Ten Ways to Lose Your Literature

January 25, 2021 | 27 min read

“I have built a monument more durable than bronze.”

Inconceivable that a man with a disposition like Ben Jonson’s wouldn’t take an offered drink, and so it can be expected that the poet would enjoy a few when he completed his four-hundred mile, several months long walk from London to Edinburgh in the summer of 1618. Mounted as a proto-publicity stunt, Jonson’s walk was a puckish journey between the island’s two kingdoms, where once the Poet Laurette was in view of the stolid, black-stoned Edinburgh Castle upon its craggy green hill he’d be hosted by his Scottish equivalent, William Drummond of Hawthornden.

At a dinner on September 26th, the bill for victuals was an astonishing (for the time) £221 6s 4d. Imagine the verse composed at that dinner, the lines jotted onto scraps or belted out as revelries, the lost writing which constitutes the far larger portion of any author’s engagement with words. Also his engagement with ale and sack, for it was Jonson’s loose tongue that led to a discussion about a different type of literature lost to posterity, when he confessed that one of their poetic colleagues, a Reader of Divinity at Lincoln’s Inn named Dr. John Donne, had decades before attempted a scurrilous mock-epic entitled Metempsychosis; or, The Progress of the Soule.

Drawing its title from a Pythagorean doctrine that’s roughly similar to reincarnation, Donne’s Metempsychosis is a poem wherein he sings the “progress of a deathless soul, /Whom Fate, which God made, but doth not control, /Placed in most shapes.” He abandoned the project some 520 lines later. Drummond recorded that Jonson had said that the “conceit of Donne’s transformation… was that he sought the soul of the Apple which Eve pulled, and thereafter made it the soul of a Bitch, then of a she-wolf, and so of a woman.” Written before Donne converted to Protestantism, Metempsychosis was a parody of the Reformation, whereby the “soul” of the forbidden fruit would migrate through various personages in history, contaminating them with its malevolence. Jonson told Drummond that “His general purpose was to have brought in all the bodies of the Heretics from the soul of Cain,” perhaps moving through other villains from Haman to Judas.

As it was, Donne mostly charted the apple’s soul through various animal permutations, ending with Cain rather than starting with him. It seems that Donne feared his own mind, and the inexorable logic that drove his poem to a conclusion which was unacceptable. Donne “wrote but one sheet, and now since he was made a Doctor he repented highly and seeketh to destroy all his poems.” Jonson thought that Donne’s intent was to have the final manifestation of that evil spirit appear in the guise of John Calvin. Others have identified an even more politically perilous coda to Metempsychosis, when the at-the-time staunchly Catholic Donne imagined that the “great soul which here amongst us now/Doth dwell, and moves that hand, and tongue, and brow… (For ‘tis the crown, and last strain of my song)” and assumed that the poet was speaking of Elizabeth I.

cover Biographer John Stubb notes in John Donne: The Reformed Soul that Metempsychosis was “a politically directed piece of writing,” which is the biggest reason why none of you will ever read the entire poem. Donne himself wrote to a friend of his that there must be “an assurance upon the religion of your friendship that no copy shall be taken for any respect.” Metempsychosis is one way of losing your words. Literature as fragment, literature as rough draft, literature as the discarded. The history of writing is also the shadow history of the abandoned, a timeline of false-starts and of aborted attempts. What Donne wrote of Metempsychosis is, even in its stunted form, the longest poem which the lyricist ever penned, and yet it’s a literary homunculus, never brought to fruition. Never burnt upon the pyres by his critics either, because it would never be completed.

This is a syllabus of all which you shall never read: Jane Austen’s Sanditon, which exists only in outline form written in 1817, the year its author died of Addison’s disease, and that promised to tell the narrative of Sir Edward Denham whose “great object in life was to be seductive.” John Milton’s epic about Merlin entitled The Arthuriad. Over 2/3rds of the work of Aristotle, with all that survives composed of lecture notes. A thundering abolitionist speech delivered by the congressman Abraham Lincoln on May 29, 1856, where one observer said that he spoke “like a giant inspired.” Isle of the Cross by Herman Melville, which told the tale of romance between the Nantucket maiden Agatha Hatch Robertson and a shipwrecked sailor and crypto-bigamist. Melville explained in a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne that Isle of the Cross concerned “the great patience & endurance, & resignedness of the women of the island in submitting so uncomplainingly to the long, long absences of their sailor husbands” (Rejected by publishers; no record ).

cover A series of versified narratives of Aesop penned by Socrates, the philosopher famed for despising writing. Hypocritical though Socrates may have been, he inspired Plato to burn all of the poems he wrote, and to argue for the banning of such trifles in The Republic. Sacred scripture has its absences as well, for the Bible references any number of ostensibly divine books which are to be found nowhere today. The Book of the Covenant mentioned in Exodus 24:7, The Book of the Wars of the Lord cited in Numbers 21:14, Acts of Uzziah whose authority is checked at Chronicles 26:22, and the evocatively titled Sayings of the Seers, which is called upon at Chronicles 33:19. Stuart Kelly, author of The Book of Lost Books: An Incomplete History of All the Great Books You’ll Never Read, notes of the Bible that it is “A sepulcher of possible authors, a catafalque of contradictory texts.” Scripture is a “library, but one in ruins.” Scholars know that there are, for example, a Gospel of Perfection and even more arrestingly a Gospel of Eve, neither of which made the final cut or whose whereabouts are known today.

