Monday musings on Australian literature: Posthumous publishing

The literary world is replete with works published posthumously. Jane Austen had two completed works published after she died, but there are many many others including Kafka, Tolkien and more recent giants like David Foster Wallace. In some cases, the writer had finished the work but time or some other reason resulted in its not being published in their lifetime. Austen’s two works are good examples. Northanger Abbey had been sold in 1803 to a publisher who never published it. It was bought back in 1816, and Austen worked further on it that year. Persuasion was completed that same year, which was the year of her death. Both were published months after her death through her brother. In other cases, as we discussed in last week’s post on unfinished works, writers specify that they don’t want their work published. Presumably, there are also cases where we just don’t know the creator’s thoughts. 

In 2018, The Conversation published an article on the ethics of posthumous publication, but, while it identifies ethical issues in relation to various authors, like Philip Larkin and WH Auden, it doesn’t fully grapple with them. It does, however, note that Auden’s literary executor, Edward Mendelson has written separately about his ethical dilemmas with regard to Auden’s wishes. For anyone interested in some stories, the article is worth checking out. The main point is that, as we discovered with Patrick White, it is most often the literary executor’s job to resolve the issue – and it isn’t easy.

This post shares a few examples of Australian posthumously published (mostly finished) works.

Across the ditch

Having said that, however, I’m going to start with New Zealand which is, after all, Antipodean, so close! (For those not in the know, “the ditch” refers to the Tasman Sea that separates Australia and New Zealand.)

My first example is the wonderful Janet Frame, and an interesting discussion on ABC RN’s The Book Show in 2008 about posthumous publication of Frame’s work. Presenter Ramona Koval discusses the posthumous release of literary works with Frame’s niece Pamela Gordon, chair of a charitable trust set up by Frame to manage her literary estate. Gordon said that she wished there’d been a “literary executor for dummies” guide to help her. Her job was facilitated by the fact that Frame believed in posthumous publishing, seeing it as “dignified”. Some of her works were not published in her lifetime for personal reasons. Frame also destroyed a lot of work that she felt was not up to being published. She also clearly indicated which poems she felt were finished. Frame wanted her poems published, and the first collection published after her death, The goose bath, was awarded New Zealand’s top poetry prize in 2007. Her 1963 novel, Towards another summer, and a 1974 novel, In the memorial room (Lisa’s review) have also been published, with, apparently, her prior approval.

My second example is an earlier, great New Zealand writer, Katherine Mansfield. She died suddenly in 1923, at the age of 34, of a pulmonary haemorrhage, leaving behind much unpublished work. Her husband, John Middleton Murry edited and published two short story collections, a volume of poems, a novella titled The aloe, and other collected writings. I’m guessing that dying so suddenly so young, she left no instructions and that we rely on her husband “knowing” her wishes.

My side of the ditch

I’ve written before about Patrick White’s literary executor, Barbara Mobbs, and her difficult decision to allow publication of White’s unfinished novel, The hanging garden. Literary executors have a challenging task, of which publishing unpublished works – my focus here – is only one aspect.

Many books, we are confident, were competed by their authors in the expectation of publication. Examples include my teenage favourite Nevil Shute’s Trustee from the tool room (1960); Morris West’s all but finalised The last confession (2000); Jacob Rosenberg’s The hollow tree (2009); Dorothy Porter’s poetry collection The bee hut (my review) and essay On passion (my review); Bryce Courtenay’s Jack of Diamonds (2012); Georgia Blain’s non-fiction The museum of words (2017); and Andrew McGahan’s The rich man’s house (2021). All were published within a year or two of their author’s death.

A different example, and one that may have better suited last week’s post, is Christina Stead’s I’m dying laughing, published in 1986. Wikipedia says that she worked on it on and off over decades between other works. One chapter, titled “UNO 1945”, was published in Southerly in 1962. A few years later, her New York agent wanted certain revisions, as did her British publisher. It appears that comments from an American friend about her handling of Hollywood radicals set off a long process of revision that she came to regret. The final book was put together by her literary executor, Ron Geering who says in the preface:

“What I inherited…was a huge mass of typescript ranging in finish from rough to polished and in length from page bits to different versions of whole chapters, along with piles of basic and supplementary material.”

There’s no suggestion here that Stead did not want it published.

