Books and Bodies: On Organs and Literary Estates


Arts & Culture

The New Yorker made headlines this month by publishing “new” work by F. Scott Fitzgerald. “Thank You for the Light” had been rejected by the magazine in 1936 when Fitzgerald first submitted it, but editorial judgments—like love, pain, and kitchen knives—have a way of dulling over time.

“We’re afraid that this Fitzgerald story is altogether out of the question,” read the original note spurning the story. “It seems to us so curious and so unlike the kind of thing we associate with him, and really too fantastic.”

Resubmitted by Fitzgerald’s grandchildren, “Thank You for the Light” was, at least by Fitzgerald’s own standards, ready for publication. Its condition differs greatly from his final work, tentatively titled The Love of the Last Tycoon but published as The Last Tycoon in 1941. Fitzgerald died of a heart attack before he could finish the novel, so what went to press was a version of his incomplete draft, notes, and outlines pieced together by the literary critic Edmund Wilson. In his preface to the novel, Wilson wrote, “It has been possible to supplement this unfinished draft with an outline of the rest of the story as Fitzgerald intended to develop it.”

Authorial intent, ever so difficult to divine, is usually at the center of posthumous publishing controversies. But the intentions of the author rarely influence the outcome of these conflicts. In this sense, organ donation provides an apt analogy for posthumous publishing, which presumes to take into account the wishes of dead authors, but involves a similarly complex set of actors. If only having one’s wishes carried out were as easy as checking a box or submitting a form.

Donation laws vary widely in the United States, with some jurisdictions tending to place the desires of the survivors over the deceased and others attempting to meet the shortage of organs by superseding the wishes of patients. Many European countries—including Austria, Spain, and most recently Wales—have an opt-out scheme that assumes consent, while Australia requires the consent of surviving family members even if the deceased had declared their desire to donate. When it comes to organ donations, the wishes of the deceased are only one part of the complicated matrix that determines whether organs are actually harvested. The same is true for authors who leave behind work, finished or unfinished, public or private. Books, like bodies, are not always the property of their originators.

Four famous cases might be said to form the contours of the posthumous publishing landscape, though the last few years have seen a proliferation of novels published after the deaths of their authors: Vladimir Nabokov’s The Original of Laura, Ralph Ellison’s Three Days Before the Shooting , and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. This fall’s publishing calendar is no exception, featuring “new” titles by Roberto Bolaño, Christopher Hitchens, and Foster Wallace.

Perhaps the best-known case study for the posthumous life of literary texts is the work of Franz Kafka. When Kafka died in 1924, from complications caused by tuberculosis, he left his literary estate to writer Max Brod with specific instructions for all of his work “to be burned unread.” Although Kafka had published only a few stories in his lifetime, Brod chose instead to publish, one after another, the novels that Kafka had left behind: The Trial in 1925, The Castle in 1926, and Amerika in 1927. Brod saw his violation of Kafka’s wishes as the preservation of literary masterpieces in keeping with the posthumous publication of Virgil’s Aeneid and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Just a decade after Kafka’s death, Thomas Wolfe left hundreds of manuscript pages with his editor in New York before taking off for a tour of the American West. Having parted ways with the famous Maxwell Perkins at Scribner’s (who edited the likes of Hemingway and Fitzgerald), Wolfe entrusted more than a million words of unfinished writing to his new editor, Edward Aswell, at Harper. During his travels, Wolfe contracted pneumonia and, while hospitalized, was diagnosed with miliary tuberculosis. He died less than two months later, leaving Aswell with a monstrous manuscript that the editor spent years whittling into two novels and a collection of short stories: The Web and the Rock, You Can’t Go Home Again, and The Hills Beyond. Aswell wrote that “studying the mass of [Wolfe’s] manuscript was something like excavating the site of ancient Troy.”

Yet the archeologist’s self-praise was quickly criticized by scholars. John Halberstadt wrote in The Yale Review that by cutting chapters, writing seams for meshed sections, and renaming as well as combining characters, Aswell did more than simply remove words or add commas. A true controversy ensued when Halberstadt lost his research privileges at Harvard’s Houghton Library for violating an agreement with the Wolfe Estate. An article in the New York Times described how “the sedate world of academic research and publication has been rocked by a controversy growing out of an iconoclastic article about the novelist Thomas Wolfe.” A rowdy back-and-forth between Halberstadt and one of Aswell’s defenders took place in the letters pages of The New York Review of Books under the heading “Crying Wolfe.”

