The original story of Moby-Dick: A mere 108 years between manuscript and publication

Your name is Thomas Nickerson. You are fourteen years old when you set sail from Nantucket Harbour in August 1819 on a ship called the Essex. The expedition is part of the murderously efficient industry of this Massachusetts town: the hunting of whales.

You do hunt whales. You sail across to the Azores then down the coast of South America. The crew sees and despatches its first whale somewhere between Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires, then continues round Cape Horn into the Pacific Ocean.

On 20 November 1820, after many months at sea, you witness an incident that would later inspire Herman Melville to write his epic Moby-Dick. It was something of which whaling crews had never heard before, never seen. Two of the small whaling boats that the Essex carried were off at the hunt at the time, harpooning whales. You, Thomas, in fact, are steering the ship towards the boats when you see it: just off the port bow, an enormous whale. An enormous whale not doing what whales usually do — getting out of the range of a whale ship as rapidly as possible — but watching you.

This enormous whale then swims directly towards your ship and rams it. As if in revenge for the bloody murder being wreaked upon its cousins.

Recovered from the blow, the whale turns round and, with fury and with malevolence, rams your ship again. Within moments, the ship founders under your feet and the Essex sinks and is lost.

The crew split into the three surviving whaling boats, taking what provisions from the wreck that they can. You join the boat of the first mate, Owen Chase, himself aged only 23. The aim is to ration the provisions and sail to South America, a journey of several thousand miles.

Twenty men leave the wreck of the Essex; eight survive. Some succumb to starvation, some become food for the remainder.

Sea foam against a boat

Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink

You return home to Nantucket almost two years since you left, in June 1821, on the Eagle. The crowd on the Nantucket docks meets you and your fellow survivors in silence.

No wonder, when someone suggests that you write down this tale of hunger and cannibalism and fortitude, you do.

But Thomas Nickerson did not write his tale for many years. Amazingly, the optimistic teenager set sail again, serving on other whale ships and eventually becoming a captain in the merchant service. Owen Chase, meanwhile, was busy penning his memoirs, with the aid of a ghost-writer, and described the crew’s adventures in The Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, which was published just four months after his return home.

Upon retiring from his seafaring life, Thomas Nickerson ran a guest house in Nantucket. One of his summertime guests was the writer Leon Lewis, who encouraged Nickerson to write his version of the Essex story. In 1876, Nickerson sent his manuscript to Lewis, who lived in Penn Yan, New York. Lewis, however, did nothing with the work, having creditors, debts and sailing to England to escape them, alongside his 14-year-old niece, on his mind. Nickerson died in 1883, his manuscript lost.

In 1960, Nickerson’s manuscript was re-discovered. Before a sale of Leon Lewis’s property to pay off some of his creditors, a friend of Lewis, Darius Ogden, took possession of several of his items, including Nickerson’s manuscript. At some point, someone put the manuscript in the attic of Darius Ogden’s house, and that is where it stayed as the house passed down through the generations. There it was in the attic when a family member retrieved it in 1960. She kept it in her study, thinking the story was make-believe. Not until she visited Nantucket in 1980 did she decide to check its authenticity. Nantucket whaling expert Edouard Stackpole duly did authenticate the manuscript.

Just over a century after his death, in 1984, the Nantucket Historical Association published an abridged version of Nickerson’s manuscript, using his original title: The Loss of the Ship “Essex” Sunk by a Whale and the Ordeal of the Crew in Open Boats.

Herman Melville heard about the malevolent whale that sank the Essex while he was serving on a whale ship, in 1834, before he began his literary career; he met the son of Owen Chase, who was serving on another whale ship, not far from where the Essex originally sank. Chase gave his father’s account of the incidents to Melville, who read it at sea and pondered a whale capable of violence, of retribution: a white whale, at that.

Moby-Dick, published in 1851, ends with the sinking of the Pequod. As Ishmael alone survives the whale’s malevolence, the book does not explore the subsequent horrors of abandonment, loss and cannibalism that Nickerson and Chase describe so honestly and well.

Larkin down the back of a bedside cabinet

Sometimes a lost manuscript just lurks for a while. It’s the way of manuscripts. Pesky things.

