‘Rediscovered’ Literature: 11 Works That Survived History

Plaque in East Dulwich commemorating Forester
Plaque in East Dulwich commemorating Forester | © Spudgun67/Flickr
Rosie Tobutt

A lot of literature is lost over time – either they’re stolen, destroyed, never published in the first place or just plain forgotten about. But some works are ‘rediscovered’ and republished for us to enjoy. From manuscripts discovered posthumously to reissued or translated literature, we look at 11 works that survived history.

Temperature – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Since his death, F. Scott Fitzgerald has been heralded as one of the great American writers and the voice of the Lost Generation. While he’s most famous for his novels and his masterpiece The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald was also a well-versed short story writer. His short stories were mainly published in magazines for money – to support his and wife Zelda’s lifestyle – something which fellow contemporary writer and friend Hemingway sardonically called ‘whoring.’

One of his short stories, Temperature (1939), was thought lost. While Fitzgerald alluded to the 8000-word short story in letters and various other correspondence, the manuscript was never found. Over 70 years later, it was discovered at Fitzgerald’s alma mater Princeton University – in their rare books and special collections division. While it was free for scholars to read, it remained unpublished until 2015. Like many of Fitzgerald’s work, the story has semi-autobiographical elements; the main character, Emmet Monsen, is a self-destructive alcoholic living in Hollywood, and his declining health coincides with his tenuous personal relationships.

Photograph of F. Scott Fitzgerald c. 1921, appearing ‘The World’s Work’

Kafka is highly regarded as a pioneer of modernist literature in the 20th century. Metamorphosis is perhaps the best and well-known example of his surrealistic oeuvre. Sadly, Kafka’s life was cut short by tuberculosis, dying aged 40 in 1924. He left several unfinished manuscripts to his friend Max Brod, with instructions to destroy them all in the event of his death. However, Brod ignored his request. Brod heavily edited and rearranged the manuscripts (Kafka never wrote in chronological order) and three novels, The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926), and Amerika (1927), were eventually published.

The Trial became the most famous of the three; inspired by Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, a man only named as Josef K. is imprisoned and put on trial for a crime that is never explained to him. The bizarre situation of the novel led many to later coin the word, ‘Kafkaesque’. While Brod went against Kafka’s wishes, interest in these posthumous novels led the way for Kafka to be hailed as one of the greatest writers Germany ever produced.

Penguin cover of Kafka’s The Trial

The Pursued – C. S. Forester

C. S. Forester is best known as the author of the Horatio Hornblower series. In his time, he was also known for his short stories set during WW2 and the London blitz. However, Forester also published two crime novels: Payment Deferred (1926) and Plain Murder (1930). There was also a third manuscript – The Pursued – written in 1935, but Forester chose not to publish it. As it was written between the first two Hornblower novels, he and his publisher thought it best to defer his third crime novel to a more suitable time. So, he set it aside and focussed on his next Hornblower novel. But a suitable ‘time’ never appeared, and the manuscript was misplaced and lost. However, a copy turned up from an anonymous source and eventually bought at auction by two Forester enthusiasts.

The story centres around Marjorie who comes home to find her sister dead – her head in the gas oven. While the police write it off as suicide, both Marjorie and their mother, Mrs Clair, have their doubts. Marjorie doesn’t think anything can be done, but Mrs Clair is ready to get revenge.

Poems and other collections – Emily Dickinson

It seems unfathomable that Emily Dickinson was relatively unknown in her lifetime. She published only a few poems while she was alive, and they were often edited to fit into the poetry conventions of the time – much to Dickinson’s ire, who often rallied against editors for ruining the effect of her poems with their ‘corrections.’ Her unusual syntax and punctuation – Dickinson infamously used dashes – are now taken to be completely ahead of her time.