Of the sacred books of the oracular Roman Sibyllines, not a single hexameter survives. Concerning sublime Sappho, she who was celebrated as the tenth muse, only one complete lyric endures. Nor are Socrates and Aristotle the only Greek philosophers for whom posterity records virtually none of their original writings; the great Cynic Diogenes of Sinope, who lived in an urn, masturbated in the Agora, and told Alexander the Great that the only thing the ruler of the world could do for him is get out of the light, supposedly wrote several manifestos, none of which still exists.  

In 1922 a suitcase filled with Ernest Hemingway’s papers, including the draft of a finished World War I novel, was stolen from Paris’ Gare de Lyon Metro station. A few decades later and the Marxist theorist Walter Benjamin fled towards the Spanish border after the Nazis invaded France, with a briefcase containing a manuscript. He’d commit suicide in Portbou, Spain in fear that the SS was following; when his confidant Hannah Arendt arrived in America, she tried to find Benjamin’s book, but the draft is seemingly lost forever. Lord Byron’s manuscripts weren’t misplaced, but were burned at the urging of his Scottish publisher John Murray, who was horrified by the wanton sexuality in the famed rake’s autobiography, not least of which may have been a confession of an incestuous relationship with his sister. Nineteenth-century critic William Gifford said that the poet’s recollections were “fit only for a brothel and would have damned Lord Byron to everlasting infamy.”

Franz Kafka desired that the entirety of his unpublished corpus be destroyed by his friend Max Brod, writing that “whatever you happen to find, in the way of notebooks, manuscripts, letters, my own and other people’s, sketches and so on, is to be burned unread to the last page.” Unfortunately for Kafka, but to literature’s benefit, Brod turned out to be a terrible friend. Of that which survives, however, much was incomplete, including Kafka’s novel Amerika with its infamous description of the Statue of Liberty holding a sword aloft over New York Harbor. A very different type of burning was that of the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, who was holed up in a Moscow apartment when the Soviet Union was invaded by the Nazis. Bakhtin was forced to use his manuscript as cigarette paper. The book which he was working on, which would mostly go up in tobacco smoke, was a study of the German novel.  

Of the ninety plays which Euripides wrote, only eighteen survive. Aeschylus also wrote ninety tragedies, but of his, only six can be performed today. From his play The Loves of Achilles only one haunting line survives — “Love feels like the ice held in the hand by children.” Sophocles’ has seven plays which are extant, but we know that he penned an astounding 123 dramas. William Shakespeare was the author of a Love’s Labours Won and with his later collaborator John Fletcher a lost play based on Miguel Cervantes novel Don Quixote entitled The History of Cardenio, an irresistible phantom text. Hamlet, it has been convincingly argued, was based on an earlier play most likely written by Thomas Kyd which scholars have given the clinical name of Ur-Hamlet, though no traces of that original are available. Our friend Jonson also has a significant number of lost works, not least of which was 1597’s The Isle of Dogs which he cowrote with Thomas Nash and that was briefly performed at the Bankside Theater. Like Donne’s poem, the subject matter of The Isle of Dogs was potentially treasonous, with the Privy Council ruling that it contained “very seditious and slanderous matter,” banning the play, and briefly arresting its two authors.

When it comes to such forgotten, hidden, and destroyed texts, Kelly argues that a “lost book is susceptible to a degree of wish fulfillment. The lost book… becomes infinitely more alluring simply because it can be perfect only in the imagination.” Hidden words have a literary sublimity because they are hidden; their lacunae functions as theme. Mysteriousness is the operative mood of lost literature; whether it’s been victim of water or fire, negligence or malfeasance, history or entropy, what unites them is their unknowability. They are collectively the great unsolved of literature. There’s a bit of Metempsychosis about it, with a more benign lost soul connecting a varied counter-canon from Aristotle to Byron to Austen to Hemingway. Pythagoras who believed that all souls and ideas were united by an unseen divine filament which replicated throughout eternity and infinity would have some insight on the matter. Sadly, none of Pythagoras’ writings happen to survive.  

