Every semester, I have students come to me with anguished faces: their work is lost, sent into cyber-oblivion by an ill-timed and unexpected computer shut-down. I take a moment to sympathize with them; although I am a professor, that doesn’t make me a monster who deals and delights in schadenfreude. But I don’t allow the pity party to continue very long. Buck up, I tell them. You wrote that paper once; you can write it again, certainly. They look at me like I’m crazy. “What? Write the whole thing again? Do you know how long it took me to write it in the first place?” I shrug, unimpressed by their misery, and that’s where the trouble starts, and why it’s important for me to take this opportunity to make my point clear.
I know what it’s like to lose an important piece of work. Over the past five years, I’ve had at least as many computer melt-downs. The IT people at my college have begun to look at me with suspicion, in fact, because I have had so many catastrophic computer failures. Maybe that’s why I’ve become pretty blase about lost work; it’s also why I have an external hard drive that I use frequently, why I save my work all the time, and why I often email myself multiple copies of important files. But the truth is that some of what we lose is not worth saving. Sometimes it’s good to lose things–and not only because it builds character. When I point this out to my students, they begin to protest, and then I take them through a tour of lost literary works.
Two examples: Some of us may have labored through Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution: A History (published in 1837), which he worked on for well over three years before giving it to his friend John Stuart Mill to read before publication. Like any good writer, Carlyle wanted feedback from his respected colleague. Unfortunately, Mill’s chamber maid, who was illiterate, mistook the manuscript for a pile of used paper, with which she started Mill’s bedroom fire. Here is a rather whimsical picture of the tragedy by an unknown Japanese artist:
Carlyle didn’t sit and bewail his fate, nor did the sad event destroy his friendship with Mill. Instead, keeping in step with his own philosophy, Carlyle sat down and wrote the whole damn thing again–all three volumes of it. The French Revolution: A History went on to become, if not a best-seller, a well respected work that made Carlyle’s reputation. Charles Dickens used it (as well as a wheelbarrow-load of other sources delivered by Carlyle himself) when he wrote A Tale of Two Cities.
Of course, another excellent, and more recent, example of lost work is that of Ernest Hemingway, whose wife Hadley lost an entire suitcase of Hemingway’s work in 1922 while traveling to meet him in Geneva. She had wanted to surprise him by bringing all of his work with her so he could work on it while in Geneva; unfortunately, it went missing in the Gare de Lyon. Only a few, previously published, works survive from before this period as a result. Some scholars believe Hemingway, who took the next train back to Paris to double-check for carbon copies in his apartment (there were none–Hadley had brought them, too), blamed his wife; they feel this may have been the first rupture in a marriage that was destined to end some three years later. However, the couple look pretty happy in this picture, apparently taken a short time after the incident:
The truth is that Hemingway set out to replace those stories with others, and now, so many years later, we feel no sense of loss at their disappearance–only a mild curiosity and bemusement, as well as admiration for a writer who, faced with the loss of a great dea of his work, set out to recreate it, and, with characteristic courage and determination, to surpass it in quality.
I hope all my readers understand what this means. Losing a manuscript, or a document, or a whole slew of documents, isn’t the end of the world. Sometimes, it can even be a good thing.
In addition, it means that somewhere in Paris, in some old grenier or cave, is a valise full of first-edition Hemingway stories, and they’re probably worth millions.
One thought on “In Praise of Lost Work”
Thanks for this post! I had heard about Hemingway’s lost manuscript, but not about Carlyle’s. I wonder what happened to the chambermaid!