1971 in the U.S.

Character to remember: Esther Greenwood, Buddy Willard



4. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Wuthering Heights was Bronte’s first and only novel because she died one year after its publication. Her sister, Charlotte, edited the first edition and published it as the second edition in 1950.

Publication: 1847

Characters to remember: Heathcliff, Catherine Earnshaw



5. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Publication: 1936

Achievements: Best seller for the entire year of 1936 and 1937. As of 2008, it was the second most popular book to read in America, behind the Bible. Over thirty million copies have been printed worldwide.

Characters to remember: Scarlet O’Hara, Rhett Butler



6. Black Beauty by Anne Sewell

Sewell wrote Black Beauty during the last years of her life as an invalid in her home. She died five months after its publication. It was the first book to be written through the narration of an animal.

Publication: 1877

Achievements: Immediate bestseller, over 50 million copies sold.

Characters to remember: Black Beauty



7. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald had multiple visits to the north shore of Long Island during which he attended extravagant parties, which inspired The Great Gatsby. There are many similarities to be drawn between Jay Gatsby and Fitzgerald, such as the idolization of the wealthy, attending an ivy league university, falling in love while in the military, and dedicating his life to winning her over through a life of decadence.

Publication: 1925

Achievements: In 1998, Modern Library voted it the best American novel and the second best novel in the English language.

Characters to remember: Jay Gatsby, Daisy Buchanan



8. Invisible Man  by Ralph Ellison

Ellison was inspired by his own life and experiences in Harlem and as a brief member of the Communist Party, which is believed to be reflected by The Brotherhood in Invisible Man.

Publication: 1952

Achievements: The U.S. National Book Award for Fiction in 1953; in 1998, rated by Modern Library as 19th on the 100 Best English Language Novels of the 20th century. On Time‘s 100 Best English-Language Novels from 1923 to 2005.

Characters to remember: Brother Jack, Tod Clifton, Ras the Exhorter, Rinehart



9. On The Road by Jack Kerouac

On the Road is—quite literally—inspired by Kerouac’s journey across the country with his friends.

Publication: 1957

Achievements: Ranked 55th on Modern Library‘s 100 Best English-Language Novels of the 20th Century. Included in Time‘s list of Best English-Language Books from 1923-2005.

Characters to remember: Sal Paradise, Dean Moriarty, Carlo Marx



10. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

Heller was inspired by his experiences as a bombardier during World War II, but is targeted at the Korean War, The Cold War, and McCarthyism.

Publication: 1961

Achievements: 10 million copies sold since publication.

Characters to remember: Yossarian


11. ,cite>Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Stowe was a black woman living in Cincinnati on the free side of the Ohio River. Her inspiration for writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin was so that she might “write something that would make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is.” It first appeared as installments in an anti-slavery newspaper, The National Era, in 1951. She would scour newspapers and speak with friends in order to base her story on true life accounts of slavery so that none of her story was invented.

Publication: 1852

Achievements: best-selling novel of the 19th century, and the 2nd best-selling book of that century behind the Bible.

Characters to remember: Uncle Tom, Eliza, Eva, Simon Legree


12. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

Sinclair was a journalist, and he felt that he was supposed to expose the secret struggles of the immigrant working class. To develop his story, he went under cover at meatpacking plants in Chicago. In an interview, Sinclair said, “I wanted to make the readers feel what the workers felt, and that was a feeling of hopelessness because of the extreme poverty they faced. They no longer felt like employees, they felt like slaves.”

Publication: 1906

Achievements: praised by Winston Churchill.

Characters to remember: Jurgus Rudkus


13. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Shelley and friends, including her husband, Percy Shelley, had a friendly competition as to who could write the best horror story. She thought about the story for days, and finally had a dream in which a man created life and was frightened by his creation. It was that simple, but it sounds like a nightmare to me. The novel was originally published anonymously with a preface written by Percy Shelley, but was later published under her name with a longer preface by Shelley.

Published: 1818

Achievements: Considered the first science fiction novel. Paved the way for the horror genre.

Characters to remember: Victor Frankenstein, Captain Robert Walton



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