The claim that Hernan Cortez was welcomed by Montezuma into Tenochtitlanthat city of verandas, squares, canals, and temples as if he were the feather-plumed Quetzalcoatl, owes much to the accounts gathered by Bernardino de Sahagun. The Franciscan friar assembled a group of Nahuatl speakers to preserve what remained of Aztec culture, including folklore, philosophy, religion, history, and linguistics. This sliver would be preserved in the Florentine Codex, named after the Italian city where it would one day be housed. The Nahuatl authors attempted to resurrect the world of their parents, when Tenochtitlan was larger and more resplendent than any European city, a collection of cobalt colored palaces, observatories, and libraries such that the conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo recalled “seeing things never before heard of, never before seen.” Miguel Leon-Portilla translates much of the Florentine Codex in The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico, an evocation of that which “had been stormed and destroyed, and a great host of people killed and plundered… causing terror wherever they went, until the news of the destruction spread through the whole land.”

cover Cortez’s conquest took two years and was completed by 1521. Eight years later, the Spanish inquisitor Juan de Zumarraga, fabled in his native land as a witch-hunter, arrived and assembled a massive auto-de-fe of Aztec and Mayan bookswith the Mestizo historian Juan Bautista Pomar noting that such treasures “were burned in the royal houses of Nezahualpiltzintli, in a large depository which was the general archive.” If Cortez was guilty of killing thousands of Aztecs, ultimately millions in the pandemics he spread, then Zumarraga was a murderer of memory. One assaulted the body and the other the mind, but the intent was the same — the extinction of a people. Lucien X. Polastron writes in Books on Fire: The Tumultuous Story of the World’s Great Libraries that the “conquistador was there to kill and capture, the cleric to erase; the bishop fulfilled his mission while satisfying his conscious desire to destroy the pride and memory of the native people.” The Jesuit Jose de Acosta mourned that “We’ve lost many memoires of ancient and secret things, that could have been of great utility. This derives from a foolish zeal,” it being left to those like Sahagun to try and redeem the Spanish of this holocaust they’d unleashed.

In A Universal History of the Destruction of Books: From Ancient Sumer to Modern-day Iraq by Fernando Baez argues that “books are not destroyed as physical objects but as links to memory… There is no identity without memory. If we do not remember what we are, we don’t know what we are.” Zumarraga’s atrocity is only one of many examples, including the destruction of the famed library at Alexandria and the 1536 Dissolution of the Monasteries when the English King Henry VIII would immolate Roman Catholic books in a campaign of terror which destroyed almost the entirety of the early medieval English literary heritage, save for a few token works like Beowulf which would be later rediscovered. Paradoxically, burning books is an acknowledgement of the charged power contained therein.

Sometime in 1857, an enslaved woman named Hannah Bond escaped from the North Carolina plantation of John Hill Wheeler. Light-skinned enough to pass as white, Bond dressed in drag and boarded a train due-north, eventually arriving in upstate New York. There Bond would board with a Craft family, from whom she would take her new surname. Eventually the newly christened Hannah Craft would pen in careful hand-writing a novel entitled The Bondswoman’s Narrative, the title perhaps a pun on its author’s previous slave name. Displaying a prodigious knowledge of the books in Wheeler’s library which Craft had been able to read in stolen moments, The Bondwoman’s Narrative is a woven quilt of influences (like all novels are); a palimpsest of things read but not forgotten.

There are scraps of Horace Walpolecover ’s gothic pot-boiler The Castle of Otranto and Charlotte Bronte’s tale of a woman constrained in Jane Eyre; Harriet Beecher Stowe’s sentimentalized slavery in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the poet Phyliss Wheatley’s evocation of bondage, and more than any other literary influence that of Charles DickensBleak House. Drawing from the brutal facts of her own life, The Bondwoman’s Narrative concerns another Hannah’s escape from a plantation. “In presenting this… to a generous public I feel a certain degree of diffidence and self-distrust,” wrote Craft, “I ask myself or the hundredth time How will such a literary venture, coming from a sphere so humble be received?” Written sometime between 1855 (possibly while still in North Carolina) and 1861 (during the earliest days of the Civil War), Craft’s question wouldn’t be answered until 2002, after the manuscript was found squirreled away in a New Jersey attic.

cover As far as we know, The Bondswoman’s Narrative is the only surviving novel by an enslaved black woman. There were an assemblage of slave narratives ranging from Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative from 1789 to Solomon Northup’s terrifying 1853 captivity narrative Twelve Years a Slave and Frederick Douglass’ autobiographical trilogy. Purchased at auction by the Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, who would edit, annotate, and publish the book, Craft’s rediscovery evokes the biblical story about King Josiah restoring Jerusalem’s Temple after finding the Book of Deuteronomy, its purpose to restore a sense of justice. Craft’s intent was that Americans must “recognize the hand of Providence in giving to the righteous the reward of their works, and to the wicked the fruit of their doings.”  

There is no discussing lost literature without consideration of that which is found. Just as all literature is haunted by the potential of oblivion, so all lost books are animated by the redemptive hope of their rediscovery. Craft’s book is the mark of a soul; evidence of that which is left over after the spirit has told us what it needs to tell us, even if it takes centuries to hear. A miracle in its rediscovery, Craft’s book is the rare survivor from hell that teaches us how much is lost as humans are lost. What lyrics were written in the minds of those working plantations which we shall never read; what verse revised in the thoughts of those being marched into the gas chamber? This is among the saddest of all lost literature. Craft’s rediscovery provides the divine promise of that canon of lost books—that literature may be lost, but maybe only for a time.

