The writer E.L. Doctorow once described the writer’s life as hazardous: “Anything he does is bad for him. Anything that happens to him is bad: failure’s bad, success is bad; impoverishment is bad, money is very, very bad. Nothing good can happen. Except the act of writing.”
Add to the list of Mr. Doctorow’s hazards: it’s not good for a writer to die. Because once buried, or scattered, or donated to science, the writer loses control—really—over his or her work. And in our current culture, that doesn’t translate to good news for the deceased. Take for example Vladimir Nabokov’s The Original Laura. Essentially it’s a bunch of 3 x 5 index cards. Nabokov requested that these materials be destroyed after his death. Instead, his estate and publishers decided a better use might be a “tear along the perforated line” set of bound cards that are more like a themed postcard book than a work of art. The late David Foster Wallace’s undergraduate student thesis was published in December 2010—two years after his death. You can buy Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will in a paperback edition. Also found among his papers was an unfinished novel which will be published as The Pale King in April of this year. Ernest Hemingway’s Garden of Eden, while it contained some brilliant passages, was not a finished novel and failed overall. Michael Crichton, who died of cancer in November 2009, left behind at least one finished novel and about one-third of a second. The completed novel, Pirate Latitudes, was published in 2009. The unfinished (and as yet unnamed) novel will be released in 2012. My mind races with dark insights as I imagine the pursed lips of scholars and publishers who believe the world wants, needs, deserves these final works—regardless of the writer’s own wishes and intent.
Add to this list of posthumous pitfalls the “new version” of Huckleberry Finn due out from NewSouth Books in February 2011. In an attempt to garner a larger audience and avoid the censorship of schools, this new edition will: “eliminate uses of the “N” word and replace it with “’slave’” and will also “shorten an offensive reference to Native Americans.” As reported on NPR’s News Blog:
“One of the scholars, Alan Gribben of Auburn University, tells PW (Publisher’s Weekly) that “this is not an effort to render Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn colorblind. … Race matters in these books. It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.”
Ah, poor Mark Twain… if only he hadn’t died, maybe he could be here to make the politically correct changes himself. As it is, he’s (I suspect) turning in his grave.
Link to NPR post: http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2011/01/04/132652272/new-edition-of-huckleberry-finn-will-eliminate-offensive-words?sc=nl&cc=bn-20110106