The acclaimed British poet Philip Larkin, who spent 30 years running the Brynmor Jones Library at Hull University, died of cancer in December 1985. We have definitively lost his diaries. Betty Mackereth, his secretary — the self-same “loaf-haired secretary” of his 1965 poem “Toads Revisited”, in fact — destroyed all 30 volumes. “I was perfectly happy to destroy his diaries by first shredding them and then burning the remains because that is what he wanted,” she said.

The house where Larkin lived in the Newland Park area of Hull wasn’t cleared until December 2001, after the death of his friend, Monica Jones, who had lived there with him. The house was thoroughly inventoried by the Larkin Society, who wanted preserve his possessions for researchers and posterity. What furniture remained was sold to the Newland Discount Furniture company. All done and dusted.

Except, a few months later, in June 2002, up turned a red A5 notebook containing early drafts of two of Larkin’s published poems and a free-standing quatrain that was unknown: “We met at the end of the party/ When all the drinks were dead/ And all the glasses dirty:/ ‘Have this that’s left’, you said.”

The owner of Newland Discount Furniture explained that the notebook had fallen behind the drawer of Larkin’s old bedside cabinet which was destined for the dump (“wasn’t worth a fiver”), where it had remained for approximately a quarter of a century. The book then made its way to a local man, Chris Jackson, who maintained that he had bought it from a friend, after the friend had removed the cabinet drawers for repainting, although quite how the book was saved from immolation by attentive furniture workers remains somewhat mysterious.


The last of summer

This same lost notebook of Larkin’s turns up again in 2006, in the possession of a book dealer, and on sale for £20,000 at the Antiquarian Book Fair in London. The appeal to a collector is obvious.

You couldn’t publish the contents, as the copyright in all Larkin’s estate lies with the Society of Authors, but few other Larkin manuscripts are likely to come on the market given Larkin’s preference for leaving his papers in the public domain (although a handwritten poem torn from a notebook sold at Bonham’s in 2013). Larkin drafted most of his poems in large notebooks, the first of which he donated to the British Library in the 1960s. His remaining manuscripts nestle in the archives of the library where he was for so long librarian. Larkin campaigned for the manuscripts of all British poets to be left in the public archives. A private collector might therefore also take some joy in circumventing the wishes of a poet who is disliked by many for what they consider his personal failings in the areas of racism, misogyny and right-wing political views.

The unknown free-standing quatrain was part of an untitled but complete poem, written by Larkin for his confidante, secretary, lover and post-mortem diary-shredder extraordinaire, Betty Mackereth, in the 1970s. It was published by the Larkin Society in their newsletter in 2002. Its lines which celebrate love in the autumn of life have at times been appropriated for obituaries, and you can see why. “We walked through the last of summer, When shadows reached long and blue…”

Myself, I don’t let the personal attitudes of a poet bruise their lines, which are separate and have an independent life. And I have to admit admiration for any librarian who tells us in his poem “A Study Of Reading Habits” that “Books are a load of crap”. I am very pleased to walk these long, blue evenings with his poetic arm occasionally in mine.

Under Milk Wood: O my dead dears!

It is human to lose a manuscript. To lose the same manuscript twice is possibly super-human. To lose the same manuscript three times shows a positively heroic dedication to the art of lost manuscripts.

Dylan Marlais Thomas, a Welsh writer who wrote in English, is now often remembered for his poems, including the defiant villanelle for his dying father, Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night. He is also remembered for his legendary speaking of verse as well as his legendary alcoholism. But he is also fondly remembered for what he called his “play for voices”: Under Milk Wood. In this hypnotic play, we listen to the dreams and thoughts of the inhabitants of an imaginary Welsh village in a “starless and bible black” night.

Thomas lost the manuscript of Under Milk Wood first in Cardiff, then in America, and then in London (where it turned up in a pub).

To begin at the beginning. Thomas was staying in the west Wales town of New Quay in the winter of 1944. One dawn, perhaps when the sky was starless, he went out walking and imagined the thoughts of those still sleeping. This became “Quite Early One Morning“, a story recorded for radio in 1945. Thomas continued to work on the idea, though, for the next eight years.