When Dickinson died in 1866, aged 55, she had instructed her sister, Lavina Dickinson, to burn all of her correspondence. Her sister complied with her wishes, but in doing so, Lavina found, locked away in a chest, some 40 notebooks full of Dickinson’s poetry. Though she could have burned these too, Lavina saw the significance of the poems and for years attempted to get them published. It wasn’t until 1890 that Dickinson’s first posthumous collection was published, and it wasn’t until many years later in the 1920s and the rise of Modernism that Dickinson’s contemporary style was finally appreciated. She is now considered one of the greatest American poets of all time.

Cover of the 1890 First edition of Poems

Alone in Berlin – Hans Fallada

Hans Fallada lived a troubled life. Due to his morphine addiction (he had long-term injuries from a road accident), he was often in and out of institutions. A previous manslaughter charge – a suicide pact gone tragically wrong – was also particularly hard on him and his mental health. And unlike many ‘un-German’ writers and artists, he remained in Nazi Germany and later endured wartime Berlin during WW2.

Fallada had long felt guilty about his supposed collaboration with the Nazis, but friend and poet Johannes Becher felt that he could write a good anti-Fascist novel if given the proper material. So Becher gave Fallada recovered Gestapo files about Otto and Elise Hampel: a working-class couple in Berlin who wrote and sent postcards urging resistance towards the Nazis.

Inspired, Fallada wrote Alone in Berlin – originally Jeder stirbt für sich allein or Every Man Dies Alone – in just 24 days. He died a few months after, before the book was even published. It wasn’t translated into English until 2009 when US publisher Melville House ‘re-discovered’ it and commissioned Michael Hofman to translate the book.

Portrait of Hans Fallada by Erich Ohser for a commemorative post stamp circa. 1993

Stoner – John Williams

According to The New Yorker, Stoner is ‘the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of.’ Far from its slang meaning, Stoner is actually about William Stoner and his undistinguished life as he tries to pursue his passion of literature and art. A slice of life or ‘campus’ novel, the novel primarily focusses on Stoner as a middle-aged professor, his relationships – such as his wife, Edith – and his affair with a colleague. As the author John Williams was himself an academic professor, the novel was in part a reflection on his own frustrations.

Stoner was originally published in 1965, but it sold fewer than 2,000 copies. With so few being sold, the book was out of print a year later. However in 2003, the book was found and re-issued by Penguin Random House imprint, Vintage. Since then, Stoner, with its bleak story and ending as well as William’s flowing prose, has garnered much more attention than its original run ever did.

Maurice – E. M. Forster

Among his close friends, it was well known that E. M. Forster was gay. Living in a time where homosexuality was still a crime, Forster’s reticence to admit his sexuality beyond his inner circle was understandable. Even more understandable was his decision to not publish Maurice in his lifetime – a note found on the manuscript read: ‘Publishable, but worth it?’ Not only was Maurice about a gay man and his tribulations with his sexuality and society, it also featured a happy romantic ending for the eponymous main character. For Forster, the book could’ve been both a career and social suicide.

Attitudes towards homosexuality have since changed for the better. When the novel was eventually published posthumously in 1971, British critics judged the ending more for the ‘unrealistic’ romance between a middle-class man and a working-class man than the homosexuality aspect. Others have since pointed out that Maurice and the man he runs off with, Alec Scudder, were inspired by Edward Carpenter and George Merrill, who were happily monogamous up until Merrill’s death. (Carpenter and Merrill were also the inspiration behind D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley).

Portrait of E. M. Forster, oil on canvas, 1920

The Turnip Princess – Franz Xaver von Schönwerth

Very few people will have ever heard of Franz Xaver von Schönwerth. However, most can say they’ve heard of Hans Christian Anderson or the Brothers Grimm. Schönwerth was a contemporary of these famous fairy-tale collectors, and a collector of them himself. In a parallel journey made by the Brothers Grimm in the Black Forest, he travelled the area of North Bavaria, Germany, recording as many tales and stories as he could from locals. As a native of Bavaria himself, Schönwerth hoped that he could preserve the oral stories he grew up with in one definitive collection. Sadly, most of his manuscripts were lost and very few of the tales he told survive.

