The Lost Books: Were they classics or pulp?
September 4, 2015
I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN FASCINATED with lost treasures. I grew up in Texas listening to gossip, rumors, legends, myths, and tales of lost gold and silver mines. Sam Bass buried the money he took from a bank in Round Rock. A rogue band of Confederate soldiers hid saddlebags of stolen gold in a dry creek among the barren mountains of the Big Bend. There was always a map. Everybody had a map. Lives had been lost to confiscate the map or protect the map. Nobody had a map. It was gone. The treasure was gone.
And where did it go?
The question has always haunted me.
I feel the same way when I read about lost books.
We all know that Homer wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey. They made him a literary giant for the ages.
But what happened to Margites?
It was his first epic poem, a comedy, written sometime around 700 B. C. We only know that Margites even exists because Aristotle, wrote in On the Art of Poetry, that Homer “was the first to indicate the forms that comedy was to assume, for his Margites bears the same relationship to comedies as his Iliad and Odyssey bear to our tragedies.”
No one knows the story.
No one knows anything about the hero.
But Aristotle did pilfer a few lines and worked them into Alchibiades, including “He knew many things, but all badly.” And Plato managed to weave this line from Margites into his book, Nicomachean Ethics: “The gods taught him neither to dig nor to plough, nor any other skill; he failed in every craft.”
Not a page-turner, perhaps, but I would like to know what happened to the book.
Where did it go?
And why was it lost?
William Shakespeare wrote Cardenio, and some evidence exists that one of his theatrical companies, the King’s Men, performed the play for King James I in May of 1633.
Then the play simply vanished.
It was nowhere to be found.
And, with the passing of centuries, it has become of Holy Grail of all things Shakespeare.
There is some speculation that the plot may have been inspired by a scene from Don Quixote, involving a character named Cardenio. After all, Don Quixote was published a year earlier, and there is no reason to think that Shakespeare would have been ignorant of the story.
Novelist John Marche wrote in The Wall Street Journal: “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.”
But where did it go?
And why was it lost?
Jane Austen did not write mysteries.
But she left one when she died in 1817 at the age of forty-two.
As Time Magazine would say in 1975, she left behind eleven chapters of an unfinished novel that “would tantalize posterity.”
The plot, at least the hint that she gave us, was pure Jane Austen. Those eleven chapters set the scene, introduced us to a few characters, hinted at the theme, and, without any warning, the story came to an abrupt end.
Did Jane Austen grow tired of it?
Did she decide that the story wasn’t worth telling?
Were the missing pages written then misplaced?
Several writers stepped forward to complete the missing ending to Sanditon.
But none of them were Jane Austen, and they couldn’t write like Jane Austen, and they had no luck at all in trying to copy her style. Anne Telscombe, a well-known Australian novelist, did complete the book, but a reviewer for Time Magazine wrote; “If Janeites take their author like warm milk at bedtime, then Tellscombe’s book is watery milk.”
And posterity is indeed tantalized.
In 1922, Hadley Hemingway, the first wife of the great novelist, left Paris on a train and rode to Lausanne, Switzerland, to meet her husband, Ernest.
Nothing unusual about that that.
She had packed several of his short stories and a partial novel in a suitcase.
All were originals. All had been written in longhand.
That’s simply the way Hemingway wrote his stories.
Hadley arrived in Lausanne.
The suitcase didn’t. It had been stolen. And the short stories, along with the partial novel, were lost forever.
Hemingway never sat down to rewrite them.
Did the loss trouble him?
Hemingway once said that he would have gone to the hospital and had surgery if he knew it would erase the memory of the loss. It was the one wound he could not cure, and, over a drink or two, he was known to say the missing manuscripts were the reason he decided to divorce Hadley.
However, as author Stuart Kelly, once said, “Had he spent the next ten years trying to perfect his immature jottings, we might never have seen the novels of which he was capable.”
It’s true. Then again, the novel – base on his own experience in World War I – might have been the greatest of them all.
That’s the tragedy of lost books. We don’t know if they were good or bad. We don’t know if they would have changed the literary landscape. We don’t know if they would have been required reading in college.
Were they classics?
We just don’t know.
Caleb Pirtle is the author of Conspiracy of Lies.