A completed posthumous work is one thing; one unfinished by the author, or completed by another, is a different matter.
The writer's middle son and now editor, Patrick Hemingway, and publisher Charles Scribner 3d described the publication of True at First Light as "an heirs' affair" as "they emptied Hemingway's literary vault in time for his centennial birthday celebration," wrote Joan Didion, in a New Yorker essay in November.
Michael Reynolds, whose fifth volume in his biography, Hemingway: The Final Years (Norton), also appears this July, says, "I don't know of any posthumous writer who has had a career like this."
Hemingway is arguably the most famous and influential American writer of the century. He is also the reigning lion of contemporary best-selling long-dead authors.
Ralph Ellison, after his triumphant Invisible Man, spent 2,000 pages (many of them overlapping) and 40 years working on what he deemed his "novel-in-progress very long in progress." Juneteenth has just been released, five years after Ellison's death, pared down to 348 pages by his literary executor, John F. Callahan.
Great works have long been published after a writer's demise: Virgil's Aeneid, the final three volumes of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, Kafka's The Trial and The Castle, Jane Austen's Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl.
Not a single word in Juneteenth is Callahan's, except, he allows, the occasional substitution of Senator for he to clarify which central character is speaking. "My wish was that Ralph was all done except for the last sentence. There was some suggestion that he was close to being done and also that it was in disarray; the truth lay in between them," says Callahan, who was summoned to Ellison's Harlem apartment by his widow, Fanny, days after the author's death, the study "still wreathed in a slight haze of cigar and pipe smoke."
Writing about True at First Light, a title not of Hemingway's choosing but of his son's, Didion argued that "850 pages reduced by half by someone other than their author can go nowhere the author intended them to go, but they can provide the occasion for a chat-show hook."
Didion decried the new Hemingway industry as "the systematic creation of a marketable product, a discrete body different in kind from, and in fact tending to obscure, the body of work published by Hemingway in his lifetime."
Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, asked at an April Hemingway conference in Boston how he felt about an unfinished manuscript appearing after his death, answered, "It means that I should learn to start burning everything I own." Tobias Wolff said, "I'm not leaving anything behind. I'm just throwing everything out," to which Francine Prose echoed, "Big bonfire."
Most likely, the Hemingway controversy will only fan sales. "I have great sympathy for literary writers who must have a tinge of annoyance at a long-dead author who continues to be a best-seller," Scribner scoffs.
Painters often favor painting over unsatisfactory canvases, but "writers are paper savers," says Reynolds, the Hemingway biographer. "If you put it down, destroying it is just very, very difficult to do." True enough, university archives are filled with writers' letters, journals and early drafts. Since the gathering in Boston, the site of Hemingway's archives at the John F. Kennedy Library, Reynolds questions "how many of those writers have burned a manuscript?"
A 1967 fire claimed 360 pages of Ralph Ellison's monumental Juneteenth manuscript, though it was accidental. While Ellison was private about the work, his circle was well aware of its existence; his widow asked Callahan to try his hand at editing it. "If it was good, [Ellison] thought people should read it. Then you can lock it up in a library," Callahan says. Callahan will also edit a collection of letters between Ellison and cultural critic Albert Murray. "Ralph never said, 'I don't want these letters published,' " he says.
Works by late masters tease a hungry readership with the possibility of greatness, delivering two constants in popular culture, death and celebrity. A novel by the late Louis L'Amour, of which there is no shortage, was published last month. Who knows how many remain? Unfinished works tease with the mystery of "what if," the last work being the final talisman in creating a canon.
Hemingway's fractious friend F. Scott Fitzgerald died the year before his half-finished The Last Tycoon was posthumously published in an edition by Edmund Wilson. Scribner treated it to a second editing 52 years later by Matthew Bruccoli retitled The Love of the Last Tycoon. In 1997, Anne Frank's journal was given another treatment, The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition. It was the 50th anniversary of its publication. In contemporary commerce, anniversaries exist largely as marketing opportunities.
A collection of Hemingway's letters appeared in print in 1981, with his late widow's permission, but not his. "It is my wish that none of the letters written by me during my lifetime shall be published," he wrote in a letter "to my Executors" three years before his suicide.
It was 10 years ago that Charles Scribner 3d first saw the 850 pages of Hemingway's then-untitled manuscript about "Pop" and Mary (the name of the author's fourth and final wife) on a Kenya safari. "I wanted the right editor and the right time" to produce the book.
The right editor became Patrick Hemingway, a former big-game hunter and conservationist in Africa, who is neither a writer nor an editor but is an heir. "I was the most knowledgeable person in the world about this manuscript as far as the writer and his context and the material," Hemingway has said. "Because I have been one of the three copyright owners, together with my brothers, since my stepmother died, I am very familiar with Hemingway's work. I listen to it constantly when I'm traveling."
The previous Hemingway publishing event, The Garden of Eden, was billed as "the last uncompleted novel" when it appeared in 1996. To not usurp that claim, True at First Light is labeled a "fictional memoir."
Six months after Joan Didion wrote her critical treatise "Last Words," which the New Yorker nominated for a National Magazine Award, the first excerpt from True at First Light appeared. In the pages of the New Yorker.
"There's a legitimate case for publishing work that is not wholly and complete blessed by the author," the magazine's editor David Remnick told the New York Observer.
"This is it," this is the last posthumous Hemingway work, Scribner promises. "Eventually, scholars probably will not resist the temptation to publish everything, including his laundry lists," he notes. Unless, of course, publishers get there first.