A Brief History of Posthumous Literature

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Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain

The villains of Lisey's Story, Stephen King's 2006 book about a famous novelist's widow, are dubbed Incunks — crazed academics and collectors who want nothing more than to obtain a dead writer's every last piece of prose and memorabilia — their incunabula. A more learned version of Misery's Annie Wilkes ("I'm your number one fan"), the Incunks speak in part to a writer's fear of having their unfinished, unpolished work stripped from their cold, dead hands (metaphorically, of course) and thrust out into the world.

But fans' curiosity, desire for completeness and appetite for more works from a silent pen are often no match for a writer's desire for privacy — especially when he or she isn't around anymore to argue. Next week will see the release of a previously unpublished story by Mark Twain, almost a century dead; it will be followed by next month's Who is Mark Twain, a collection of 24 formerly unseen essays and short stories. Long-lost novels by Jack Kerouac, David Foster Wallace and Vladimir Nabokov are scheduled to see the light of day in coming years.

If a writer lives long enough, and gets famous enough, then they eventually start to consider what will happen to all the story nuggets, novel fragments and character sketches tucked away in their hard drives and desk drawers. Some destroy their work themselves; others ask family members to do so; still others designate literary executors to handle their papers and dole them out to universities or libraries. (One hopes that the recently deceased and uncommonly prolific John Updike may have taken the last route.) But such wishes aren't always carried out to the letter. Emily Dickinson, who saw fewer than a dozen poems published during her lifetime, instructed her sisters to burn all of her correspondence and verse — orders that were only half followed. Franz Kafka's directive to his friend Max Brod to destroy all of his work was completely ignored. Such literary insubordination gave us The Trial, The Castle and Amerika.

These practices date all the way back to Machiavelli's 16th Century The Prince, (and likely before) which wasn't published widely until four or so years after his death. Three centuries later, a trio of Jane Austen novels — Northanger Abbey, Persuasion and Love and Friendship — were released after the Pride and Prejudice author's death in 1817. Charles Dicken's final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, remains unfinished; readers will never know what happened to its vanished main character. For a while, a mini-cottage industry arose around posthumous books by Ernest Hemingway — bullfighting tome The Dangerous Summer, Parisian memoir A Moveable Feast and novels Islands in the Stream and The Garden of Eden. Papa Hemingway's pal F. Scott Fitzergald's The Last Tycoon hit bookstores about a year after his death, while a seemingly endless list of Middle Earth tales, starting with The Silmarillion have been apportioned out over the past thirty years by J.R.R. Tolkien's son and literary executor, Christopher.

Perhaps it's a cold truth, but sometimes death burnishes an author's reputation. It was only after she committed suicide that Sylvia Plath's most affecting, well-known works came out, Ariel, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Collected Poems. John Kennedy Toole's Southern gothic tragicomedy A Confederacy of Dunces was unpublished and gathering dust until Toole's mother put it in the hands of Walker Percy years after her son's suicide. The 2008 publication in English of Stieg Larsson's critically acclaimed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo came four years after he passed on. And let's not even talk about Roberto Bolano, whose 2666 was all the rage late last year — his 2003 death prominently mentioned in every piece and review.

And while it's unfair to compare Bolano to Vladimir Nabokov — the author of Lolita, one of the English language's greatest novels — it is fair to say that a similar response will greet the publication of Nabokov's The Original of Laura, should it come out this November as expected. The problem is that Nabokov never wanted the book to be released in the first place; in his will, he'd instructed his son and executor Dmitri to destroy the manuscript. Dmitiri does not seem to be inclined to obey, setting off a debate over which is more important — an author's last wishes or the pull of literary posterity. Will next year's tentative release of David Foster Wallace's novel The Pale King, for example — just a year and a half after the writer's suicide last September — ensure his spot in the pantheon of great 20th century authors? Or will it simply prove to be exactly what it is — an imperfect, unfinished work? Still, at least Wallace has his editor, and his agent, and his wife to care for his interests.

Who's going to look out for poor old Mark Twain?

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