July 2nd, 2010
There’s a certain intimacy and gravity that accompanies a read of an author’s last work. The finality lends itself to fascinating questions like, Did he know this would be his last written thought? Or if the manuscript was not yet completed, Would she have wanted people to read this?
For some, books have been written with the purpose of outliving their authors. Think of Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture, a book written by a man dying of pancreatic cancer who wanted to leave a legacy of a life lived abundantly. Or consider Anne Frank’s poignant diary about her struggle to live secretly during WWII. These books leave lasting impressions because we understand the weight of their words.
Other authors did not intend to have their works published, the most famous example being our favorite American recluse, Emily Dickinson. Her sister burned most of her works, per her request, but the notebooks that remained have become overwhelmingly influential and popular since their discovery.
It’s fascinating to read a book that was left unfinished. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon drops off mid-story, and Robert Ludlum’s The Tristan Betrayal was simply an outline before he passed, the actual content written by a ghostwriter. Pulitzer Prize-winning A Death in the Family by James Agee was almost complete.
Recently we’ve seen several books rise to enormous popularity after their respective authors have died. Stieg Larsson died in 2004 but became the second best-selling author in the world in 2008. His Millennium Trilogy (starting with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) remains a sensation. Just last year, E. Lynn Harris died before his book Mama Dearest was published. And Michael Crichton died of cancer in 2008, but his book Pirate Latitudes was released late 2009. Interestingly, Crichton was included on Forbes’ “Top Earning Dead Celebrities” list that year (others included Michael Jackson, Einstein, Hendrix, Tolkien, Lennon, Warhol, and Elvis).
Without the persistence of family members, friends, and agents, we may have never learned about some literary gems. John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces won a Pulitzer.
Take a peek at this list of other books published posthumously. You might be surprised by what you see!
Weigh in on this issue: Do you think it’s acceptable to publish books after an author has died, particularly if the manuscript was unfinished?