10 Famous Authors and Their Unfinished Manuscripts

A portrait of the writer Mark Twain—author of several unfinished manuscripts—circa 1900
A portrait of the writer Mark Twain—author of several unfinished manuscripts—circa 1900
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

What do we do when an author dies with their work unfinished? Do we let it molder in vaults, stash it away in archives, or publish it for all the world to see—even if that’s not what the author intended? The problem crops up more often than you might think, since most authors have many less-than-polished drafts hiding somewhere in their files. And while some authors have asked for unfinished work to be destroyed, doing so just might deprive the world of a treasure. Read on for several examples of unfinished manuscripts from famous authors—some of which you might not have known were technically incomplete.

1. Vladimir Nabokov // The Original of Laura

Before he died in 1977, Vladimir Nabokov left behind an unfinished manuscript for a book he tentatively titled The Original of Laura. In 138 index cards, the book told the story of an “unnamed ‘man of letters’ and a nubile 24-year-old,” as the Guardian put it. In 2008, Nabokov’s son Dmitri revealed that his father had given him spectral permission to publish the book. According to Dmitri, his father appeared to him from beyond the grave and said: “You’re stuck in a right old mess. Just go ahead and publish.”

2. Charles Dickens // The Mystery Of Edwin Drood

When he died in 1870, Dickens had completed only six of his planned dozen installments for The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Unfortunately, his death meant that the identity of the story’s murderer was never revealed—but things might have been different, if Queen Victoria had been into spoilers: Three months before his death Dickens sent a letter to the Queen offering to tell her "a little more of it in advance of her subjects.” She declined the offer, and now we’ll never know what he might have told her. That hasn’t stopped at least a dozen people from writing continuations and adaptations, including one from a Vermont printer who claimed to have channeled Dickens’s ghost with his “spirit pen.”

3. Virgil // The Aeneid

An epic poem set in the years after the Trojan War, The Aeneid was left unfinished when its author, Virgil, died in 19 B.C.E. According to tradition, Virgil asked that the manuscript be burned, but Emperor Augustus ordered that Virgil’s literary executors publish it with as few changes as possible.

4. Mark Twain // The Mysterious Stranger

At his death in 1910, Twain left behind three unfinished manuscripts of three different but related stories—"The Chronicle of Young Satan," "Schoolhouse Hill," and "No. 44, the Mysterious Stranger.” All involved Satan, Satan's nephew, or “No. 44.” Twain’s biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, cobbled the three together into a 1916 book called The Mysterious Stranger, based mostly on “The Chronicle of Young Satan” but with the ending from “No. 44.” The extent to which the work was Paine’s product, as opposed to Twain’s, wasn’t known until the 1960s, when editors published a second version that supposedly stuck closer to Twain’s original intent. The dark, dreamlike story is now considered Twain’s last great work.

5. Kafka's Novels

We would have very little of Franz Kafka’s works if it weren’t for his rebellious friend and fellow writer Max Brod. Kafka didn’t publish much during his life, and left his three big novels—The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika—unfinished when he died in 1924. He asked Brod, his literary executor, to destroy them, but Brod disobeyed, to our benefit.

6. Ernest Hemingway // The Garden of Eden

Ernest Hemingway began The Garden of Eden in 1946 and worked on it intermittently for more than 15 years until his death in 1961, when he left it unfinished. However, the book was finally published in 1986, after a controversial editing process that cut it down by at least two-thirds and ripped out an entire subplot. Intriguingly, some scholars have argued that Hemingway was forging a new direction with the work, both in style and content, which the editing sacrificed and compressed.

7. Truman Capote // Answered Prayers

During the last years of his life, Truman Capote frequently claimed to be working on a book called Answered Prayers. (He signed the contract just two weeks before In Cold Blood hit bookstores and became a spectacular success.) But despite repeatedly extended deadlines with his editors and a generous advance, Answered Prayers was never completed. In 1971, during an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, Capote referred to it as his “posthumous novel,” saying "either I'm going to kill it, or it's going to kill me.’”

