It’s tempting to think that literary greatness affords a form of immortality, but the sad truth is that even great works fall by the wayside.
The author of the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” laid the foundations for Greek literature and for the epic approach to military history and travel writing. But according to Aristotle, Homer also composed a third epic, the “Margites,” which did the same for literary comedy. The epic’s eponymous main character lacked either the bravery of Achilles or the trickery of Odysseus. Rather, he was an idiot—as Plato put it, “he knew many things, but all badly.” The greatest Greek philosophers were impressed by Homer’s dumb-guy humor, but no fragments of the epic survived antiquity. Modern scholars, meanwhile, doubt that Homer was a single man but rather a school of poetic tradition that was given the persona, centuries later, of the blind bard of antiquity.
The Yongle Encyclopedia
Between 1403 and 1407 more than 2,000 scholars gathered in the Ming Dynasty capital of Nanjing to compile the largest literary project ever undertaken in China. Their task, dictated by the progressive Yongle Emperor, was to create a compendium of all essential Chinese thought and writing. The end result was a handwritten manuscript that totaled 22,937 chapters collected into 11,095 volumes. The completed project proved too expensive to print, and the later Ming emperors lacked their predecessor’s motivation to promulgate the work. The original manuscript of the Yongle Encyclopedia was lost by the end of the 17th century. In 1860 most of the sole manuscript copy of the work (dating to 1567) was lost during the looting and burning of Beijing by Anglo-French forces during the Second Opium War. Today just 4 percent of the original encyclopedia remains.
The Aztec and Mayan Codices
The spoils of conquest usually include the opportunity to erase or rewrite the history of the conquered people. When the fourth Aztec emperor, Itzcoatl, used a military alliance to consolidate the Aztec empire in 1426, he is said to have ordered the destruction of all previous historic records, the better to promulgate a pure story of Aztec origins and power. In Mexico’s Yucatan region, 136 years later, the representative of a different sort of conqueror undertook a similar act. In 1562 Diego de Landa, the leader of the Franciscan order in the Yucatan, ordered the destruction of thousands of Mayan religious and historic artifacts, including at least 27 hieroglyphic manuscripts. Landa viewed his orders as a one-man Inquisition to purify the Mayan people of their old religious practices. Ironically, most of the little we know about Mayan history and religion comes from a book that Landa wrote to support himself after he was sent home to Spain as punishment for his unauthorized actions.
Shakespeare’s Lost (or Maybe Just Mislabeled) Plays
William Shakespeare’s authenticated comedies, histories and tragedies amount to 36 plays, a body of work that has left an outsized mark on the English language. But two 400-year-old scraps of paper suggest that there might have been two other Shakespeare plays now lost to history. A 1598 list of Shakespeare’s then-extant works includes a comedy called “Love’s Labour’s Won.” Many scholars assumed that the title was simply an alternate name for “The Taming of the Shrew. But a 1603 fragment, discovered much later, includes both titles. A similar mystery surrounds a play called “Cardenio,” which is believed to have been co-written by Shakespeare and John Fletcher and presented in June of 1613. If it did exist, “Cardenio” was likely based on a side-story from Miguel de Cervantes’ novel “Don Quixote,” which had appeared in English translation a year earlier—raising the tantalizing prospect of a narrative mash-up between two of the greatest literary minds of their era.
Lord Byron’s Memoirs
George Gordon, Lord Byron, was the quintessential poet of the Romantic era, writing and living with passion, emotion and adventure. In 1816 Byron fled mounting scandal and the breakdown of his marriage to spend the rest of his life in dashing exile throughout Europe, dabbling in foreign affairs in both senses of the term (he romanced a string of Italian women, and would die of fever in 1824 while assisting Greek revolutionaries in their struggle against the Ottoman Empire). Eight years before his death, Byron had entrusted his friend Thomas Moore with his autobiography, scrawled on 78 folio sheets. Days after news of Byron’s passing reached England, Moore, along with esteemed publisher John Murray and another friend (with approval from Byron’s estranged wife) decided to destroy Byron’s autobiography, burning it in Murray’s London fireplace. The men claimed they acted to save Byron and his family from scandal, although Byron himself had written to Murray about the manuscript, claiming he had “left out all my loves (except in a general way) and many other of the most important things (because I must not compromise other people).” Byron had, however, promised “a detailed account of my marriage and its consequences”—which was likely not what his widow wanted.
Gogol’s “Dead Souls” Sequel
In a dark plot twist worthy of the sort of Russian novel he helped pioneer, Nikolai Gogol destroyed the second part of perhaps his greatest work while under the influence of a spiritual adviser who had convinced him that all his creative output was evil. Gogol’s 1842 “Dead Souls,” which depicts a man who roams the Ukrainian countryside buying up the legal rights to deceased serfs as part of a get-rich-quick scheme—is considered one of the most important Russian novels of the 19th century. After burning his nearly complete “Dead Souls” sequel, Gogol immediately regretted it and fell into deep despair, refusing all food until his death nine days later, on March 4, 1852.
Hemingway’s Luggage Lost (and Found)
In December of 1922, Earnest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, left her luggage unattended on a train for a few seconds; when she returned a suitcase containing nearly all of her husband’s unpublished writings had been stolen. Hemingway himself rushed to Paris in a fruitless attempt to recover the lost works, which included a nearly complete novel based on his experiences in World War I. His early work was lost—a break from the past that some literary critics think may have actually spurred his creativity during the decades to come. In 1956 the aging Hemingway had a luckier lost-luggage experience when he recovered two trunks he had left stored in the basement of the Paris Ritz Hotel. These contained the notes and sketches from his experiences of Paris in the late 1920s that would eventually form Hemingway’s posthumous memoir “A Moveable Feast,” published in 1964.
Sylvia Plath’s “Double Exposure”
When American poet and novelist Sylvia Plath took her own life at age 30, she left behind numerous poems and manuscripts, as well as two young children and an estranged husband—the future British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, who became, by virtue of English inheritance laws, her literary executor. Plath’s final months were extraordinarily productive: during them she wrote many of her best poems, including several about her disintegrating marriage. In his 1977 memoir, Hughes revealed that Plath had also “typed some 130 pages of another novel, tentatively titled ‘Double Exposure.’ That manuscript disappeared somewhere around 1970.” Since then, many Plath supporters have questioned Hughes’ passive account of the missing novel, noting that as it was likely autobiographical it would not have portrayed him or his infidelities in a kind light.