Famous Literary Suicides

Suicide has claimed the lives of too many writers over the years. From Ernest Hemingway to Anne Sexton, many talented writers struggled with depression and mental illness but sadly lost their battle.

Many talented writers share a history of mental illness and suicidal tendencies. Either due to the effects of old age or lingering childhood trauma, these writers made the decision to end their lives rather than continue on with their struggle. It was not for a lack of trying.

Most of these writers spent years of their lives seeking treatment for the mental illness that plagued them, yet could not seem to shake it.

Despite their struggles, these writers managed to write some of the most influential works in literary history. Although they died prematurely, these authors will forever live on in their books, poems and stories.

Ernest Hemingway

Born in 1899 in Illinois, Hemingway was an author and journalist who got his start in journalism as a reporter for the Kansas City Star before signing up as an ambulance driver in Italy when WWI broke out.

It was this wartime experience that inspired his many war-themed novels such as A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls and kick-started his career as a war correspondent.

Ernest Hemingway seated at typewriter in 1939
Ernest Hemingway seated at typewriter in 1939

Depression and alcoholism plagued Hemingway. His health problems, which were caused by two plane accidents he survived in Africa in the 1950s, and depression worsened as he aged and he sought electroshock therapy to treat his mental illness.

Feeling that the treatments were destroying his memories and ability to write, Hemingway shot himself in the head with a shotgun in June of 1961.

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath was a poet and novelist from Boston, Massachusetts. A graduate of Smith College, Plath wrote and published numerous volumes of poetry such as The Colossus as well as her famous novel The Bell Jar.

Depression plagued Plath her entire life, starting in college when she made her first suicide attempt by crawling under her house and taking an overdose of her mother’s sleeping pills.

Over the course of her life she underwent many electroshock treatments in an attempt to cure her mental illness. After her marriage to poet Ted Hughes failed in 1963, Plath died by suicide by poisoning herself with carbon monoxide from her gas oven.

Hunter S. Thompson

Hunter S. Thompson was a novelist and journalist from Louisville, Kentucky. Born in 1937, Thompson began his journalism career working as a sport editor for a military publication during a brief stint in the air force.

He eventually found work as a freelancer, traveling around the world to places such as Puerto Rico, New York and South America. In 1961, Thompson also traveled to Idaho to investigate the reasons behind Hemingway’s suicide.

During his journalism career, Thompson wrote many novels including Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Rum Diary and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. Thompson began to suffer a bout of health problems in the later years of his life and shot himself in the head with his handgun in February of 2005.

Virginia Woolf

Born in 1882, Virginia Woolf was a novelist from London, England who was born during a time when women were not allowed to seek an education.

Educated at home, Woolf, who’s maiden name was Stephen, was the daughter of literary critic and editor, Sir Leslie Stephen, and had full access to her father’s library. Virginia Woolf published her first novel, The Voyage Out in 1915.

Virginia Woolf, "Missing In England" article in the New York Times, published on April 3, 1941
Virginia Woolf, “Missing In England” article in the New York Times, published on April 3, 1941

Over the course of her career she published numerous novels, short stories, essays and non-fiction books such as Orlando, Mrs. Dalloway and A Room of One’s Own. Woolf suffered from depression and mental illness from a young age and made her first suicide attempt after the death of her mother when Virginia was 13 years old.

She made several other attempts during her lifetime but survived each one. After her depression symptoms returned yet again in 1941, Virginia wrote a suicide note and left her house in Rodmell one afternoon in March and walked to the nearby river Ouse where she put a large rock in her pocket and drowned herself.

Anne Sexton

Anne Sexton was a Pulitzer prize-winning poet from Newton, Massachusetts and a friend of Sylvia Plath. Sexton suffered from severe mental illness for most of her life, making several suicide attempts during her lifetime, and began writing poetry at the suggestion of her long-time therapist Martin Orne.

Her poetry was published in a number of publications such as The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine and the Saturday Review. After having an affair with her therapist, Sexton poisoned herself with carbon monoxide when she locked herself in the garage and started the engine to her car in October of 1974.

Sources:
“From the Archives: Novelist Ernest Hemingway Dies of Gun Wounds.” Los Angeles Times, 3 July. 1961, latimes.com/local/obituaries/archives/la-me-ernest-hemingway-19610703-story.html
“Hemingway dead of shot gun wound; Wife says he was cleaning his weapon.” New York Times, 3 July. 1961, archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/99/07/04/specials/hemingway-obit.html?_r=1&oref=slogin
Fetters, Ashley. “There are almost no obituaries for Sylvia Plath.” The Atlantic, 11 Feb. 2013, theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/02/there-are-almost-no-obituaries-for-sylvia-plath/273032/
Sullivan, James. “Hunter S. Thompson Dies.” Rolling Stone, 21 Feb. 2005, rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/hunter-s-thompson-dies-94757/
“Virginia Woolf believed dead.” New York Times, 3 April, 1941, archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/0125.html
“Anne Sexton Dies; Pulitzer Poet, 45.” New York Times, 6 Oct. 1974, nytimes.com/1974/10/06/archives/wnne-sexton-dies-pulitzer-poet-45-bad-case-of-melancholy.html