The Wolfe standoff is not unique. Controversy occurs whenever the wishes of the deceased blend with the demands of the reading public or the pressures of the publishing world. Three years before his death, Ernest Hemingway placed a letter in his library safe stating, “It is my wish that none of the letters written by me during my lifetime should be published.” Yet by 1976, his widow, Mary Welsh Hemingway, was already quoting those letters in her memoir, How It Was. In 1981, only two decades after her husband’s violent suicide, she allowed the publication of six hundred letters in Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters, 1917–1961.

In the years since Hemingway’s death, a succession of his works has been published: A Moveable Feast, Islands in the Stream , The Nick Adams Stories , The Dangerous Summer, and The Garden of Eden. These publications passed without much notice, but when Hemingway’s son Patrick published True at First Light under his father’s name in 1999, the literary establishment raised its hackles. Fans and critics alike were outraged by the bowdlerized version of Hemingway’s last unfinished work. Joan Didion entered the fray with an essay for The New Yorker expressing her disapproval of Patrick’s effort and the larger publishing scheme that violated authorial rights by sending unfinished works to press. It is difficult to know what Hemingway would have made of the feud over his Africa manuscript, though after learning that his friend Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel The Last Tycoon was to be published, Hemingway wrote to his editor, “It is damned hard on Scott to publish something unfinished any way you look at it, but I suppose the worms won’t mind.”

Novelists are not the only ones to have their oeuvres amended after death. Twenty-seven years after Elizabeth Bishop’s death, a new book of her poetry appeared. Literary critic Helen Vendler’s review of it for The New Republic appeared under the headline “Betraying Elizabeth Bishop.” Vendler represented the scholarly camp that argued that Bishop was so stubborn a perfectionist that she would never have allowed any drafts or fragments to see the light of day. Remembering her friend Robert Lowell’s fawning account of Bishop’s painstaking process (“Do / you still hang your words in the air, ten years / unfinished, glued to your notice board, with gaps or empties for the unimaginable phrase”), Vendler summarizes the problem of posthumous publishing: If Bishop would not have published these poems in life, then why should her reputation be subjected to their publication now?

Alice Quinn, the former New Yorker poetry editor who assembled the volume of Bishop’s writing, provided one possible answer in her introduction to the collection, asserting that “all of it [is] work that for one reason or another [Bishop] chose not to publish but did not destroy.” Quinn echoed Max Brod’s rationale in her justification for the book: Bishop, like Kafka or any author, could have destroyed any work she did not want published; since she did not, any remaining literary product is a candidate for publication.

Which brings us back to that corporeal analogy. For like their literary counterparts, philosophers and legal scholars alike are interested in the rights of the dead. Barbara Levenbook has written convincingly of the possibility for posthumous harm using the logic of murder, while Joan Callahan criticizes this extension of rights, asserting that it is illogical to assume that the dead possess any rights. (Both wrestle with the groundbreaking work of legal philosopher Joel Feinberg, who took great pains to define the potential of harming the dead.) In his essay “The Death of the Author,” Roland Barthes arguement that intention and context have no relevance for critical assessments aligns well with those who, Callahan-like, argue that authors have no say over their works after their deaths. After all, separating works from their authors frees executors and editors from considering the putative preferences of the deceased.

But this kind of theory might prove increasingly unnecessary as archives seek to acquire literary estates while authors are living. Most famous for this strategy is the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center of the University of Texas at Austin, which has already acquired the archives of living South African Nobel Prize–winner J. M. Coetzee as well as living American writers T. C. Boyle, Don DeLillo, and Denis Johnson. This practice is changing everything: in the same way that writers select their own authorized biographers, they are now often inclined to sell their own estates, deciding for themselves what does and does not get published or meet the eye of the scholarly establishment.

No doubt there will always be ample work for archivists, historians, and biographers. But absent unexpected deaths, writers will likely see to their posthumous reputations themselves: selling off whatever will remain after their deaths long before they die. As unsentimental and straightforward a transaction as checking a box on a license.

Casey N. Cep is a writer from the eastern shore of Maryland. Most recently, she wrote for the Daily on mollusks in literature.