My last example is a book due for release next month, March 2022. It’s Continuous creation, a posthumous collection of poems by Les Murray. Publisher Black Inc says that the volume comprises “poems he was working on up to his death, as well as work uncovered from his scrapbooks and files”. Given his wife survived him, I assume she supports this publication.

Black Inc’s promotion for this book references the title poem, which, they write, calls up ‘the spirit of continuous creation, “out of all that vanishes and all that will outlast us”’.

“All that will outlast us”! Can’t think of a better conclusion for a post on posthumous publication.

Are you aware of reading posthumously published books, and does it make a difference to your reading experience?

28 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Posthumous publishing

  1. Once I’m interested in an author I want to see as much of their work as possible. For the two authors on whom I’ve done the most work, you know I would love to see all Eve Langley’s Journals/novels (they’re hard to distinguish) published and I think Lucy Frost did a great job putting together Wilde Eve which I think was 300 pages from a possible 2800.

    And Miles Franklin has a great deal of unpublished journalism from WWI, plus short stories, which really should be available at least digitally. Then there’s Cockatoos which was published shortly after her death (1954) and On Dearborn Street published as a curiosity much later (1981) but which she pushed hard to get published from 1915 when it was written.

    • Yes, I agree Bill. That’s why I also enjoy Juvenilia. It’s interesting to see where they were wmrg from too. Some Austen fans don’t enjoy her Juvenilia, but for me it’s not a matter of “liking” the works in the same way that I might “like”her mature novels. Rather, it’s “liking” to see the young writer’s mind.

    • Oooh, good point about journals. Last week I didn’t even mention all the author who leave behind diaries and letters. I have a whole book of Zora Neale Hurston’s letters that I want to read soon. Sometimes books of letters are challenging, though, if they lack context. I tried reading Langston Hughes’s letters and they made little sense without the correspondence from the person on the other end.

  2. From my advantageous timezone I’m going to have a second go. The AWW Challenge site, tomorrow and again next month, will look at colonial women’s letters (particularly Eliz. Macarthur and Rachel Henning) and how they were censored/sanitised by family and publishers after the deaths of the authors. In whose interest I wonder.

    • Thanks Bill. There was a lot of early sanitising, I believe, of Jane Austen’s biography. In whose interest is a good question and complicated. I think it was partly the family’s but it was also wanting to present her in the “best”light, to preserve her image. Unfortunately, the “best” light is very much a product of the times the sanitising was being done. Her sister destroyed a lot of letters, which is tragic for us now.

  3. Some of the (suspicion? reservations? uncertainties?) I have about works completed after the author’s death also apply to works published after their death but, as Bill has said, if I really enjoy a writer’s work, I want to read as much of it as possible. An example from closer to home would be the Indigenous writer Richard Wagamese, whose final novel Starlight, appeared after his death and hadn’t been completely edited by him (I don’t recall the extent of his revisions on the manuscript ATM) and I’ve hesitated but I know I will read it.

    With Stead, I believe I learned from a documentary interview that she refused to edit her work anyway, wanted that natural act of creation captured, that she would argue with anyone who wanted to make changes and would rather her work not be published if someone revised it, so I wonder if a posthumous work from her, that was polished, would have troubled her (but might also make for a smoother reading experience, but less Stead-like?).

    • Yes, I understand, too, Buried, that she didn’t like editing but it sounds to me that she didn’t completely refuse to because she did a lot on this work. I’m intrigued to read it, and to read Geering’s preface. Good point about the reading experience perhaps not being stead-like.

      • That’s true, good point, and perhaps she changed her mind about it, too, or found that tinkering with the work was more satisfying with starting another project as she aged. Interesting to think that, maybe, for those who haven’t taken to her work, this one might be an exception. (I’ve only read three and am kinda neutral on her so far. Interested but not compelled either.)

  4. I have one on my TBR, Barbara Pym’s An Academic Question. I don’t have an issue with these if the author has written the whole thing or what we’re given is only what they wrote (of course there is the question as you point out of whether they’d have wanted it published in that form). But I’d rather not read one completed by someone else.

  5. ST, you knew what I’d comment, didn’t you ? – that my favourite writer of all times had his unfinished novel published along with an asssortment of other stuff, reviews and so forth; and that it created in Peter Temple aficionados (should there be an ‘e’ in there ?) many tears of regret ..

