Discovering manuscripts: New dilemmas meet old solutions

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The recent discovery of 10 lost plays by the beloved mystery writer Agatha Christie highlights a lucrative trend in the publishing world. In this year alone, a host of “newly discovered” writings by J.R.R. Tolkien, Harper Lee, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Dr. Seuss have enjoyed considerable commercial success. With each case, the same questions arise: how do we discern, and to what extent do we honor the wishes of the author when reproducing the work? Does the public have a right to see these works? Should publishers exercise creative editing to complete unfinished manuscripts?

As ravenous consumers of our favorite authors, it is easy to be blind to the finer ethical points. Yet would any of us feel comfortable having the creative output of our college days published for the entire world to see and inevitably compared to our more mature work, as in the recent case of Tolkien’s The Story of Kullervo? The publication of Go Set A Watchman is a case in point: Initial hype soon gave way to disappointment.

Still, I share the inquisitiveness of many literary fans and favor granting access to early works. I realize, of course, that taking such liberties comes at a price. While Lee’s Go Set a Watchman is set several years after the memorable events in To Kill a Mockingbird, it is nevertheless a product of Lee’s first (and unsuccessful) attempt at a novel. The reader may know this fact in theory, but our collective memory of Mockingbird’s hero, Atticus Finch, is nevertheless challenged when our image of him as a lawyer committed to giving a black man a fair trial is replaced by the knowledge that, at least in Lee’s initial vision, Atticus is revealed to be a segregationist opposed to the ruling of Brown v. Board of Education.

Authors leaving behind sizeable amounts of unfinished work is hardly a new phenomenon. Libraries have been the traditional repositories for the papers of luminaries, usually willed to them by the authors themselves or donated by surviving family members. For instance, John Quincy Adams started the tradition of preserving presidential collections when he provided funds in his will for the Stone Library on his family’s property. Another example is the Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, which houses the personal papers of its famous alumna, Emily Dickenson.

Writing is a process, and we can gain insight into an author through the marginalia and annotations noted on original manuscripts, even if they were eventually discarded. But we must be careful about stretching what may have been fleeting thoughts into a fully reconstituted oeuvre. The risk is passing off a mere collection of notes into a primed and ready hardback and disappointing an eager audience. Books such as Dr. Seuss’ “latest” What Pet Shall We Get sidestep this quandary by including an epilogue that tracks the development of Seuss’ creative process and the discovery of the manuscript.

In the wake of this latest publishing trend, this is a good time to reconsider the unique qualities of libraries as sources of free and direct access to authors’ papers. We must consider, however, that these papers will sometimes contain more biographical than literary merits. Indeed, some of this year’s literary “discoveries” were possible because of the availability of archival collections to the interested individuals.

For example, Agatha Christie’s “new” plays were unearthed by a theater producer, Julius Green, who was conducting research on the theatrical collections of the Christie Archive Trust. The plays are now available in Green’s recently published book, Curtain Up: Agatha Christie: A life in the Theatre (Harper Collins). F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1939 short story “Temperature” was recently published in The Strand Magazine after it was discovered at Princeton University’s Rare Books and Special Collections Library by Andrew Gully, the magazine’s editor.

In both cases, the publication was authorized by the author’s estate. By making authors’ papers available to the public, estate guardians can demonstrate that they are not motivated by greed, but are truly concerned for their writers’ legacies and the literary public’s edification.

While their physical location can be an obvious impediment for research, many archives are responding by digitizing their rare book collections. The Harvard Library, for example, is currently in the process of digitizing its collection of 400 million manuscript items, which will be freely available in their database. The efforts of libraries to digitize their archives will no doubt lead to even more discoveries.

The author is dead. Long live the author.