For Chaucer, it was Father Time; for Hem, a careless wife; for Byron, his own infamy. In this first installment of a three-part series, we look at these and other tales of domestic drama, romantic rage, and political persecution that resulted in the loss of great literary treasures.
Acclaimed for his children’s stories, L. Frank Baum also wrote four unpublished and long-vanished adult novels: Our Marred Life and Johnson(1912), The Mystery of Bonita (1914) and Molly Oodle (1915). Baum’s son accused the author’s wife of burning these, but it is speculated that he lied after being cut from her will. However, other Baum works did succumb to fire. In 1880, when he was 24, his father built him a theatre in Richburg, New York; Baum set about writing scripts and gathering an acting company. While he toured the country with his Maid of Arran, the theatre caught fire and many of his scripts burned with it.
Author of The Loss of El Dorado V. S. Naipaul also lost his early manuscripts. He stored them in a London warehouse some time in the 1970s; when his wife went back for them in 1992, she encountered a bunch of unrelated financial records instead. Apparently, the papers had been mistaken for those of a South American company and burnt.
Father of English Literature Geoffrey Chaucer may have lost a child or two. In his famous “Retraction” at the end of The Canterbury Tales, he begs God and readers alike to forgive his “editings of worldly vanities”—among them, a mysterious “Book of the Lion.” In the prologue to “The Legend of Good Women,” he also claims he has translated writings by Pope Innocent and Origen, but none of these works has been found.
Upon his death in 1985, English poet and novelist Philip Larkin requested that his diaries be destroyed. Betty Mackereth, his secretary and one of his three lovers, shredded and then burned all 25 volumes. “He wouldn’t have wanted anyone to find out what he really thought,” she shared in a 2010 interview with the Daily Mail, adding how ruthless Larkin could be in his opinion of people. “That is what he wanted […] I was perfectly happy to destroy his diaries.”
Years before he bid A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway was forced to do the same with his juvenilia. In late 1922, his first wife Hadley made plans to join him at Lausanne, where he was covering the European Peace Conference for the Toronto Daily Star. Editor Lincoln Steffens was also there and had expressed an interest in Hem’s short stories, so Hadley decided to take them all with her for show. Her raid of every nook and shelf in the couple’s apartment was followed by not-so-thorough vigilance of its bounty: As she waited for the train to depart from the Gare de Lyon, her unattended luggage got stolen. “All that remains of my complete works,” wrote a dismayed author to his friend Ezra Pound, “are three pencil drafts of a bum poem […], some correspondence […] and some journalistic carbons.”
Imprisoned for his radical ideas, Socrates used jail time to write verses based on his memory of Aesop’s Fables. (Aesop was a slave and storyteller who lived over 100 years before Socrates was born.) While these tales helped occupy his mind, they couldn’t change his fate: the philosopher was executed, and whatever writing he did in his cell was likely destroyed.
Philip K. Dick has been praised for In Milton Lumky Territory and other works of realism, but his first few stabs at literary fiction were less well received. The plots for three of his “straight fiction” novels survive only as index card synopses and comments from disenchanted publishers. 1955’s A Time for George Stavros was described as a “long, rambling, glum novel” in which “nothing much happens.” Of Pilgrim on the Hill (1956), one editor asked, “WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?” And while 1957’sNicholas and the Higs may have featured a “genius for setting,” it was also deemed unworthy of publication.
Late one night, Robert Louis Stevenson’s wife was woken by his tossing and turning. She shook him from his nightmare only to have him snap, “Why did you wake me? I was dreaming a fine bogey tale.” Possibly influenced by medical cocaine, Stevenson rose the next day with the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in mind. Writing up to 10,000 words a day, he completed the first draft in less than a week. What happened next is pure speculation: some say his wife, unhappy with the draft, destroyed it. In any case, Stevenson was forced to start over.
In a 1960 essay published in London Magazine, George Orwell stated that “England has produced very few better novelists” than George Gissing. Despite having such a high-profile fan, Gissing himself was extremely critical of his work. His novel Among the Prophets, about seeking inner peace through spiritualism and theosophy, was penned in the early 1900s. Although Gissing had earlier written to a friend claiming he could make something “exciting” of it, completion dimmed his enthusiasm: he had his agent burn all final copies of the work.