  6. Just a bit of a postscript to what you’ve written about John Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield. It’s a long time since I read the bio (Katherine Mansfield, Storyteller, by Kathleen Jones) but that bio left me with a poor impression of Murry, and while I don’t remember if the book addressed whether KM expressed a wish to be published posthumously, I’d put my money on him publishing her stuff whether she wanted it or not because he did very nicely out of her work after her death (having treated her shamefully while she was alive).
    If you’ll indulge me quoting from my review:
    “Jones does more than tell the story of Katherine Mansfield’s life, she also shows how Middleton Murry made her name. Obsessed by her as he was (to the detriment of his subsequent marriages) he used her literary bequest to make his name and hers. Jones says his style was hagiographic, sentimental and exploitative to some degree, but had he not published her work in his literary magazines Mansfield might well have been forgotten.”
    So I guess we owe him… but we don’t have to like him!

    • Haha, thanks Lisa. Sound like a fair assessment from what you’ve shared. I hadn’t really read up on him, but I had picked up that there was a complicated relationship between them when she was alive, so I’m not surprised by what you share.

      One would hope that as a writer she wanted her work out there, and that even if he gave himself a name, he did right by her. (Though hagiography doesn’t help in the long run.) My guess is that dying so suddenly so young she wouldn’t have yet given a thought to posthumous publication?

  7. Hi Sue, I cannot think of too many Australian novels published posthumously. However, I have read Kafka’s The Trial and one of my best reads is The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. I remember reading I’ll be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara: a true crime story about the “Golden State Killer in California”. She died before finishing it, but it was completed by her husband. It didn’t interfere with my reading, but I did feel sad that she did not see the final outcome. And, what I am looking forward to reading is Bee Stung Lips: Barbara Hanrahan. It reproduces more than 100 of Hanrahan’s works on paper, and essays by various authors. “Affirming the singularity of Hanrahan’s vision”, and its relevance to our times thirty years after the artist’s death in her prime.

  8. A fair bit of Wittgenstein’s work came out posthumously. I don’t know everything he wrote, but Philosophical Investigations and Philosophische Grammatik look heftier than the Tractatus and the Blue and Brown Books. So it isn’t just fiction that appears posthumously.

    Virgil is said to have requested that the Aeneid be burned. The editors flag certain incomplete lines or pairs of lines, not I think that many.

    It occurs to me that posthumous publication occurs as an element within fiction: think of Dorothea let off the hook for completing Casaubon’s opus in Middlemarch.

      • Should the final edits to the biography be completed in articulo mortis, leaving only publication arrangements to the estate? Or should we allow the writer to finish up while still spry, and just set the manuscript aside? I think that the drawback to the either scheme might be that too many authors would rather hear than anticipate the applause of the public and the complaints of those they have wounded.

        Henry James died without completing The Middle Years, which then was put into shape and is published as part of his autobiography. On the other hand it is easy enough to think of those who have waited until 50 or so to publish an autobiography or a memoir, then gone on to add a volume or two.

        • I was being a bit tongue-in-cheek George! I suspect readers would like something well and engagingly written so finished when the writer can deliver that. Probably the multiple volume approach is the most sensible one.

  9. Barbara Pym’s Crampton Hodnet, one of the books I most enjoyed in 2020, was published posthumously – but it was actually her first attempt at writing a novel, which she set aside and didn’t really work on, moving on to other things. It was tidied up and published posthumously, and I don’t think she ever expected it to be published. I enjoyed seeing the early emergence of themes she would return to later on, but it’s clear that she wasn’t writing at the height of her skill at that point. It’s even funnier than her other novels, but it lacks the kind of bittersweet quality they have (which is what I love about them), and her characters are all drawn in broad strokes – later on she became much defter at characterisation. I think I’m glad it was published, because it really shows the evolution of her work (but saying that, I don’t know how she would have felt about it herself).

    • Thanks Lou for this response. It mirrors some of my feelings about Austen’s early works though the circumstances are a little different. If you love an author, it’s hard not to love their early works. Austen’s youthful pieces are more laugh out loud funny than her more quietly witty adult ones.

      I don’t think we have any idea about what she would have thought about those early works and the unfinished works being published but we can be confident that she would have been happy about the posthumous publishing of her two completed novels.

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