Hemingway’s was stolen on a train.
Melville’s was last seen in his publisher’s office.
And Shakespeare’s was last viewed by a king.
Stories and tales about the lost ones—non-extant books by great authors—populate the halls of literary history.
Lost but not forgotten, these books are just as important to the story of Western literature as the ones that have survived.
Remembering the lost ones adds an extra layer of meaning to the books we value. And speculating about them based on the works that remain with us only raises expectations as to what their contribution to literature might have been.
If only Hadley Hemingway had better safeguarded Ernest’s handwritten manuscripts, his WWI novel may have seen the light of day. The suitcase that contained the partially completed novel as well as several short stories was stolen on a train from Paris to Switzerland. It was a costly loss for Hadley; Hemingway allegedly divorced her in reaction to the missing manuscripts.
If only Harper and Brothers had not rejected Herman Melville’s manuscript The Isle of the Cross, we would have his tale of a lighthouse-keeper’s daughter who saved and married a shipwrecked sailor—only to be abandoned by him. While the publisher’s reason for rejecting the manuscript is unknown, there is speculation that Isle, which was based on a true story, opened Harper’s to criminal libel if the original persons in Melville’s characterizations had been recognized.
There are of course many more if only claims to American letters—some touched with more mystery and conspiracy than others.
For example, there is the novel Sylvia Plath was working on just before her suicide, and the journals destroyed after her death by her husband, Ted Hughes. While we know by his own admission that Hughes destroyed Plath’s last two journals, the fate of her novel is not known. Thirty years after her death, Hughes commented that he was aware of “sixty, seventy pages, which disappeared,” and that “he always assumed her mother took them all, on one of her visits.”
If only Plath’s final novel and journals had remained, how would they add to her literary legacy and speak to her estranged relationship with Hughes?
There are lost works that would not only rewrite their author’s legacy, but also significantly rewrite literary history.
If only Shakespeare’s Cardenio had survived, we would have a direct connection between the greatest writer in the English language and the greatest writer in the Spanish language.
Cardenio was a character from Cervantes’s Don Quixote upon which the Bard and his collaborator, John Fletcher, wrote an entire play. Performed in May of 1613 for King James I, Cardenio appeared just a year or so after the English translation of Quixote, a translation that would have been available to Shakespeare.
Entire possible literary worlds form around lost ones like Cardenio.
What is the shape of a literary world where Shakespeare interacts with Cervantes? Where Shakespearian drama meets the origins of the modern novel?
These missing connections are fertile ground for the imagination. In some ways, it is almost fitting that such a perfect union in literature is not available to us.
Our expectations in all likelihood would probably have exceeded the result.
It is better to tempt our literary imaginations with the possibilities for their narrative union than to actually have them before us. The hypothetical narrative imagination is a powerful one.
Recall Borges’s own engagement with Miguel de Cervantes in “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” (1939). “Pierre Menard did not want to compose another Quixote, which is surely easy enough,” writes Borges, “he wanted to compose the Quixote.” Might the same be said of Shakespeare? Did he too want to compose the Quixote in Cardenio?
And then there are the found ones. The recently discovered manuscript by Jamaican-American writer and poet Claude McKay, “Amiable With Big Teeth,” was never lost because no one knew it even existed. Though research after the discovery of McKay’s “Amiable” manuscript verified that he was working on a novel after 1940, the work...