Author of the first modern Swedish novel The Red Room (1879), August Strindberg also wrote plays… or destroyed them, depending on his mood. On April 1, 1907, he wrote a letter to his German translator Emil Schering, “Opus IV of the Chamber Plays is in progress: it is more dreadful than the other! I throw it aside, but it pursues me; and with bleeding hands, I bare my misery, sacrificing myself for my work […] I suffer, but regret nothing.” The next day a follow-up letter went out. “Today I burned Opus IV, or ‘The Bleeding Hand’ […]. [I]t was a self-defence, that’s why it was burned.”
Before penning Paradise Lost as an epic poem, John Milton may have conceived it as a play. His famous Trinity manuscript features four drafts for a tragedy on the fall of man: The first two list only characters, the third includes a prologue and a brief outline of speakers and speeches in five acts, and the fourth—titled Adam Unparadised—provides a fairly complete sketch of the action. Milton’s daughter, Susannah Clarke, told Voltaire in 1727 that her father had written nearly two acts of this work and later lost them, and his nephew, Edward Phillips, claimed that “parcels” of it were shown to him. It is quite possible that some of these bits were picked up without much change from the play and transplanted into the poem.
In 1936, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Edna St. Vincent Millay took her freshly completed manuscript forConversations at Midnight with her on vacation to Florida, only to find her hotel wrapped up in flames as she made her way back from the beach. While her stroll along the shoreline may have saved her life, her memory is what saved her play. The rewrite began quickly, as she shares in the foreword, “made up from poems from the first draft, remembered word for word, poems incompletely remembered and reconstructed, and new poems.”
Nobel Laureate and French diplomat Alexis Leger used the pen name Saint-John Perse to separate his writing from his political life, but the two wound up intersecting with disastrous consequences. Opposed to the Nazi party, Leger was dismissed from his post after the fall of France in May 1940, and his apartment searched by the Gestapo. While he managed to survive, as many as five volumes of his poems and manuscripts did not.
While some walked in beauty, Lord Byron walked in scandal. Many of the Romantic leader’s works were deemed too sensual, and his numerous love affairs made him a social pariah. Upon his death, however, public opinion began to change and his work was viewed in a new light. Believing that the publication of his memoirs could permanently damage Byron’s reputation, his friends Thomas Moore and John Murray burned them.
In 1934, Jewish-Polish artist Bruno Schulz began work on the novel Messiah. When he was killed by the Gestapo in 1942, the manuscript went missing. Death would twice more prevent its being found: in 1987, Schulz’s nephew called scholar Jerzy Ficowski claiming that a package with several of his uncle’s papers had been spotted, but he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage before he could provide more information. Three years later, Swedish Ambassador to Poland Jean Christophe Öberg telephoned Ficowski with news that a Soviet civil servant had found Messiah in a misshelved Gestapo file at the KGB. Öberg died of cancer before revealing the source’s name.
Best known for his Ars Amatoria—that infamous manual of seduction that earned him exile—Ovid lost some of his best work. Among it was his tragedy Medea, praised by Roman rhetorician Quintillian as the ultimate proof of his genius. In letters from exile, Ovid also mentioned a eulogy of Caesar in Getic that was so good it had locals hailing him as their latest bard. Like the language in which it was written, it too disappeared.
Gerard Manley Hopkins’ innovative approach to rhyme and imagery was almost silenced forever by his religious beliefs. Hopkins began writing poetry as young as age ten, and his talents took off while he was studying at Oxford. But as homoerotic impulses began to find their way into his words, he began to write less. In 1866, he decided to give up poetry for Lent, and two years later he burned his poems in a massive bonfire. He then became a Jesuit priest, and his commitment to humility kept him from publishing his works. Robert Bridges, close friend and Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, is responsible for compiling whatever remained of them, and bringing Hopkins to posthumous fame.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.