Ernest Hemingway wrote "A Farewell to Arms" and, with his suicide in 1961, he wrote the farewell chapter to his own larger-than-life life. What he failed to write, and may never have wished to, was a definitive ending to his still-thriving publishing career.
With news that a Hemingway manuscript gathering dust at the John F. Kennedy Library will be issued by Scribner's next summer as a "new" Hemingway novel, titled "True at First Light" and edited by his 70-year-old middle son, Patrick Hemingway, some have questioned the motives behind the project. Scribner's is said to have paid $1 million for the rights.Is literary propriety being sacrificed to commercial interests? Some wonder.
Or is any Hemingway - bad or good, incandescent or inconsequential - better than no Hemingway at all?
"I can't think of another author who has enjoyed such a posthumous publishing life," says Hemingway biographer Michael Rey-nolds. "And part of it was planned on his part. He knew some of the things he'd written couldn't be published in his lifetime. This was the 1940s and '50s, after all."
St. Martin's Press editor Robert Weil warns: Beware of the hype.
"Inevitably people assume it must be a great work if it's by a great author, and inevitably they're disappointed," says Weil. "The fact is, most things that did not get published by a great author when he was alive were not great works in the first place.
"Publishers get caught up in the hype, and then the critics savage the book and readers express their disappointment. It becomes a sorry affair."
Justin Kaplan, a literary biographer who has written books on Walt Whitman and Mark Twain, questions "to what extent the author is really the author" when a heavily edited work appears 40 years after his death.
Says Kaplan, "You have to ask how much value you attach to an author's motives. Assuming he has some sense of the shape and wholeness of his reputation, do you risk diminishing it?"
"True at First Light" is a thinly fictionalized account of the author's 1953 safari to Africa. It includes an account of an interracial sexual episode that may or may not be true, but which almost certainly would have caused rumblings in the more prudish 1950s. Scribner's will publish the book in July to coincide with the centennial of Hemingway's birth. It is the fourth major Hemingway book, all published by Scribner's, to appear in as many decades, not counting various collections of the author's stories and letters.
"A Movable Feast" (1964), "Islands in the Stream" (1970) and "The Garden of Eden" (1986) all sold six-figure totals in hardcover and attained best-seller status, according to publisher Charles Scribner. Of those three, only "Eden" was widely panned by critics as being second-rate Hemingway. A British company is due to film the novel next year.
"It was the most controversial posthumous Hemingway because it was the most unfinished," Scribner concedes. With "First Light," he asserts, pruning the 850-page manuscript Hemingway left to make a 300-page novel did nothing to violate the spirit of the work as Hemingway conceived it.
"Patrick mostly took out the redundancies," says Scribner. "It was the kind of editing his father would have done if he were still alive."
Controversy over posthumous publication by famous authors is nothing new.
From Charles Dickens and Jane Austen to Ralph Ellison and Henry Roth, plenty of high-profile authors have seen their work unearthed, refitted with new material and reissued from beyond the grave. Even Margaret Mitchell was not immune to the publishing industry's modern marketing forces. In 1991, Alexandra Ripley published a dreadful "sequel" to "Gone With the Wind"; and three years ago Scribner's published a newly discovered Mitchell short story whose literary merit was widely questioned.
Whatever faults lie in the Hemingway book, says Wendy Strothman, editor in chief of Houghton Mifflin in Boston, "It sure beats having a sequel written by someone else."