If the reports are true, and J.D. Salinger’s estate is about to release five never-before-seen novels by the famously reclusive author, the literary world may be set to receive its biggest posthumous bounty since Emily Dickinson’s sister happened upon that trunk full of poems. As many have long suspected, Salinger may soon join the long, illustrious line of novelists’ whose work continues to emerge long after they depart this world.
Here, ten of the most remarkable posthumously published novels in history:
A Death in the Family
by James Agee
An autobiographical novel aimed at understanding his own father’s death, the ironically titled A Death in the Family was seven years in the making but still incomplete when James Agee died in 1955. Two years later, it was published to alleviate the financial strain Agee’s family faced—and then went on to win the 1958 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Northanger Abbey and Persuasion
by Jane Austen
Usually recognized as Jane Austen’s earliest completed novel, Austen sold Northanger Abbey for ten pounds in 1803, but it languished in the hands of her editor for nearly ten years. Eventually, Austen raised the funds to buy back the manuscript, which remained unpublished—along with Persuasion—until 1817. The rest, as we know, is history.
by Roberto Bolaño
When Roberto Bolaño died in 2003, he must have left drawerfuls of unpublished work behind; some say he’s been more prolific in death than he was in life. The last novel Bolaño worked on before his death, 2666, resonated so profoundly that it was awarded the National Books Critics Circle Award—and received near-universal praise.
The Master and Margarita
by Mikhail Bulgakov
Mikhail Bulgakov’s magnum opus The Master and Margarita surmounted so many obstacles on its way to publication that it’s a wonder the novel exists at all. Bulgakov first burned his own manuscript, and then took nearly ten years to complete the novel, ceasing writing only four weeks before his death. A published form didn’t appear until 1967 (even then it was bowdlerized by Soviet officials) and a complete copy came along in 1973.
The Way of All Flesh
by Samuel Butler
Samuel Butler resisted publishing his daring, semi-autobiographical Victorian novel The Way of All Flesh, knowing it might create a scandal. But in 1902, less than a year after his death, the book came out to rave reviews.
The First Man
by Albert Camus
Poor Albert Camus thought that The First Man would be his masterpiece, but when a car accident cut short his life, the manuscript (which was reportedly found in the wreckage) remained incomplete. His daughter then published it—34 years later.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood
by Charles Dickens
Perhaps the most famous of all the unfinished, posthumously published novels, Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood has confounded readers for over a century, after its author died before finishing the manuscript—or revealing the murderer’s identity. We’ll never know for sure if Uncle Jasper truly committed the heinous deed—which is what makes the novel such an entertaining read.
Bouvard et Pécuchet
by Gustave Flaubert
Already the author of at least two seminal, genre-shattering works, Gustave Flaubert nonetheless felt that Bouvard et Pécuchet would be his masterpiece. But the novel went unpublished until 1881 (a year after his death) and failed to receive anything like the adulation and reverence bestowed upon Madame Bovary and A Sentimental Education.
by E.M. Forster
Purposely kept under wraps during his lifetime, E.M. Forster's tale of same-sex love was written in 1913 and kept secret for nearly 60 years. Maurice’s manuscript famously bears the author’s note to himself: “Publishable, but worth it?”
The Original of Laura
by Vladimir Nabokov
The 2009 publication of Vladimir Nabokov’s The Original of Laura—which he was working on at the time of his death in 1977—was a literary event in its own right. Nabokov reportedly asked his family to destroy the manuscript, but they disobeyed his wishes, and a battle over the novel’s fate raged for close to 30 years.
The Pale King
by David Foster Wallace
Unfinished, but still more than 500 pages long, David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King was published nearly three years after the author’s suicide. While some critics found the novel frustrating, it was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction—though no award was ultimately given in that category in 2011.