As the old saying goes, if you try and don’t succeed, you are probably average. But in the history of popular culture, there have been quite a few examples of works of literature and other art that failed miserably when they debuted only to later be celebrated as the works of brilliance today. 

You’d be surprised how many works of art and cultural mainstays we now take for granted were met with disdain or derision when they first appeared. It’s a bit of a fast ball down the middle but it also seems to be a perfect topic for the Advent season where critics, zealots, and hopefuls were waiting for a majestic king of earthly prowess and what they got was a defenseless, weak, and poverty-stricken newborn child instead.

Believe it or not, that Christmas season staple, Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” ballet bombed when it debuted. Critics kind of liked the music but they detested the simple childish story.

Poor Herman Melville, he writes one of the greatest novels in American literature and it was such a flop that he had to remain a customs agent to keep himself in whale oil and keep the lights on at home. A London critic harpooned him and his creation with this 1851 caustic review: “Mr. Melville has to thank himself only if his horrors and his heroics are flung aside by the general reader, as so much trash belonging to the worst school of Bedlam literature — since he seems not so much unable to learn as disdainful of learning the craft of an artist.” Ouch. But Moby Dick lives on, and the critic who wrote that scathing assessment is not even a blip on anyone’s popular culture radar. 

And speaking of critical responses to anything, it is good to keep in mind that when Fred Astaire made his first screen test, the studio executive who was forced to watch it had this to say: “Can’t sing…can’t act…can dance a little.”

It’s a myth that Vincent Van Gogh only sold one painting in his whole life. His brother Theo got one sold for him and another relative bought several more, not because he thought they were great works of art but because he wanted to help a down and out relative. When you consider that the artist constantly “traded” his paintings for food and art supplies he “sold” a lot. But he fits the popular culture model of something that took time for people to grasp and appreciate. But when they did, the works that were once rejected and belittled became things of great value.

This is the month where we celebrate the ultimate not so great opening. Sure, we now pull out all the stops, recognizing with 20/20 hindsight the moment God himself enters human history in human form, but our joy contrasts with the quiet landscape where the story played out first.

No question, there seemed to be some local interest with the child born in the manger. The shepherds certainly had a story to tell, three astrologers from the East increased public interest, or at least the interest of the murderous King Herod — but then the story goes cold and people lose interest. 

I wonder if years after the first Christmas the people from Bethlehem wondered whatever happened to that ill-prepared Nazarene family that had to give birth in a stable. There were probably rumors of them disappearing, maybe into a land as far away and not lamented like Egypt, but people went on with their lives and the people of Israel resumed their wait for the Messiah.

Even when people’s memories were refreshed during his public ministry, there were still those who just didn’t get it and were a little scandalized that they were being preached to by a guy whose parents didn’t know enough to plan ahead for his birth…and he was a Nazarene to boot!

As his time came on the hill of Golgotha, many people probably considered it just another flop that would soon be forgotten. But whereas other “messiahs” came and went, the “second act” that began tenuously in a manger, and seemed to fizzle out completely on the cross, lives on. 

And if God communicates to us through art and literature, even popular culture versions of it, then these examples of books and ballets and paintings that were first rejected but now are honored sweetly mirrors the story that began at the end of Advent.

Robert Brennan is a weekly columnist for Angelus online and in print. He has written for many Catholic publications, including National Catholic Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He spent 25 years as a television writer, and is currently the Director of Communications for the Salvation Army California South Division.

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