Humankind has a rich history of literature and words on the page. We have put our thoughts to paper since our kind first learned how to write things down, and throughout history we have filled libraries with our stories and musings, often producing irreplaceable works of pure genius that shine like proud beacons. Yet for as vast as our history of writing is, there are areas that have dark blanks and blurry spots, voids where something great should be but which isn’t. These are the tales that could have been, stories and essays from some of our greatest literary minds and thinkers which have for one reason or another evaporated from the face of the earth, leaving us all the poorer for it and wondering where they have gone. Here are the stories of what could have been; the lost literary children of some of our best.
Cases of lost literary works from well-known writers go back centuries, and perhaps one of the earliest has to do with the world renowned work of William Shakespeare (1564-1616). One of the most celebrated and talked about authors and playwrights of all time, Shakespeare has had numerous popular works that have been performed up into the modern era, yet perhaps most intriguing is what could have been. One such lost work is titled Love’s Labours Won, for which no copies survive and whose fate remains uncertain. More famous is the lost work Cardenio. The work was apparently performed in May of 1613 by the company the King’s Men for King James I, but after that its fate remains unknown, and it has become lost in the tides of time.
The play was written by both Shakespeare and collaborator John Fletcher, and is thought to have been based on the writings of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, involving a similar character named Cardenio, but other than that not much is known about it. The original manuscript and the contents of the play have remained lost to us, and despite attempts to recreate it we will never know just what piece of unseen brilliance this well-known writer produced. Some believe the lost work may have even been one of the author’s finest masterpieces, but we will probably never know. The apparent loss is fairly profound, with novelist Stephen Marche musing:
Never mind that we would have an entirely new play by Shakespeare to watch, the work would be a direct link between the founder of the modern novel and the greatest playwright of all time, a connection between the Spanish and British literary traditions at their sources, and a meeting of the grandest expressions of competing colonial powers. If ‘Cardenio’ existed, it would redefine the concept of comparative literature.
In later years came the English novelist Jane Austen (1755-1817), mostly known for her beloved classics Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1815), and who has achieved wide acclaim in the world of literature. Yet as famous as she would end up becoming, this is somewhat overshadowed by talk of what could have been. Upon her death in 1817, Austen left behind 11 chapters of a novel in progress called Sandition, which ends suddenly without any conclusion. If there is any hint that this unfinished novel ever got any further along then it is unknown, and what this story could have been or how it might end have been lost to history.
In the latter 1800s, we have the great American author Herman Melville, most well-known for his classic novel Moby Dick. In 1852, Melville took a trip to Nantucket and got an idea for a story about the daughter of a lighthouse keeper who is saved by a shipwrecked sailor, often cited as the inspiration for the story titled The Isle of the Cross, which would be turned down by the publisher Harper & Brothers in 1853. Although there is great interest in what this lost novel had up its sleeve, it has vanished into thin air, and no known copies exist.
Around the same era was the American writer Lyman Frank Baum (1856-1919), most recognizable for his children’s books, most notably The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the series it spawned, which would span 14 novels. The prolific Baum also wrote adult books, and it is four of these that have seemingly disappeared into the ether. The unpublished Our Married Life, Johnson, The Mystery of Bonita, and Molly Oodle all have vanished without a trace, and it has often been theorized that his wife had them all burned, but no one really knows what became of them.
Another classic author in the literary scene is Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), mostly known to the masses for his works Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and A Child’s Garden of Verses. Yet one of his finest novels may have been one that has never fully come to light at all. One evening it is said that Stevenson’s wife, Fanny Stevenson, woke up in the dead of night, upon which the author admonished her for interrupting him in the middle of an epiphany. The next day, Stevenson sat down to feverishly begin banging out the foundations of what would become his classic tale Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the first draft to his iconic and beloved masterpiece.
