A Brief Survey of Famous Authors’ Unpublished Books


Earlier this week, Avi Steinberg wrote a profile on Maurice Sendak’s final publication — the posthumous My Brother’s Book, which was released last month. In his essay for The New Yorker, Steinberg also tells the story of Sendak’s first unpublished book that was written when Sendak was seven. They Were Inseparable was a collaboration with the author’s 12-year-old brother, dedicated to their 16-year-old sister whom they idolized dearly. The early Sendak tale may never see a standalone release, which led us to wonder about the numerous manuscripts by famous authors floating somewhere in the ether. After the jump, we briefly examine 10 unpublished works by well-known writers. What others belong on the list?

Hunter S. Thompson’s Prince Jellyfish

The formal publication of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s first novel may not be far off, especially if Hollywood has already caught on to his second previously unpublished work, The Rum Diary. After all, they can’t let Johnny Depp become too old to play the eccentric writer.

In a chapter titled “Character is Destiny” in Songs of the Doomed: More Notes on the Death of the American Dream , Thompson revealed that he wrote the unpublished novel in 1959, using an assumed name while living in an “illegal sub-basement at 57 Perry Street.” A letter printed in the same book, to editor Angus Cameron, indicates Thompson “tried like hell to finish it,” but a relationship, an arrest, and a dead-end writing assignment “somewhat hindered the progress of the book.”

Excerpts from Prince Jellyfish also appear in Songs of the Doomed, where we learn that the autobiographical story’s protagonist, named Welburn Kemp, heads from Louisville to the big city “struggling against the dunces to make his way.” Kemp’s name comes from two of Thompson’s high school classmates (one died tragically in a car crash, the other suffered brain damage from a wreck), but the character is every bit Thompson. Other people from the author’s past make appearances. Shortly after finishing a first draft, Thompson did head to New York City in search of bigger and better things.

Edith Wharton’s Literature, Disintegration, and erotica

The prolific Age of Innocence author has two abandoned novels amongst her many unfinished works. Literature, which she started working on in 1913, and Disintegration (1902) are examined in Laura Rattray’s The Unpublished Writings of Edith Wharton. Based on a review of Rattray’s book, the writer describes Disintegration as a “fin de siècle novel of complex narrative design.” Her other novel Literature was contained in a “small writer’s notebook, in which she jotted down informally, in pencil, ideas for story situations and character types, short quotations on writing and life from English, French, and German, and even a schedule of trains leaving Ashford, England for Rye.” The book also contained a 19-page summary of Literature’s plot, character descriptions, bits of dialogue, and about 70 typed pages of the novel. Of course, don’t forget about Wharton’s incomplete and unpublished erotica — a torrid and taboo story called Beatrice Palmato.

Kurt Vonnegut’s If God Were Alive Today

Kurt Vonnegut began writing If God Were Alive Today before he died in 2007. The story focuses on “the stand-up comedian on Doomsday,” Gil Berman. He’s a lecturer who “enjoys cracking jokes in front of a college audience while societal dependence on fossil fuels has led to the apocalypse.” Vonnegut’s daughter Nanette frames the story through memories of her father in We Are What We Pretend To Be: The First and Last Works , praising the “hilarity” and “wisdom” of the “brutal satire on societal ignorance and carefree denial of the world’s major problems.”

Artie Shaw’s The Education of Albie Snow

Jazz bandleader and composer Artie Shaw is best remembered for his music, but the swing-era artist was also a passionate writer. Shaw authored three books, including a 1952 autobiography, and two pieces of fiction that weren’t very well received. His unpublished work, The Education of Albie Snow, is a 1000-page autobiographical novel that took years to write — half of it, anyway. Friends and editors of Shaw’s have seen the novel (including Knopf Doubleday/Random House in 2005), but publishers have yet to bite. An editor described the book:

“It covers from ages 15 to 24, with a couple of flashbacks to age 7 and the first anti-Semitism he encountered [growing up] in Connecticut. It’s wonderful because it has a coming-of-age quality to it, the young teenager and how he teaches himself to play the saxophone and clarinet.”

Edgar Allan Poe’s The Light-House

Edgar Allan Poe’s The Light-House was the gothic scribe’s last work before his death in 1849. Written as a series of diary entries, a lighthouse keeper — believed to be one of Poe’s alter egos — ponders his isolation and survival in the seaside tower along Scandinavian waters. A final diary entry is left empty, which suggests the lonely narrator has died, but some scholars state the work was simply unfinished. You can read it here.