During the spring of 2007, I read the entirety of the pre-Socratic metaphysician Democritus. The assignment took me forty-five minutes. I did it in a Starbucks on Forbes Avenue in Pittsburgh and my Venti wasn’t even cold by the time I finished. When we consider literature that has been lost, literature which has survived, and literature that has been rediscovered, it must be understood that much is fragmentary — sometimes in the extreme. Democritus, the “laughing philosopher,” the father of science, who first conceived of atoms, endures in about six photocopied pages. “And yet it will be obvious that it is difficult to really know of what sort each thing is,” reads one of Democritus’ surviving fragments, and how correct he was.

Democritus is not unique; most ancient philosophers exist either only in quotation, paraphrase, or reputation. No tomes survive of Thales, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Protagoras, or Zeno, only some flotsam and jetsam here and there. As I’ve already mentioned, Pythagoras has no words of his which survive, and all of Aristotle is turgid second-hand lecture notes. The classical inheritance of Greece and Rome exists, where it does, in shards. Harvard University Press’s celebrated Loeb Classical Library, which prints translations of Greek and Latin literature, has 542 books in the entire sequence, from Apollonius to Xenophon. More than can be read in a long weekend, no doubt, but easily accessible during the course of a lifetime (or a decade). Easy to assume that the papyri of Athens and Rome were kindling for Christians who condemned such pagan heresy, though that’s largely a slander. The reality is more prosaic, albeit perhaps more disturbing in a different way. Moisture did more to betray the classical past than Christianity did; for decay is a patient monarch willing to wilt Plato as much as a grocery list. Something to remember as we have our endless culture wars about what should or shouldn’t be in the canon. What’s remembered happens to simply be what we have.  

coverFragmentation defines literature — there is a haunting of all which can’t be. Fragments are faint whispers of canons inaccessible. Lacunae is sometimes structured into writing itself, for literature is a graveyard filled with corpses. Sometimes a body is hidden in plain sight – consider Shakespeare’s Sonnet 146. That poem begins “Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth, / […] these rebel powers that thee array.” Because the meter is so aggressively broken, it’s understood that a typesetter’s mistake was responsible for the deletion of whatever the poet intended. Jarring to realize that Shakespeare is forever marred with an ellipsis. Dan Peterson writes in Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A New Commentary that the aporia in the poem “tends to obsess most commentators,” but that the “poem deserves it; we shouldn’t allow it to be completely ruined by a compositor thinking about his dinner.” Several pages are spent by Peterson trying to use prosody in the service of forensics, with various degrees of plausibility entertained, including Shakespeare having possibly meant to write “fenced by,” “starv’d by,” or “fooled by,” all of which any good New Critic will tell you would imply wildly different interpretations.

I’d like to offer an alternative possibility, based not on sober scansion but irresponsible conjecture. Peterson notes that the sonnet is one which “says that the body is a lousy home for the soul, which ends enslaved to its gaudy, pointless, sensual, self-consuming worldliness… it proposes nothing sort of renunciation of worldly things, a mortification of the flesh in exchange for the revival and revivification of the spirit.” Maybe then the gap is the point, an indication that the matter of the poem can never really intimate the soul of meaning, where the black hole of the typographical mistake is actually as if an open grave, an absolute zero of meaning that sublimely demonstrates the theme of the sonnet itself? Because the gulf between printed word and the meanings which animate them is a medium for sublimity, the entirety of all that which we don’t know and can never read as infinite as the universe itself.

In the first-century the Roman critic Longinus, whose identity is unknown beyond his name (another way to lose your literature), argued that the “Sublime leads the listeners not to persuasion, but to ecstasy… the Sublime, giving to speech an invincible power and strength, rises above every listener.” Romantic era critics saw the sublime in the Alps and the Lake District; American transcendentalists saw it in the Berkshires and Adirondacks. For myself, I gather the trembling fear of the sublime when I step into the Boston Public Library at Copley Square, when I cross the fierce Fifth Avenue lions of the New York Public Library, and underneath the green-patina roof of the Library of Congress. To be surrounded by the enormity of all that has been written which you shall never read both excites and horrifies me – all the more so when you consider all that is lost to us, whether from misplacement, destruction, or having never been written in the first place (the last category the most sublime of all).

cover Longinus’s “On the Sublime” is also fragmented, struck through with gaps and errors. He tantalizes us at one point with “There is one passage in Herodotus which is generally credited with extraordinary sublimity,” but there is nothing more sublime than a vacuum, for what follows is nothing. Latter he promises that “loosely allied to metaphors are comparisons and similes, differing only in this,” but the page is missing. And at one point he claims that Genesis reads “Let there be light, and there was. Let there be earth, and there was,” though it could be entertained that Longinus is simply quoting an alternative version of the Bible which is lost. His essay was built with words from hidden collections, a gesture towards Alberto Manguel’s observation in The Library at Night that the “weight of absence is as much a feature of any library as the constriction of order or space… by its very existence, [it] conjures up its forbidden or forgotten double.”