When Stevenson’s wife Fanny read it, she was allegedly quite unhappy with it, complaining that it was poorly written and not enough of a moral allegory. Whatever she actually said to him is unknown, but it effects sure are. Stevenson apparently took the criticism so harshly that he got rid of the draft and started fresh from scratch, obsessively churning out an incredible 30,000 words of the novel in just 3 days and quite possibly on drugs, and this new version was published in 1886. To this day it is unknown just what he did with that original draft, whether he really destroyed it or not, or how different it would have been from the beloved classic we know today. Interestingly, a letter from Fanny Stevenson was found in 2000 dated 1885, which described the rumored first draft as “a quire full of utter nonsense. I shall burn it after I show it to you.” Despite this harsh criticism, we will never know just how it would have turned out.
While Stevenson’s novel was published, albeit in a different form, the same cannot be said about the potential lost masterpiece by Polish Jewish writer Bruno Schulz (1892-1942). Widely regarded as one of the greatest Polish writers of all time and winner of the Golden Laurel award from the Polish Academy of Literature, a good amount of Schulz’s work was lost during World War II, either destroyed or entrusted to friends who faded into history, but perhaps none as infamously as his last great novel, The Messiah.
Before Schulz was gunned down by a Nazi soldier while returning home to Drohobycz Ghetto in 1942, he had been hard at work since 1934 penning his final novel, yet just what became of it after his death is unknown. Some intriguing clues have popped up over the years as to its whereabouts, but a series of freak occurrences have kept these leads from ever getting anywhere, to the point where it almost seems like the book is under a sinister curse. Literature scholar and Schulz’s biographer, Jerzy Ficowski, spent years trying to track down The Messiah, and on two occasions got remarkably close. In 1987, Schulz’s nephew contacted Ficowski and claimed that a package containing his uncle’s work had been located, but before this lead could be followed through with the nephew died suddenly of a massive cerebral hemorrhage. Then, in 1990 Ficowski was approached by Swedish Ambassador to Poland Jean Christophe Öberg, who claimed that the book had been located by a Soviet civil servant in a dusty old Gestapo file held by the KGB, but the ambassador died of cancer before any more information could be obtained. To this day no one is sure just what happened to The Messiah, what is was about, or whether it still exists or not.
World War II claimed other famous works as well, and another elusive manuscript lost during this tumultuous era was by the German Jewish philosopher, writer, and social critic Walter Benjamin, who made great contributions to many varied fields, including German idealism, Romanticism, Western Marxism, Jewish mysticism, aesthetic theory, literary criticism, and historical materialism, with his essays The Task of the Translator (1923), The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936), and Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940) in particular still held in high esteem to this day.
In 1940, Benjamin fled his home in Paris in the wake of the relentless Nazi invasion and made his way to the border between France and Spain, which he crossed over to the coastal town of Portbou, in Catalonia with the ultimate goal of eventually reaching the United States. However, his dreams were dashed when he was captured by Spanish police and threatened with being sent back to France, and Benjamin committed suicide by overdosing on morphine tablets rather than risk facing the Nazis again. Interestingly, traveling companions who had been with Benjamin during his flight reported that he had carried a suitcase with him which he had been very protective of and had claimed held one of his most important manuscripts of all, with the writer reportedly saying at the time:
You must understand that this briefcase is the most important thing to me. I cannot risk losing it. It is the manuscript that must be saved. It is more important than I am.
The thing is, no one is quite sure what happened to this suitcase or just what exactly it contained that was considered so incredibly important. Considering the gravity and influence that most of his work had, there has been intense speculation as to just what this lost manuscript could have been. One of the most prominent theories is that it was the complete version of his unfinished book the Passagenwerk, or Arcades Project, which consisted of a vast tome of notes and research that he had collected over 13 years on Parisian life in the 19th century that was 1,000 pages long and and growing. Although it was eventually published in 1982 in its unfinished form, many think that the full version of this invaluable historical manuscript was lost with that suitcase. However, no one knows just what it was, and despite intense searches for the suitcase and its contents, it has remained elusive and we will probably never know for sure.
