Friday, September 25, 2009

Answered Prayers

There was an article in the Wall Street Journal's Weekend Journal section this morning on works by authors published posthumously. There are a lot of them about to be published this autumn and the article brings into question what the authors would have thought about those works being published.

I have a few reactions to it. One is that it must be taken on a case by case basis what they would have thought. I have a hard time imagining Kurt Vonnegut being too upset about a couple of collections of unpublished short stories being published after he died. At worst, if they are horrible, it's not really going to destroy his reputation as one of the greatest authors in American history. And more likely they will probably be pretty darned good. Mark Twain, on the other hand, had scads of works and fragments unpublished at the time of his death. For a long time they were locked away and suppressed. Now most of them have been published and a good deal of Twain scholars claim that we probably didn't ever really need to have sub-par Twain. Others argue that it's a valuable look into his mind. I think it's probably safe to say that those works were one-off publications while Huckleberry Finn will be in print 500 years from now. At worst they are novelties for the completest Twain fan.

It gets a little dicier with David Foster Wallace who had two manuscripts for a novel when he hung himself. His editor has no idea which one Wallace preferred, so they're just going to run with one. Similarly, Vladimir Nabokov's novel The Original of Laura was left in manuscript form to his family when he died with the strict (and strange) instruction from the author to burn it after his death. By no means did he want it to ever be published. Guess what's being published this fall? Not to be too harsh to Nabokov, but, in my opinion, you lose your vote by dying. History will cull the material. The crap will fade into obscurity while the gold will remain.
One of the more exciting ones for me is Carl Jung's, The Red Book, to be published next month. It is his journal of his waking hallucinations from a part of his life when he was having hallucinations. It's been in a safe deposit box for a century and his family has greeted any suggestion of publication with downright hostility. Until now. By a lot of accounts I've been reading, it looks like it very well may end up being an instant classic and a key work in the field of psychology, as well as a smashing good read. I would be planning to camp out in front of Barnes and Noble were it not $105. Thank you very much, Norton, but I've been waiting 100 years, I think I can wait a few more for the Penguin Classics edition.

Currently, I'm reading a collection of interviews of Truman Capote. When Capote died he had published in magazines three parts of a supposed larger work called Answered Prayers. After he died the manuscript still hasn't shown up aside from those fragments to this day. There are various stories from the end of his life. One is that he left it in a cab. One is that a lover of his stole the manuscript. One is that he threw it in the fire, as we know for sure he did with another of his mid-period complete manuscripts. One is that he never finished it beyond the three fragments, and, indeed, some of his statements back this up, while some statements of his claim that it was completed. Added to the mix is that the man spent the last 15 years of his life drunk about 23 hours a day, so his testimony is suspect.

The fragments of Answered Prayers have been published anyway (for quite some time now) and they are amazing. It is like Schubert's Unfinished Symphony. It is a classic in itself; but one aches to know that once there was probably more to it. There is still hope though. Lost literary manuscripts are sometimes found and sometimes wonderful. Sometimes they are awful. But, again, I think there's nothing wrong with publishing them. Time and the people will decide if they endure. Besides all that, indulge the curious, a wonderful group whose ranks I am proud to be a part of.

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