W.H. Auden was the most ruthless self-editor as his decades-long war of attrition against his most celebrated lyric, “September 1st, 1939,” demonstrates. Originally published in the New Republic on the occasion of Adolph Hitler’s invasion of Poland, “September 1st, 1939” is well-remembered and well-loved for a reason. “I sit in one of those dives/On Fifty-second street,” where Auden hears news of the panzer divisions rushing towards Warsaw and Krakow. Here among mundanity, where “Faces along the bar/Cling to their average day,” Auden invokes feelings all too familiar to us in the contemporary moment (hence the endurance of the poem), these “Waves of anger and fear” felt by the drinkers at the bar; men who feel “Uncertain and afraid/As the clever hopes expire/Of a low dishonest decade.” Nonetheless, Auden maintains that the “lights must never go out, /The music must always play,” in the penultimate stanza including a line that has moved people for eight decades – “We must love one another or die.”  

cover Eighteen years later and Auden would write to a critic that “Between you and me, I loathe that poem.” He saw it as sentimental pablum; most importantly Auden felt that it was simply a lie. His biographer Edward Mendelsohn explains in Early Auden, Later Auden: A Critical Biography that “By his own standards, if not those of his readers, these public poems failed.” In later editions he changed the line to “We must love one another and die,” the conjunction giving an entirely different meaning (albeit literally truer). The red pen is not easily pulled out once a book is in print, for though he omitted the line in collections released in both 1945 and 1966, it was inevitable that “September 1st, 1939” would circulate, even though he wrote that it was “trash which he is ashamed to have written.” This poem is not lost literature, but rather a case of a failed attempt to have buried the word. Impossible to imagine that Auden didn’t despair at the simple fact that there had been a time when he could have strangled the poem in the crib, that before “September 1st, 1939” was sent out into the world the sovereign power of the strike-through had still once been his.

cover Luckily for us Auden didn’t do that, but it does demonstrate that one of the most effective means of losing literature is in editing and revising. How many innumerable drafts of famous novels and poems exist, revisions immeasurable? If there is any modernist credo, it’s one of valorizing the red pen. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s injunction to “kill your darlings,” and anecdotes about Hemingway writing a staggering forty-seven drafts of A Farewell to Arms (but only one of his novels is in some tossed luggage somewhere). Such is the masochism of contemporary composition advice, whereby if there is one inviolate truism it’s that writing isn’t writing unless its rewriting. Vladimir Nabokov who bragged that “My pencils outlast their erasers”; Truman Capote saying “I believe in the scissors”; and E.B. White and William Strunk’s commandment in The Elements of Style that “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words” (I reject that advice). Lean, muscular, masculine, taut, minimalist prose was the point of writing, and as such loss became an intrinsic part of literature itself.

coverHannah Sullivan in her brilliant The Work of Revision examines how the cult of editing emerged, looking at how technology in part facilitated the possibility of multiple drafts. With the introduction of mechanical means of composition (i.e. the typewriter) authors had, for the first time, the possibility to relentlessly write and rewrite, and a certain ethos of toughness surrounding the culling of words developed. “Our irrepressible urge to alter ‘the givens’ helped to create Modernism,” argues Sullivan, and “remakes us right to the end.” In some ways, contemporary technology haunts us with the ghosts of exorcised drafts more than mere typewriters ever could. Sullivan had a record of typed pages to look back at: drafts with underlined and struck out passages, a cacophony of addition carrots and transposition marks and the eternal promise of “TK,” rendered in ink and whiteout, but she had a record.

With Word processing, editing and revision can be instantaneous in a manner that they couldn’t with a Remington, so that drafts exist layered on top of each other, additions and deletions happening rapidly in real time, with no record of what briefly existed before like some quantum fluctuation. A final copy is the result of writing, but is not writing itself. It rather represents the aftermath of a struggle between the author and the word, merely the final iteration of something massive, and copious, and large spreading its tendrils unseen backwards into a realm of lost literature. Revision is a rhizomatic thing, each one of the branches of potential writing hidden and holding aloft the tiny plant. A final draft is the corpse left over after the life that is writing has ended.  

How talented an actor must Edwin Forrest have been that on May 10th, 1849 his fans would be willing to riot in his defense after it was perceived that he was being slighted by rival thespian William Charles Macready? The two had long come to blows in the press over who was the superior Shakespearean actor, and they each had their own partisans. Where Macready was delicate and refined, Forest was rough-hewn and rugged; Macready delivered his lines with elegance, Forest with swagger and punch. Advocates for Macready watched their hero perform Hamlet in the palatial theaters of Broadway; the faction of Forrest was content to drink and brawl in front of the Bowery’s stages. Most importantly, Macready was British and Forrest an American. Shakespeare was thus an issue of patriotic loyalty, with Nigel Cliff writing in The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama, and Death in Nineteenth-Century America that the Bard was “fought over, in frontier saloons no less than in aristocratic salons, with an almost hysterical passion.”