Surely one of the greats of American literature is none other than Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), who has held a prominent influence over 20th century fiction and also has his share of mysterious lost works. Although this Nobel Prize in Literature winner has gone on to publish such masterful classics as The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea, among others, his earlier works before he was famous are a little harder to come by, and this is because they have just simply vanished off the face of the earth.
In December of 1922, before he was famous, Hemingway was in Switzerland as a corespondent for the Toronto Daily Star. Another journalist and editor who was there took notice of his work, and requested to see more. Excited and wanting to see her husband succeed, Hemingway’s wife, Elizabeth Hadley Richardson, frantically went about gathering up all of his notes and writings that she could find and packed them up into a suitcase to bring to him. As she was waiting for the train to take her to Switzerland, she reportedly went off for just a moment, leaving the suitcase behind, and when she came back it was nowhere to be seen. It is totally unclear as to what happened to this suitcase and these priceless works it held within, which included an unfinished novel about Hemingway’s experiences in Word War I, but at the time it was just a lost suitcase full of an unknown writer’s ramblings, its significance not appreciated until years later. The only early works that survived this disaster were Up in Michigan, and My Old Man, either because they were out with potential publishers or were well-hidden enough to escape his wife’s attention as she crammed his collected earlier works into that suitcase. Hemingway would lament of the loss:
All that remains of my complete works are three pencil drafts of a bum poem some correspondence and some journalistic carbons.
Amazingly, for his part, Hemingway never bothered to really pursue the matter, as many of the manuscripts at the time he deemed to be rather amateurish, and some had been turned down by potential publishers already. Remember that at the time he was not considered quite the literary genius that he is today, so it is perhaps not surprising that he wouldn’t think much of it at the time. These were not exactly considered priceless works at the time, and it was just a suitcase stuffed with the rambling writings of an amateur. Indeed, Hemingway himself made no attempt whatsoever to try and rewrite what had been lost.
Yet, now that he has gone on to become a Nobel Prize winning author beloved the world over there are perhaps many who would not mind having a look at those early manuscripts, and they would certainly be worth an absolute fortune today. No one knows what happened to this suitcase of Hemingway’s writings or what became of them. Were they stolen, misplaced, perhaps tossed by a thief who opened the luggage to find merely a pile of papers? No one knows, and if they are still out there somewhere then no one has chosen to come forward with them.
Any science fiction fan out there surely knows the name Philip K. Dick (1928-1982). The Hugo Award winning American writer penned such classics as The Man in the High Castle, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Basically Blade Runner for those of you who don’t read much), Ubik, and A Scanner Darkly, and during his career churned out 44 published novels and 121 short stories, mostly science fiction. What many people may not be aware of is that Dick also deviated from his usual fare to dabble in writing straight literary fiction, and he wrote three such books, called A Time for George Stavros (1955), Pilgrim on the Hill (1956), and Nicholas and the Higs (1958).
It is unknown if this was just an experiment or if Dick really had a desire to write literary pieces, and making it harder to tell is that no one has any idea what happened to these books. They have never been published and have seemingly vanished off the face of the earth, with the only evidence of their existence at all being some synopses written on index cards, along with a few comments jotted down by potential publishers. Unfortunately, it seems that one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time did not smoothly make the jump between genres, and some of the criticism from publishers on these mysterious stories is harsh to say the least, with one review of A Time For George Stavros calling it a “long, rambling, glum novel in which nothing much happens.” These books have never been found, leaving anyone who might have wanted to read a literary piece by Dick out of luck, although some of the characters and settings from these lost novels purportedly were recycled into some of his other works.
Philip K. Dick is not the only science fiction author to have had works go missing. Fellow Hugo Award and also Nebula Award winning author Poul William Anderson (1926-2001) wrote a novel called Star Ways, which much to his chagrin was ruthlessly pared down considerably to just 50,000 words from a much longer manuscript by the publisher and released as The Peregrine. It is unknown what became of this cut material or how much it would have changed this novel by one of the all time science fiction greats. None other than Isaac Asimov also had 12 unpublished short stories go missing during the 1930s and 40s which have never been found.
