With all the talk these days about the late-in-her-life publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, I got to thinking about well-known novels that came out after the authors died. There are more of them than one might think.
Some posthumous books are released unfinished, while in some cases other writers are hired to complete the works. Then there are 100%-done novels that hadn’t yet reached the market when death came knocking for the authors.
Do posthumous books have anything in common? Not necessarily. Some are early-career efforts, with later author renown finally spurring the novels’ after-death publication. Other books are the last works of aging writers, and thus perhaps not the peak efforts of their careers. But most posthumous novels evoke a certain reader fascination, whether it involves lamenting that the authors aren’t around to enjoy the fruits of their labors or wondering if the books would have been better off staying in a desk drawer or computer file.
I’ll start with two authors who had summer births or deaths. The Aug. 1, 1819-born Herman Melville worked for years as an obscure customs inspector after his writing career foundered on meager sales of the critically blasted Moby-Dick and Pierre. The older Melville did write some (so-so) poetry in his spare time, and also penned much of a novella. That was Billy Budd — undiscovered and unpublished until the 1920s, more than three decades after Melville’s 1891 passing. The success of Billy Budd, along with a belated realization of Moby-Dick‘s masterpiece quality, retrospectively helped Melville join Mark Twain and Nathaniel Hawthorne in the top pantheon of 19th-century American authors.
Then there was England’s Jane Austen, who died on July 18, 1817. But it wasn’t until a number of months later that publication came for two of her six novels: Persuasion (my favorite Austen work) and Northanger Abbey (actually the novel Austen wrote first, from 1798 to 1803). Interestingly, a “Biographical Notice” written by Jane’s brother Henry for those two books was the first time the previously anonymous Austen’s name appeared with her novels.
In the 20th century, the most famous example of a posthumously released novel might be A Confederacy of Dunces. Its author, John Kennedy Toole, committed suicide in 1969 — at least partly out of despair over not being able to get his raucous, hilarious book published. Over the next few years, John’s mother Thelma resolutely tried to remedy that. Finally, with the help of author Walker Percy, A Confederacy of Dunces made it into print in 1980 — and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Even more recently, the page-turning Millennium Trilogy (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, etc.) was published after author Stieg Larsson’s death — and became a mega-seller. A fourth Millennium novel written by a different person is slated to come out later this summer, and the existence of that book just doesn’t seem right. Some Go Set a Watchman-like publisher greed? Yes, when very popular authors die, money grabs can ensue.
Among the most famous unfinished novels published after the authors’ deaths are Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Love of the Last Tycoon (aka The Last Tycoon), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Weir of Hermiston, and Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth. The first two were good/not great Dickens and Fitzgerald works, while Weir of Hermiston was Stevenson’s deepest, most mature book. The book by Ellison — who saw only one novel, the classic Invisible Man, released during his lifetime — was a condensed version of a very long, unpublished manuscript.
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote only one novel, but the posthumously released The Leopard is exquisitely written. The book was finished when di Lampedusa died in 1957, before a publisher was found.
Sometimes, novels are published long after an author’s death. One example is Alexandre Dumas’ unfinished The Last Cavalier, which was discovered in serial form in a periodical more than 125 years after Dumas’ 1870 death. Parts of it are among The Count of Monte Cristo author’s best writing.
Also many years after the author’s death, Jack London’s The Assassination Bureau was completed by another author. London’s section of the book is of course better, but still doesn’t come close to matching his top efforts (The Call of the Wild, etc.) released when he was alive.
Then there’s Maurice, which wasn’t published until after E.M. Forster’s 1970 death because of that novel’s then-controversial focus on same-sex love.
Outside the novel realm, the most famous example of posthumous publication could very well be the stellar poems of Emily Dickinson.
What are your favorite works (ones I’ve mentioned or not mentioned) published after their writers’ deaths? Also, you’re welcome to discuss the pros and cons of posthumous publication.
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