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‘Like Opening a Tomb Sealed for Centuries’: Lost Literary Manuscripts

Read Monday, 23 Feb 2015

The discovery and imminent publication of Harper Lee’s lost book, Go Set a Watchman – written (and rejected) before the classic To Kill a Mockingbird – generated widespread speculation about the author’s ability to consent. But the frenzied publicity around the book is part of a long tradition of fervour around famous lost works, writes Andrew Nette.

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There’s something irresistible about the search for – and discovery of – a famous lost literary manuscript. 

American publisher Charles Ardai spent years hunting for The Cocktail Waitress, the rumoured final novel of mystery writer James M Cain. Ardai wrote about the time he thought he’d found the book, one of many false starts, ‘as feeling like a scene out of a Spielberg picture, like opening a tomb sealed for centuries and seeing the Lost Ark peeking out at me’. 

Cover image: The Cocktail Waitress, James M. Cain's lost novel

Cain, who wrote The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, worked on The Cocktail Waitress until his death at the age of eighty-five, after which the manuscript disappeared along with the rest of his voluminous papers. Ardai tracked down numerous leads, including searching the Library of Congress—where nearly a hundred boxes of Cain’s paper were stored —before managing to locate the manuscript through his agent, who had inherited the practice of an old-time agent who’d once had Cain as a client.

If the global reaction to the discovery of Go Set a Watchman—the lost manuscript of To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee—is anything to go by, many people share Ardai’s fascination with lost literary manuscripts.

To describe To Kill a Mockingbird as an iconic book is an understatement. It has sold 40 million copies since its first publication in 1960, earned Lee the Pulitzer for fiction in 1961 and Gregory Peck a Best Actor Oscar for his role as Atticus Finch in the 1962 film version (one of three Oscars the film won that year). In 2007, Lee was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, with then President George W. Bush saying the book had ‘influenced the character of our country for the better’.

Image: Harper Lee receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007
Harper Lee receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush, who describes To Kill a Mockingbird as ‘a gift to the entire world’ and ‘a model of good writing and humane sensibility’ (Eric Carter/White House)

Set in the fictitious southern US town of Maycomb during the Great Depression, the story is narrated by a young girl, Scout Finch, and describes the events following her lawyer father’s decision to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman. It was a perceptive take on race, class and gender which directly tapped into the zeitgeist of early sixties America, the building revulsion over the treatment of the black population in the South and the transformation of the civil rights movement into a major national force. 

I read To Kill a Mockingbird in secondary school and, even now, can remember how different it felt to the diet of turgid classics we were force fed, in what seemed an almost calculated strategy to turn us off reading. I also saw the film—most memorable for the performance of Peck, in real life a leading Hollywood supporter of the peace and civil rights movements, who seemed like a living embodiment of Atticus Finch.

So the discovery of Lee’s other book is a cause for celebration on the part of everyone concerned. Right?

Well, not everybody. 

While Lee has never been a recluse, as some in the media have described her, she is notoriously publicity shy. After the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, she helped her childhood friend Truman Capote research his 1966 non-fiction work In Cold Blood, then retreated from public literary life. She was also, like many writers, unsure of her talent. One story goes that, at one point, she was so frustrated with the manuscript of To Kill a Mockingbird that she threw it out the window, only retrieving it after being directed to do so by her agent. 

Image: Harper Lee with childhood friend Truman Capote
Childhood friends: Truman Capote and Harper Lee

No one is suggesting Go Set a Watchman is not the genuine article, a concern that has sometimes accompanied the discovery of lost manuscripts, especially since the infamous Hitler Diaries scandal in 1983. The diaries, supposedly smuggled out of East Germany after being found in a consignment of documents recovered from an aircraft crash near Dresden in April 1945, were shown to be fake … but only was after the West German news magazine Stern had paid US$3.8 million for the volumes, and published excerpts from them.

Yet other questions have been raised in relation to Go Set a Watchman in particular, whether Lee ever wanted the manuscript, written before To Kill a Mockingbird, to be published, especially given she held the work as such a closely guarded secret for most of her life. 

