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Dead Letters: Posthumous Publication

Updated on March 2, 2012

I am fitfully working my way through J. R. R. Tolkien's The Children of Hurin . When I was young, I flew through The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings . I have periodically re-read both over the years, most recently The Hobbit with my son. I am not sure why I am bothering with Hurin . It was, after all, never meant for publication. It belongs to that body of source papers and notes that Tolkien left in his son's hands after his death, and that his son has periodically edited to his profit. These posthumous works are not up to the standard established by those released during Tolkien's lifetime, and I do not suppose the author meant them to be published for popular consumption at all. They were exercises, often pedantic, for the author's mind, part of his creation of a world, pieces of the setting for those books many of us know so well. Their value to readers is questionable. Their value to the author is not.

Before he died, Charles Dickens held a great bonfire in which he burned his papers. We may continue to receive new biographies of Dickens, but his works are complete as they are, with no mysterious manuscripts waiting for an editorial hand waiting in the wings. The last word we have from Mr. Dickens is his unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood , which is not a posthumous publication, but an arrested one, so that readers may speculate and finish the mystery in their own minds. However, the reader may be assured that what he reads of Dickens is that which the author intended him to read, that the works he knows do not preserve mis-steps and orphaned manuscripts the author did not intend to share.

It is difficult for new authors to receive a hearing. However, the authors we know are repackaged and pillaged after their deaths, their desks and wastebaskets raided for snips and fragments, that are then sold to us as complete works or as keys to their creativity and production. The reader is made to feel privileged, snooping on the author's process and perusing his litter. But, did the author mean for us to read any of this? If an author left a story unfinished, or abandoned it, leaving it in a file of things that did not quite work out, but in which a seed for later use might remain hidden, is that orphaned, abandoned wreck truly of interest or value to readers in general? I can see how such items might be of interest to academics, but, let's be honest, academics do not read the same way we do, nor is research and analysis the same activity as reading for enjoyment, although we use the same eyes and portions of the same brain for both. I have no ambitions to write a paper on Tolkien's mythology, linguistics of Middle Earth, or anything of that nature. I read Tolkien for a tale, and that is all.

That said, I still occasionally find myself picking up one of Christopher Tolkien's productions, his profitable arrangements of his father's notes. In part, it is an exercise in frustrated optimism. I keep looking for the joy I found in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in new texts, even as I recognize this is extremely unlikely. If J. R. R. thought his papers and notes were worthy of publication, would he not have published them? He did not, and so I conclude that in his judgment they were not the stuff of popular literature. Their structure and themes, the way in which he deploys the tropes and styles of ancient epic and romance, indicate the process by which he created a world that he could believe in, and thus he was able to make others believe in it, too, but they also reveal a mind that was every inch academic, every inch pedantic, requiring more information than the reader will ever need in order for that construction to live for him. We readers, more people of faith than of reason in this, do not require as much of the imagined world.

There are rare gems in posthumous discovery. Melville's Billy Budd is a ready example, discovered by his biographer in 1919 and first published in 1924. David Foster Wallace's Pale King, though I have not read it, was published to great acclaim last year, although a lot of this acclaim seems to be linked to his suicide and the theme of the genius-gone-too-soon rather than to the quality of the book itself. Nietzsche's notebooks were edited and organized into The Will To Power , an uneven, but interesting, collection that illustrates the growth, development, and change in his thought and concepts over the course of his writing life. However, these rare gems are few and far between. Most writings that remained unpublished by the author, and for which the author did not seek publication, self-edited out of the writer's ouevre, were left out and abandoned for a reason. They failed the artist's own tests of worth and value. Should we not honor their decision, and let them fall where they lie, subject only to the investigations and attention of academics, who address in their research objects outside of the general reader's interests.

To prevent such plundering, modern authors might want to consider Dickensian fire. If a piece of writing does not work, and you do not relish the idea of having readers poring over it in the future and judging your capacities as an artist based on it, burn it, shred it, erase it. Whatever an author leaves behind becomes the property of his estate, readers, and academics. Those with an interest in shaping their reputation beyond their lifetimes would do well to think of what they leave behind. And what they create in the moment today. In a world of electronic correspondence, and the memory capacity of modern e-mail servers, and the social worlds of Facebook and other such sites, the transient communication becomes a permanent liability and testimony to the writer's character, perception, and beliefs.


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