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Think Tank

Literary Remains: Five Posthumously Published Authors

“You had better shove this in the stove," wrote Mark Twain in a 1865 letter, adding, "I don't want any absurd 'literary remains' and 'unpublished letters of Mark Twain' published after I am planted."  This anecdote comes from the 2009 book “Who is Mark Twain?" a collection of twenty-four essays by the American author whose literary output in life might only be matched by his output in death.  This quote is partially the coyness of a literary aspirant written years before Twain became the statesman of American letters, and toward the end of his life he prepared an autobiography to be published after his death.  Yet, Twain's sentiment about future editors collecting unfinished and unpublished work in a hodgepodge is contemporary.  Editors continue to shape authors' literary remains.

In November, the University of California Press will publish the first of three volumes of Twain's "Autobiography of Mark Twain" a century after the author's death. At the helm of this project, is a group of editors at the Mark Twain Papers and Project at the University of California, Berkeley, including Robert Hirst, who collected and edited "Who is Mark Twain?"

The takeaway from this enterprise is twofold.  First, the role of the editors here is great, but greatly obscured by the author's megawatt name in the byline.  These editors and scholars cull from raw material, personal letters, yellowing papers fragments, transcripts, half-starts, publisher’s proofs, and early drafts to produce an authoritative text.  When it works, it’s a collaboration across time to realize what the author intended; when it doesn’t, it can be a Frankenstein’s monster.  

And second, Twain’s "Autobiography" and other unpublished work has been open to scholars for years who are intrepid enough to seek it out the Bancroft Library in Berkeley.  As the Mark Twain Papers and Project Web site advertises, the collection has made it “possible to read virtually every document in Mark Twain's hand known to survive."  Moreover, this and other literary archives are being scanned, digitized and made available on the Internet both as facsimile and as searchable text.  

Some authors gain fame after their death, such as "The Girl"-series author Stieg Larrsson, while authors who were known in life have each note and receipt collected for posterity.  Publication as we know it isn’t going anywhere, and the demand for editors to prepare portable and palatable editions from unfinished work then disappear behind the authority of the deceased will continue.  Also, the best editors will continue to get work preparing the most important editions.  Yet the preservation of archives, open to all through digital reproduction, is for the first time revealing the process of publication from idea to bookstore shelf to a broad audience.

Here are five authors whose literary remains reveal the sausage-making of publication.

1) Emily Dickinson's poetry as we know it now was never published.  It was collected after her death from a locked wooden box and a bureau. It included scraps of stationary, memos on advertisements and butcher’s papers, and small sheets of paper sewn together. It certainly didn't look like poetry as we know it.  A body of a cricket accompanies one of her letters (on purpose).  These features are absent from the clean, minimal appearance of her collected works as published now.

2) The literary remains of John Updike, who died in early 2009, are now sheltered at the Houghton Library at Harvard University.  As a feature in the New York Times reported,  the archive includes a wealth of ingredients that went into each finished literary work. These include a memo “on current sales and commissions at Toyota franchises,” “photocopied pages from a handbook on car salesmanship,” a letter from a Boston sportswriter “summarizing the career of the 1980s N.B.A. dunk-shot specialist Darryl Dawkins,” and “a wrapper from a Planters Peanut Bar.”  Each of these weaves its way into his popular and awarded “Rabbit” series.

3) Vladimir Nabokov’s “The Original of Laura” published in 2009 should have been burned, according to instructions from the author of “Lolita” to his wife before his death in 2007.  The 138 handwritten note cards that make up this work were not burned, remaining in a Swiss bank vault until their most recent publication.

4) Earlier this year, “Invisible Man” author Ralph Ellison’s unfinished second novel was published as “Three Days Before the Shooting.” Collecting from more than four decades and thousands of pages worth of work it totals eleven-hundred pages. This is an increase from the 400-page “Juneteenth” that was published in 1999 from the same material, revealing the authority of the editor in shifting through a glut of drafts to produce a single, authoritative work.

5) “Infinite Jest” author David Foster Wallace, who took his life in 2008, was one-third complete with his third novel tentatively titled “The Pale King,” according to an article published in the The New Yorker after his death.  This article also reveals one of the last things Wallace did before his suicide was to collect nearly two-hundred pages of the manuscript “so that his wife could find it.”  This unfinished novel is slated to be published next year, while the other notes and drafts Wallace left behind will be collected at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.
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