In later years we have the lost work of the Pulitzer Prize winning American poet and author Sylvia Plath (1932-1963). In 1962, Plath was working on a new novel that was to be titled either Double Exposure or Double Take, but by the time she committed suicide in 1963 she had only finished 130 pages of it, leaving it hopelessly incomplete, and it is unclear just what happened to even this little bit after that. Upon Plath’s death, all of her collected unpublished work and her entire estate went to her estranged husband, Ted Hughes, but he claimed in later years that he had only known of 70 pages of the book, and that they had somewhat mysteriously disappeared. He also claimed that Plath’s mother had seen the entire thing and he suspected her of taking it, although he is also known to have burned at least one of Plath’s journals and may have done so with the mysterious lost novel as well. We will probably never know what Plath’s last book was like.
Another book rather mired in mystery is John Kennedy Toole’s divisive masterpiece A Confederacy of Dunces, which was published in 1980 and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981, both after Toole’s death by suicide. The book has a long history almost as strange as its plot, or by some opinions lack thereof. Toole had originally written the books years before, and although it is considered a cult classic today at the time no one wanted to have anything to do with it, and it was turned down by publishers left and right. One of the problems is that publishers just didn’t get it. It was a seemingly pointless, meandering tale about the eccentric main character Ignatius J. Reilly, a Don Quixote-like individual who inhabits the city of New Orleans, Louisiana and gets into little oddball adventures. It all sounds a lot more interesting than it was actually seen as being by potential publishers at the time, who just didn’t think it was understandable or would have any sort of audience, with the famous editor Robert Gottlieb once saying of it:
There is another problem: that with all its wonderfulness, the book … does not have a reason; it’s a brilliant exercise in invention, but … it isn’t really about anything.
Indeed, it was this failure to get the novel off the ground that caused Toole to spiral into depression and ultimately commit suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in 1969. After Toole’s death, his mother, Thelma Toole, went on a veritable crusade to get the book published, but she too was rejected time and time again. She eventually managed to badger the novelist Walker Percy into reading the manuscript, who was initially reluctant but ended up loving it, and it was he who eventually managed to get it put into print. The problem is that it was heavily revised and edited before publication, and no one really knows what happened to Toole’s original, complete version, and it has managed to vanish, the only existing evidence of its existence a photocopied version with handwritten corrections. Where the original manuscript of A Confederacy of Dunces went is anyone’s guess, and it has never been found. We will perhaps never know what Toole’s true vision for it was.
All is not lost for some of these vanished works, and there have been some interesting accounts of previously lost manuscripts turning up in the strangest of places. For instance there is the French author Jules Verne (1828-1905), most famous for his books Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), and Around the World in Eighty Days (1873), and who is the most translated author in the world. One of his unpublished novels, Paris in the 20th Century (1863), was long thought to have been lost in the ruckus of World War II until it turned up in a dusty trunk stashed away in Verne’s garage. There is also Roald Dahl’s lost shorty story The Eyes of Mr. Croaker, which suddenly appeared out of nowhere one day in 2010 on ebay. Science fiction great Robert Heinlein wrote the novel For Us, the Living in 1939 and it was also thought to have been destroyed after being deemed unpublishable and “too racy,” but a photocopy of a photocopy of the original manuscript was found and it was finally belatedly published in 2003.
These particular cases give us some ray of hope that some of the great works mentioned here may be sequestered away in some dusty trunk or filed off in some private collection, archive, or even someone’s basement, put aside and forgotten. Perhaps they will be dredged up at some point from their slumber and cast forth into the world for all to admire as they were meant to be, but for now we are left to wonder just what special things these great authors had that never got a chance to really fly out into the world. One wonders if there are pieces of our literary history or even gaping holes in it that will never be filled because of these mysterious vanishing manuscripts. These are treasures of the mind that have had a peek into the light only to go into hiding, reclusive, evasive, and spurring endless debate and speculation. Wherever they are or whether we will ever know what they contained, these manuscripts represent a sad loss to the collective literary traditions of our planet.