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How Many of Our Literary Heroes Have Books Waiting to Be Found?

Feb 19, 2015

After decades of assumption that Harper Lee was a one-book literary legend, the discovery of her novel Go Set a Watchman has the public on an emotional roller coaster. Questions about Lee’s consent, the management of her estate, the quality of the work, and the timing of the discovery are the subject of debate across the American literary landscape.

The discovery of the manuscript, however, opens an even bigger door of curiosity: what else is out there?

The most famous missing 20th-century manuscript must be the suitcase full of Ernest Hemingway’s early works. Left on a train by his first wife, the suitcase contained every manuscript and carbon copy that he had produced up until that point. Since then, this suitcase and its contents have been a holy grail for literature fans. It’s still possible that it could turn up some day. Hadley Hemingway herself described her devastation at this event in an interview at the end of her life.

Truman Capote’s novel Summer Crossing was discovered and released in 2005, to very mixed reviews. While The New York Times’ reviewer panned it, the Guardian had a much more favorable review: what can one expect from a book Capote wrote as a very young man? Capote himself agreed; it seems that in a fit of self-criticism, he threw the novel in the trash. It was pulled out by his house-sitter, who kept it until his death in 2004, at which time the house-sitter’s nephew sold the manuscript to Southeby’s.

The next big literary discovery may very well be an unfinished novel of Sylvia Plath’s. A student at Emory University discovered in 1999 some notes on Plath’s novel Falcon Yard, as well as some complete pages from the novel.

Emory has a tremendous amount of Plath’s work in the school's Ted Hughes archives, which are fiercely protected until 2022.

Credit Acy./Flickr

But the real mystery is Plath’s novel Double Exposure, which went missing in the early 1970s. We’re all hoping that turns up sooner or later -- perhaps in one of the many libraries with Plath collections across the country.

Otherwise, we’ll have to chalk up Double Exposure to just another missing manuscript on the list thousands of items long. At least we can have more hope than for anything in the Library of Alexandria. And thank our stars for Harper Lee.

Julia Pistell is an intern at WNPR. She's a freelance writer, director of writing at the Mark Twain House, and host of the podcast Literary Disco