“Early in life,” Forrest once said, “I took a great deal of exercise and made myself what I am, a Hercules.” The “Bowery Boys” of the Five Points slums were delighted by Forrest’s American self-regard. Which actor you preferred, and whose style of delivery you saw as superior, said much about who you were as a person. Forrest was preferred by the working class, both Know Nothing nativists and Irish immigrants thrilled to him, while the Anglophilic New York aristocracy attended Macready plays in droves. Following three nights of rambunctious, mocking “Bowery Boys” buying seats out at Macready’s title performance in Macbeth (of course) at the Astor Place Opera, a riot would explode, leaving as many as three dozen people dead, and over a hundred injured. The worst violence in the city since British prison ships dotted the harbor during the Revolution, and until the Draft Riots would burn through New York during the Civil War. All of it over the power of performances that none of us shall ever see.  

No literature is more intrinsic to human experience than performance, and no literature is more perishable. The New York World said that Forrest had “head tones that splintered rafters,” and reviewers noted the distinctive elongated pauses of Macready’s delivery, but the fact is that theirs is an art that will never be accessible to us. Sometimes Macready is configured as a stuffy Laurence Olivier to Forrest’s virile Marlon Brando, but more than likely both would have performed in the rigid, stylized style that reigned supreme in a theater where there was no technology that could amplify voices and where the idea of the naturalistic method would have seemed bizarre. We can’t really know though — Forrest died in 1872, followed less than six months later by Macready, both within five years of Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph.

cover We know a tremendous amount about the men, and eventually the women, who first performed some of the most iconic of plays centuries before Forrest and Macready. Even with contemporary accounts, however, we’ll never actually be able to see Richard Burbage, knowing rather the names of the characters he first played — Hamlet, Lear, Othello. Likewise, the Elizabethan comedian Richard Tarlton has had his monologues rendered mute by history. Or the Kings Men’s great comedic actor William Kempe, famous for his improvisational shit-talking at jeering audiences, though none of his jibes come down to us, even while it believed that he was instrumental in the composition of one of his most famous characters – Lear’s fool. And the incomparable Edward Alleyn, confidant of Christopher Marlowe (and son-in-law of Donne) who was regarded as the greatest actor to ever grace the Rose Theater stage, and who mastered a subtle art so ephemeral that it disappeared the moment the play ended. Of this assemblage, Stanley Wells writes in Shakespeare & Co.: Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Dekker, Ben Jonson, John Middleton, John Fletcher and the Other Players in His Story that they were “leading actors who would have been stars whenever they were born.” Well, maybe. Who is to say?

Part of the glory of the theater is its gossamer transience, the way in which each performance is different, how it can’t be replicated. A script is an inert thing, while the play is the thing forever marked by its own impermanence. In the years after Macready and Forrest died, Edison gave us the illusion of eternity, the idea that voices and images could be preserved. Nothing signaled a greater shift in human consciousness over the past millennium than the myth that both very far away or long after somebody’s death (not dissimilar states) that their identity could be preserved in an eternal present. We can’t watch Forrest or Macready — but we can Olivier and Brando. It seems fundamentally different, a way of catching forever the ephemeral nature of performance, of preserving the fleeting. An illusion though, for decay just takes longer to come. Film must have seemed a type of immortality, but it’s estimated that 75% of silent films are lost forever, and as many as 90% of all films made before 1929. Flammable nitrate and the fickle junking of Hollywood studios proved as final as death, because not only can you never watch Forrest or Macready, you also can’t see Lon Chaney in London After Midnight, Theda Bara in Cleopatra, or Humor Risk — the first film starring the Marx Brothers.

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“It is one hundred years since our children left,” reads a cryptic, anonymous missive in the town record of the German city of Hamelin from 1384. The only evidence for the basis of that disturbing fairy tale about the Pied Piper, he of mottled cloth and hypnotic music who drew all of the children of the town away from their parents after he’d already depleted it of vermin. Fairy tales operate by strange dream logic, chthonic echoes from the distant past which exist half-remembered in our culture. Hypotheses have been proffered as to what the story may have been based on, why those children were taken. Explanations include that the youth of the city were victims of mass psychosis in a manner similar to the outbreaks of compulsive dancing which marked the late Middle Ages; it’s been suggested that they were victims of plague, that they’d been sold into slavery, or that they’d been recruited by a roving preacher to join one of the ill-fated “Children’s Crusades” that sent thousands of adolescents off to the Levant. Regardless of the basis for the fairy tale, it’s story has played down in our culture like an idee fix, in the nineteenth-century appearing not just in the Brothers Grimm’s Children’s and Household Tales, but also in poems by Johann Goethe and Robert Browning, with “Pied Piper” a short-hand for the siren’s manipulative call.

cover Who then “authored” the original story? Do we credit the reinvention of the Grimm’s as its origin, do we count the source material from which they drew their inspiration, does each text influenced by the tale stand on its own? Was it whatever forlorn ancestor made that annotation in Hamlin’s ledger? The Pied Piper himself? The nature of a fairy tale is that everyone is their reader but nobody is their author. Jack Zipes writes in Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre that “We respond to these classical tales almost as if we were born with them, and yet, we know full well that they have been socially produced and induced and continue to be generated.” The Grimms and other Romantic-minded folklorists saw the fairy tale as arising spontaneously from the collective genius of the people, and there is a sense in which these anonymous tales are a collaborative venture of composition which takes places over centuries, millennia even. They are, in a sense, examples of lost literature finding itself, their creators’ anonymity a different form of oblivion.