However, a few years ago, 30 boxes filled with manuscripts were found in the attic of a German Municipal Archive. The manuscripts were Schönwerth’s lost fairy tales – over 70 of them in fact. His tales have since been translated into English by translator Maria Tatar and published by Penguin Classics.

Billy Budd – Herman Melville

Herman Melville wrote perhaps the most famous opening line ever written: ‘Call me Ishmael.’ – and so began his sea epic Moby Dick. Melville wrote an amalgamation of sea epics based on his own experiences as a sailor. Later in life, he stuck to land and tried his hand at poetry, publishing two poetry collections before his death. However, in the last five years of his novel, he started writing what would be his final novel, Billy Budd, Sailor. It had started out as a ballad-style poem but soon evolved into a story about a young sailor in the British Navy who is falsely accused of conspiracy to mutiny.

Melville died before he finished it, and Melville’s wife, Elizabeth, locked his manuscript away. It wasn’t discovered until 1919 – over 20 years since Melville’s death – by biographer Raymond M. Weaver. The manuscript was in a chaotic state, unordered and covered in notes by Elizabeth, who had attempted to edit and make sense of the story with conjectures about the wording and overall plot. The editors of the first published edition actually mistook her notes to be Melville’s. Later editions realised their mistake, and future editions of Billy Budd outlined her notes, with Melville’s original text.

Opening leaf of the Billy Budd manuscript by Herman Melville with pencil notations

Blood Brothers – Ernst Haffner

Ernst Haffner is a mystery; so little is known about his life that Blood Brothers is simultaneously the only clue and legacy the world has of Haffner. He was a journalist and possibly a social worker, and that’s about all we know. Hamburg was bombed in 1943, destroying the archive of his original publisher, Bruno Cassirer, and taking any personal correspondence between Cassirer and Haffner with it. The only official record of him that survived was a small note in the Berlin Registry, and later, it was noted that he was summoned to the Reichsschrifttumskammer – a Nazi-affiliated writer’s union headed by Joseph Goebbels. After that, there’s nothing about Haffner anywhere. It’s assumed that he died in WW2.

Originally published in 1932 but banned a year later by the Nazis, Blood Brothers was subsequently made an example of in the 1933 Nazi book burnings. The story depicts a group of street boys in Berlin’s old Mitte district, where finding a place to sleep for the night is more important than anything going on in the wider world. It was perhaps the unflinching portrayal of Berlin’s harsh and seedy underworld, and Haffner’s candid prose that led the Nazis to declare it, ‘un-German.’ Despite this, the manuscript of Blood Brothers survived both the Nazis and WW2. It was later discovered and re-published by German publisher Metrolit and since then has been translated into English by Michael Hofmann.

Go Set a Watchman – Harper Lee

For a long time, Harper Lee had only one book published to date, To Kill A Mockingbird. Right from the novel’s publication, the novel was a huge and instant success – despite Lee’s editor warning her that the book would probably only sell a few thousand copies. It won Lee the 1960 Pulitzer Prize and gave the world Atticus Finch, possible one of the greatest moral heroes ever written.

However, Lee’s first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird was very different. Originally called Go Set a Watchman and finished in 1957, the manuscript ended up in editor’s Tay Hohoff hands. Hohoff was impressed with Lee’s prose, but she felt the story was so-so – ‘a bunch of anecdotes stringed together’ – and encouraged Lee to rewrite draft after draft until To Kill a Mockingbird was fully formed, nearly two years later. Since then, the original manuscript was thought completely lost. It was later discovered in Lee’s safe deposit box in her hometown of Monroeville. Set nearly a decade after the events of To Kill a Mockingbird, the story follows Scout as a grown woman returning to her hometown of Maycomb.

Cropped cover of Go Set A Watchman
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