Four chapters of the book were finally published in Esquire in 1975 and 1976, with disastrous results: the book was a thinly veiled account of the lifestyles of the rich and famous, many of whom were Capote’s friends. Stunned after recognizing themselves in the chapters, most of Capote’s friends abandoned him—sending the writer into a depressive spiral of drugs and alcohol from which some say he never recovered.

The book’s remaining chapters are something of a mystery. They may still be languishing in a safe deposit box somewhere (some think they’re in a locker at the Los Angeles Greyhound Bus Depot). Others think they may have never existed, despite all of Capote’s talk. Nevertheless, three of the chapters from Esquire were published in book form in 1987 (three years after Capote died) under the title Answered Prayers: The Unfinished Novel. Critics weren’t kind. One said: "It was never finished because it wasn't going anywhere."

8. Gogol // Dead Souls

Russian writer Nikolai Gogol left much of the second part of his masterwork Dead Souls unfinished. He is said to have burned a large portion of a completed part two just a few weeks before his death during a religious fast. As is, the book ends mid-sentence, although scholars debate whether or not this was intentional.

9. Robert Musil // The Man Without Qualities

One of the most important European novels of the 20th century was left unfinished by its author, Austrian Robert Musil, at his death in 1942. Musil worked on the three-volume "story of ideas," which takes place in Vienna at the onset of World War I, for more than 20 years—eventually producing a manuscript that stretched close to 2000 pages. Two of the volumes were published in the 1930s, and the last volume was published posthumously with the help of Musil's wife, Martha. Though it brought Musil little attention during his life, it's now considered a key work of literary modernism.

10. Geoffrey Chaucer // The Canterbury Tales

Chaucer worked on The Canterbury Tales for 25 years, until his death in 1400. Although it already contains more than 20 tales—supposedly told by pilgrims conducting a story-telling contest while on their way to Canterbury Cathedral—Chaucer originally planned the work to be much longer. The incomplete nature of the tales led other medieval authors to try and finish what Chaucer started, although he undoubtedly would have won any story-telling contest himself.

This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019.

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J.K. Rowling to Release New Children’s Book The Ickabog for Free Online

J.K. Rowling is helping kids (and adults) pass the time in quarantine with a story about a mysterious creature called the Ickabog.
J.K. Rowling is helping kids (and adults) pass the time in quarantine with a story about a mysterious creature called the Ickabog.
John Phillips/Getty Images

In the middle of writing Harry Potter novels, J.K. Rowling began work on a new book called The Ickabog, which she read to her children in installments as a bedtime story and planned to release once Harry Potter was behind her. Instead, she ended up taking a well-earned hiatus from publishing children’s books that lasted more than a decade.

Today, however, Rowling announced that not only will she publish The Ickabog, but she’s doing it for free as a serialized novel online. The first two chapters have already been posted on The Ickabog website, and you can look forward to a new section each weekday between now and July 10, 2020. The story, which isn’t related to Harry Potter or the Wizarding World, takes place in the fictional kingdom of Cornucopia, where King Fred the Fearless rules with his best friends, Lords Spittleworth and Flapoon, by his side. There, a young boy named Bert Beamish is terrified by the legend of the Ickabog, a mysterious, malevolent creature that allegedly snatches up unsuspecting children all over the countryside. According to Rowling, the story is about “truth and the abuse of power,” and it’s best suited for children up to age 9.

This November, the book will be published in print, e-book, and audiobook formats, and Rowling will donate all author royalties to as-yet-unspecified “groups who’ve been particularly impacted by the pandemic.” She’s also asking readers to enter their illustrations of the story in a competition for a chance to be featured in the print edition this fall. Suggestions of what images the publishers might need for each chapter are listed on the website—the first two chapters, for example, call for pictures of King Fred and his friends, the Ickabog, a map and flag of Cornucopia, Lady Eslanda, and pastries, cheese, sausages, and wine—but it’s made clear that “nobody should feel constrained by these ideas.”

You can find out more about The Ickabog, read the story, and enter the illustration competition here.