The fairy tales which we all seem to intuitively know — Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Rumpelstiltskin — were collected by linguists like the Brothers Grimm, but it was in the twentieth-century that folklorists were actually able to categorize them. Chief among the classification systems developed for fairy tales is the Aarne-Thompson-Uthar Index, a complex method of charting the various narrative relationships between disparate stories, with an accompanying numeric mark to distinguish individual narratives. Cinderella, for example, is ATU 510A; Beauty and the Beast is ATU 425C. Scholars were able to thus chart stories to their potential beginnings. The tale of Cinderella finds its earliest iteration in ancient Greek writings of the geographer Strabo; researchers at the University of Durham have been able to ascertain that the Beast first met Belle in a version from an astounding four-thousand years ago. Jamie Terhani and Sara Graça da Silva, the folklorists who used phylogenetic means to chart alterations in Indo-European languages so as to estimate the approximate age of various fairy tales, have claimed that The Devil and the Smith (of which the Faust legend is an iteration) may have first been told six millennia ago.   

cover So many variations, so many lost stories, whispered only to infants in swaddling clothe over millennia. We can never know what exactly the earliest version of those stories was like; we’ll never know the names of those who composed them. Fairy tales pull at our soul like the vestigial leg of an amputee, a dull ache of people long since gone whose stories we still tell even though we’ve forgotten the creators. Anonymous literature of this sort is the most intimate, told to children before bed-time, repeated to families preparing food around a kitchen table. “I would venture to guess that Anon,” wrote Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, “who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” Such is the lost literature of our mothers, and our grandmothers, of “Anon” who is the greatest writer who ever lived (or didn’t).  Nothing is as intrinsic to our sense of identity like these sorts of stories, when all else is stripped away from us — popular paper backs, avant-garde experimentation, canonical literature — fairy tales will remain. While our libraries are inscribed with names like “Shakespeare” and “Cervantes,” we’ll never be able to chisel into stone the legion of those who composed Cinderella.

Since his brother died, Amadeo Garcia Garcia can only speak his native tongue to another human in his dreams. His language was once used to express love and anger, to console and castigate, to build, to instruct, to preserve, now relegated only to nocturnal phantoms. Over the last several decades, fewer and fewer people were able to understand Taushiro, till only Garcia’s immediate family knew the language, and now they’ve all died. A linguistic isolate spoken in the Peruvian Amazon, Taushiro is like all languages in that its syntax and grammar, its morphology and diction, necessarily shapes its speaker’s perception of reality.

Journalist Nicholas Casey who introduced Garcia’s story to the world in a New York Times article notes that the “entire fate of the Taushiro people now lies with its last speaker, a person who never expected such a burden and has spent much of his life overwhelmed by it.” When it joins that graveyard of discarded language, alongside Akkadian and Manx, Ainu and Etruscan, what will pass is nothing so dry as a dictionary, but an entire vision of the world. Literature is language and all languages are literature, forged collaboratively in the discourse between people. When the only ones left to talk to are ghosts of dead loved ones in dreams, it’s as if the coda for an entire universe.

Linguist K. David Harrison explains in When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge what exactly is at stake. As of the turn of this century, there were 6,912 distinct languages spoken in the world, albeit the vast majority of those spoken by exceedingly few people (as with Taushiro and its speakership of one). He explains that 204 of those languages have less than ten speakers, and that an additional 344 have no more than a hundred. By the end of this century, the number of spoken languages will be half that previous number, if we’re lucky. Victim to globalization and “development,” Harrison says that we stand to lose an “immense edifice of human knowledge, painstakingly assembled over millennia by countless minds, [which] is eroding, vanishing into oblivion.”

Garcia can give us indications of what the stories he heard from his parents were like, of how it feels to speak a language that doesn’t distinguish between numbers, or where diction is whittled down to a pristine simplicity, but we’ll never really know since none of us can speak Taushiro. It was the anthropologist Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Whorf who made the fullest argument as to the way that these unique qualities produce thought, where language isn’t the result of ideas, but rather that ideas were the result of language. Their estimation was that things like tense, person, subject-verb-object order, and so on, don’t just convey information—they create it. Whorf was an insurance claims adjuster intimately aware of how much of reality depends on the language through which we sieve our experience; it was he who was responsible for the convention of “flammable” things being marked as such, as opposed to the grammatically correct “inflammable,” which he had discovered people took to mean the opposite.   