A 3 February statement by HarperCollins, who will publish the book in mid-2015, quoted Lee as saying: ‘I hadn’t realised it had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it. After much thought and hesitation I shared it with a handful of people I trust and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.’

Eighty-eight years old, Lee was reportedly left deaf and near blind after a stroke in 2007, and lives in supported care in Monroeville, Alabama. This has led some to speculate that the author may not be in a fit state to understand what she is doing.

‘It’s apparent she never wanted this to be done, because she would have done it earlier,’ a US TV station quoted an anonymous Monroeville local as saying in response to book’s discovery. ‘Be suspicious of the new Harper Lee Novel’, ran the headline of one of numerous online articles questioning the news.

Aspiring authors are often told there is usually a good reason why their first book is never published. Given the sacrosanct nature of To Kill a Mockingbird, what happens if its sequel turns out to be an inferior work?

Those who doubt Lee is acting of her own volition blame Carter, who was given power of attorney by the ailing author after the death of her sister Alice Lee, who had previously managed the writer’s affairs. The timing of the publishing deal, two and a half months after the death of her sister, is viewed by some as suspicious.

Critics also accuse Carter of being behind two lawsuits on behalf of Lee, both of which were settled out of court. The first was against the son-in-law of the writer’s long-time agent, whom she accused of duping her into signing over copyright for To Kill a Mockingbird. The second was against the small, not for profit Monroeville local museum, which the lawsuit accused of exploiting her fame and the prestige of her book without offering compensation.

In response to the controversy over Go Set a Watchman, Carter released a statement in which she attributed Lee as saying she was ‘alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions to Watchman’.

According to HarperCollins, Go Set a Watchman is ‘set during the mid-1950s and features many of the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird some twenty years later. Scout has returned to Maycomb from New York to visit her father, Atticus. She is forced to grapple with issues both personal and political as she tries to understand her father’s attitude toward society, and her own feelings about the place where she was born and spent her childhood.’

Image: Harper Lee, circa 1962
Harper Lee, circa 1962

‘Even if it is not the read we thought it would be, at this point do we really care?’

It is a testament to the ongoing importance of To Kill a Mockingbird that over fifty years since its publication, people are so interested in a sequel. ‘We can close the book on the best selling novel of 2015 right now,’ a representative of Foyles booksellers in London told the Guardian newspaper. 

But, sales aside, Go Set a Watchman raises an important question. Aspiring authors are often told there is usually a good reason why their first book is never published. Given the sacrosanct nature of To Kill a Mockingbird, what happens if its sequel turns out to be an inferior work?

‘Even if it is not the read we thought it would be, at this point do we really care?’ said Melinda Byrd Murphy, director of the Alabama Centre for Literary Arts.

‘A big part of the fascination with Go Set A Watchman is not just the chance to hear from beloved characters like Scout and Atticus again,’ wrote Los Angeles Times book critic David L Ulin. ‘It has to do with what it might tell us about To Kill a Mockingbird, how one novel grew out of another, the process by which the classic work was made.’

Therein lies perhaps the key fascination with lost literary manuscripts. Not only do they offer a touch of mystery; they are a glimpse into a different reality and sequence of events relating to an author’s work and development.

Image: Herman Melville
Rejected … maybe: Herman Melville is rumoured to have written an eighth book, Isle of the Cross, which has never been found

How differently might we regard Sylvia Plath if the lost novel she had reportedly almost completed at the time of her 1963 suicide were found? Walter Benjamin purportedly had a completed manuscript in his suitcase when he fled the Nazis. He committed suicide a few weeks later, and nobody knows what happened to the case. Closer to home, Deirdre Cash—author of the Australian classic The Delinquents—is supposed to have completed a third novel, The House With The Golden Door, but according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, ‘the manuscript mysteriously disappeared’.

On visiting Paris’ Ritz Hotel in 1956, Ernest Hemingway was alerted by staff that he had left two trunks in storage at the hotel since a visit in the 1920s. In them, he found lost manuscripts and notes that would eventually form a large chunk of his 1964 autobiography, A Moveable Feast.

Andrew Nette is a Melbourne-based writer and reviewer. On Twitter, he’s @Pulpcurry. Read more of his work at Pulp Curry, or on this website.

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