Some of the greatest pieces of literature have been lost to time and happenstance, but others have been recently unearthed…

Some of the greatest pieces of literature (never) known to the world have been lost to the ravages of time and clumsy mischance. Plays by Aeschylus and Euripides withered in Aegean flames millennia ago; both Hemingway and TE Lawrence mislaid manuscripts in train stations; and who knows under what circumstances (and in which house of disrepute) Shakespeare lost his elusive comedy Love’s Labours Won.

Yet instead of mourning lost treasures, let us celebrate the discovery – or rediscovery – of works that were either hidden or almost misplaced, but today are all ours to enjoy.

Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman

In February this year, HarperCollins announced that it was to publish the sequel of To Kill a Mockingbird. The novel, Go Set a Watchman, written by Harper Lee (above), follows a grown-up “Scout” Finch, the 6-year-old narrator of To Kill a Mockingbird, now living in New York. This book was actually written first, with the iconic story we know of Atticus and Tom Robinson appearing within it as an extended flashback.

JD Salinger’s Short Stories

The Catcher in the Rye and its troubled protagonist Holden Caulfield are celebrated by critics and the laity alike. Dealing with adolescent alienation, the novel has captivated successive generations of teenagers since its publication in 1951. Salinger died in 2001, and those in charge of his estate have unearthed a handful of short stories featuring Holden. With very little else known about these stories, they are set to be published next year.

[Photo: Asghar Farhadi via Wikimedia Commons]

Arthur Miller’s The Hook

Originally intended for the silver screen, The Hook is about corruption on the New York docks in the 1950s. Due to political tensions in the US at the time, the screenplay caused problems in the production room and ended up gathering dust in a drawer for 60 years. The script has now been adapted for the stage, and in true Miller fashion, it depicts the world as Miller saw it – not how others would have liked it to be seen.

John Williams’ Stoner

Published in 1965 to very little fanfare, Stoner was Williams’ 3rd novel, detailing the quietly sad life of an American professor of literature – no twists, no tragedy, and very little action beyond campus squabbles. In a letter to his agent, Williams wrote: “I have no illusions that it will be a ‘bestseller’ or anything like that … The only thing I’m sure of is that it’s a good novel; in time it may even be thought of as a substantially good one.” Exhumed by someone at the publishing house and passed on to a superior in 2003, the book was republished and over the next decade sold just over 4,800 copies. However, word spread of the sweetness of the language and the power of the gently undulating plot, and in 2013 – with no warning – the book sold over 160,000 copies, becoming a bestseller across Europe.

Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood

The erratic Dylan Thomas managed to lose the manuscript of this play an astounding 3 times: once in a “battered, strapless briefcase whose handle is tied together with string” in the Park Hotel in Cardiff, once in NYC, and once while out drinking in London. In 1953 Thomas found himself at Victoria Station on the way to the US for the play’s promotional tour with no manuscript to read. One of the few other copies in the world was eventually located; the original turned up in the Swiss Tavern on Old Compton Street.

Article by Bertie Alexander

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