Their Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is succinctly stated by the first of the two in his 1929 The Status of Linguistics as a Science, when he argued that “Human beings do not live in the objective world alone… but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society… The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached.” English is not French is not Greek is not Farsi is not Punjabi. Taushiro is not English. Translation is feeling about in a darkened room and being able to discern the outline of the door, but it doesn’t give one the ability to step through into the other room (only perhaps to hear some muffled conversation with an ear pressed against the wall).

When a tongue has genuinely stopped moving there is an insurmountable difference separating us from its literature. We’ll never quire get the fear in Elamite accounts of Alexander the Great invading the Achaemenid Empire; nor understand the vanquished pathos of the god Chemosh speaking in his native Moabite; or the longing implicit in the poetry of Andalusian Arabic. Each one of those languages had their own last speakers, as lonely as Garcia, like Lot surveying his destroyed home and thinking he was the last man on Earth, or as its said in Taushiro, “Ine aconahive ite chi yi tua tieya ana na’que I’yo lo’.”

A thousand virgin trees have been planted in the Nordmarka forest near Oslo. Just saplings today, the Norwegian spruces are embanked by older birch and fur trees, but the new plantings are marked to be felled in 2114, after they’ve grown for a century. At that point, they’ll be pulped and turned to paper, which will be transported to the Deichman Library, which houses a printing press that will be used to produce the first editions of books that will have been compiled over the preceding ten decades and maintained in the sanctum of a wooden space known as the “Silent Room.” This is the Scottish artist Katie Peterson’s Future Library Project, in which a different prominent author will contribute a novel every year until the completion date, with the understanding that nobody will be allowed to read their contribution until 2114.

coverWhich means that none of you reading this today will ever be able to parse Margaret Atwood’s novel Scribbler Moon. What its plot is, who the characters she’s created are, or the themes entertained, is all a glorious absence, save for that evocative two-word title. Nor can you read David Mitchell’s From Me Flows What You Call Time, whose title makes it sound as if it were an imagined novel from his Cloud Atlas, the author remarking that taking part in the project was a “vote of confidence in the future.” The most recent contribution has come from native son Karl Ove Knausgaard, an untitled work which may or may not contain descriptions of breakfast that go on for pages. Knausgaard said of Paterson’s vision, that it’s “such a brilliant idea, I very much like the thought that you will have readers who are still not born — it’s like sending a little ship from our time to them.”

A vote of confidence in the future is a beautiful description of a beautiful project, if an idiosyncratic one. It’s also a definition of literature, for even though the writer must primarily create for herself, literature still must transmit in the connections between minds. Literature is a vote of confidence in the future, in the present, in the past – it’s a vote of confidence in other people. The Future Library Project is in keeping with those theorists who are concerned with “deep time,” with the profoundly long view and arc of human history as it rushes away from us. The Long Now Foundation of San Francisco is one such organization that encourages all of us to think in the sorts of terms that Paterson does, to understand that innumerable civilizations have fallen and so shall ours, but that there is a way in which history ever moves forward.

coverStewart Brand writes of a future Library of Alexandria in The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility, imagining a “10,000-Year Library… [in] a vast underground complex hewn out of rock – preferably a mountain.” The Long Now Foundation tentatively is taking suggestions for what a 10,000-Year library might look like, what books should be included, and how we’re to understand the continuity of an institution that would be older than all of recorded human history. “Fantasy immediately calls up a refuge from the present,” Brand writes, “a place of weathered stone walls and labyrinthine stacks of books, at a remote location with far horizons. It is a place for contemplative research and small, immersive conferences on topics of centenary and millennial scope.” Surely, he knows that there is something quixotic in this vision, just as Paterson no doubt understands that a century hence it’s quite possible that nobody will be left around to read those books in Oslo.

Literature is forever in the process of being lost, and it’s hubristic to assume that what we read today will be around to be read tomorrow. Nevertheless, that’s the beauty in Peterson and Brand’s dreams, that it conceives of a way that all which is lost shall someday be found, that all which is feeble can be preserved. Theirs is a struggle of attrition against that most merciless of editors known as entropy. All literature is of a similar resistance against time, mortality, finitude, limitation. To write it to commit an act of faith, to pray that what words you’ve assembled shall last longer than you, and that they’ll hopefully be found by at least someone who shall be, however briefly, changed.

Bonus Links:
Ten Ways to Live Forever
Ten Ways to Save the World
Ten Ways to Look at the Color Black

Image Credit: Pexels/Bakr Magrabi.

Ed Simon is a staff writer for Lit Hub, the editor of Belt Magazine, and the author of numerous books, including most recently Heaven, Hell and Paradise Lost; Elysium: A Visual History of Angelology; and Relic, part of the Object Lessons series. In the summer of 2024 Melville House will release his Devil's Contract: The History of the Faustian Bargain, the first comprehensive, popular account of that subject.