Stephen King’s The House on Value Street

King has a number of unpublished works to his name, many that are stored in the special collections department at the Raymond H. Fogler Library at the University of Maine. One of King’s most fascinating unpublished books is The House on Value Street. A seed was planted during the weeks King struggled to complete the novel during the wake of the Patty Hearst kidnapping, which grew into The Stand. King described the experience in Danse Macabre:

“It was going to be a roman à clef about the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, her brainwashing (or her sociopolitical awakening, depending on your point of view, I guess), her participation in the bank robbery, the shootout at the SLA hideout in Los Angeles — in my book, the hideout was on Value Street, natch — the fugitives run across the country, the whole ball of wax. It seemed to me to be a highly potent subject, and while I was aware that lots of non-fiction books were surely to be written on the subject, it seemed to me that only a novel might really succeed in explaining all the contradictions. The novelist is, after all, God’s liar, and if he does his job well, keeps his head and his courage, he can sometimes find the truth that lives at the center of the lie.”

A moment of free-association led to one of King’s most epic works:

“This phrase and the story about the CBW [chemical/biological warfare] spill in Utah and my memories of Stewart’s fine book all became entwined in my thoughts about Patty Hearst and the SLA, and one day while sitting at my typewriter… I wrote — just to write something: ‘The world comes to an end but everybody in the SLA is somehow immune.’ … [Later] I wrote, ‘Donald DeFreeze is a dark man.’ I did not mean that DeFreeze was black; it had suddenly occurred to me that, in the photos taken during the bank robbery in which Patty Hearst participated, you could barely see De Freeze’s face. He was wearing a big badass hat, and what he looked like was mostly guesswork. I wrote, ‘A dark man with no face,’ and then glanced up and saw that grisly little motto again: ‘Once in every generation a plague will fall among them.’ And that was that. I spent the next two years writing an apparently endless book called The Stand. It got to the point where I began describing it to friends as my own little Vietnam, because I kept telling myself that in another hundred pages or so I would begin to see light at the end of the tunnel.”

Chuck Palahniuk’s Insomnia: If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home Already

Insomnia: If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home Already was scrapped just before Palahniuk set to work on his best-known novel Fight Club. Part of the work appears in the writer’s anti-consumer culture opus (narrated by an insomniac).

Philip K. Dick’s The Owl in Daylight

Dick never finished writing The Owl in Daylight before he died in 1982, and speculation surrounding the plot abounds. A 1982 discussion on the story between Dick and journalist Gwen Lee suggests Dick wrote about a B-film composer, an alien race unable to hear sound, religion, and the usual cryptic weirdness. The protagonist eventually sacrifices his own body for implantation, offering the character an opportunity to experience the world through alien eyes. At one point Paul Giamatti was set to create a “Charlie Kauffman-esque” biopic about the complicated writer, with the actor playing Dick, but news about the project hasn’t surfaced since 2009. For another take on Dick’s unpublished tale, you can plunk down $434 for a rare copy of Tessa B. Dick’s version of the story. The author’s wife wanted to “express the spirit of Phil’s proposed novel, without using his plot or the one character that he had created.” The Philip K. Dick Estate wasn’t happy about the move by Mrs. Dick, and the book was taken out of circulation.

Charles Bukowski’s The Poet

All we can uncover about Bukowski’s unpublished novel The Poet comes from the 1972 edition of Mug Shots: Who’s Who in the New Earth . “It’s fairly filthy, very lively, and just a little bit literary,” the writer stated. If Bukowski nerds have any other information pertaining to the story, we’re all eyes and ears.

J.D. Salinger

The reclusive J.D. Salinger published his last novella in 1965, but the world continued to wait tirelessly for another story that might rival The Catcher in the Rye. Those 45 years remain a mystery as far as Salinger’s later writings are concerned, but we know the author refused every attempt to adapt his stories and denied access to his manuscripts during his lifetime. Rumors, and recently uncovered letters, indicate that a treasure trove of unpublished works rests in the hands of Salinger’s estate. There may be a clause in the writer’s will and testament that states the family cannot publish Salinger’s stories before a specified time, but all remains quiet since his death in 2010. The author’s widow and son called the rumors “nonsense.”