Under Milk Wood had actually been commissioned by the BBC, but Thomas found it difficult to complete that “infernally eternally unfinished play“. It was scribbled here and there, rewritten, revised, recalcitrant. In March 1953, Dylan read a “chunk” of the play in Cardiff, and then lost the manuscript, which was in a briefcase. He wrote to his host, Charles Elliott, of University College Cardiff, to ask him to find it. “I left the briefcase somewhere. I think it must be in the Park Hotel. I’ve written to the manager but could you possibly, when and if passing by, drop in and see if it is there? It’s very urgent to me: the only copy in the world of that kind-of-a-play of mine, from which I read bits, is in that battered, strapless briefcase whose handle is tied together with string.”

Charles Elliott duly sent the briefcase back to Mr Thomas.

Manuscript One: Saved.

On 14 May 1953, the play had its first reading on stage at The Poetry Center in New York. The experience was not wholly successful. Thomas read an unfinished version, for which no script or recording has ever surfaced.

Manuscript Two: Lost.

On Monday 19 October 1953, at Victoria Station in London, Thomas handed over three copies of Under Milk Wood to his BBC producer Donald Cleverdon. Thomas was leaving for the US to promote the play. Thomas told Cleverdon that he could keep the original manuscript of the play — if he could lay his hands on it. Thomas had actually lost the manuscript in a pub when out drinking the night before. He couldn’t be certain which one, although he made a few suggestions. It turned up at The French House, in Soho.

Manuscript Three: Found.


The French House in Soho, London

Thomas died in New York on 9 November 1953, surrounded by alcohol and debts. He was taken from the Chelsea Hotel where he was staying to St Vincent’s hospital, where he failed to come out of a coma. He was 39. Pneumonia was the cause, although there were rumours that he drank himself to death. Thomas’s wife, Caitlin, claimed back the French-House manuscript of which Cleverdon was now in possession, but was unsuccessful. (See Thomas v Times Book Company [1966] 1 WLR 911.)

Under Milk Wood refused to die, to be a lost manuscript despite its author’s best efforts. It lives on today in new productions, but also the mesmerising recording, first broadcast by the BBC on 25 January 1954, with Richard Burton as the narrator. You can hear this recording here.

“O my dead dears!” The manuscripts may be found or lost, but the words live on.


On The Road, with dog

On 22 April 1951, Jack Kerouac finished typing the first draft of On the Road, the novel that would eventually be published in 1957 and distil the generation that Kerouac himself had already defined as “beat”. On The Road is a story of Kerouac’s true-life friendship with Neal Cassady and their four trips across the United States; it is one of the most important American novels of the twentieth century, despite the fact that its has its critics. Truman Capote dismissed it as “typing, not writing”.

Kerouac did not type the draft on ordinary sheets of paper, but on a scroll. Before sitting down to type, Kerouac made the scroll by cutting 20-inch-wide lengths of tracing paper into narrower 9-inch strips that fitted into his typewriter. He then pasted them together into 12-foot-long reels of paper so that once he had started, he did not have to stop, just type. The spontaneous outburst of creativity and unrevised rhythm was fuelled only, Kerouac said, by coffee.

Kerouac typed fast. He said he “went fast because the road is fast“. 100-plus words a minute. He finished the draft in 20 days. On the first day he typed 12,000 words, and, on the last, 15,000.

The original scroll of On The Road

The original Kerouac scroll

In the published novel, there are paragraph breaks. In the scroll, there are none. The writer could not stop to press the key, would not risk slowing his breathless prose. The scroll contains the real names of the author’s friends, not the names used later in the published book; Cassady became Dean Moriarty, the poet Allen Ginsberg is Carlo Marx, and Kerouac himself was reborn as Sal Paradise.

The scroll is almost 120 feet long. It looks like a road and a journey in itself. However, the end of the scroll, containing Kerouac’s original ending, is missing. At the current end is a handwritten note from Kerouac that says: “DOG ATE [Potchky-a dog]”. Potchky was a cocker spaniel owned by Kerouac’s friend Lucien Carr. Nobody knows how much longer the scroll was before Potchky sank his teeth into it.

If indeed he did.

Some say that Kerouac disliked his original conclusion and tore off the end of the scroll. Some say he didn’t have an ending. Allen Ginsberg wrote a letter to Neal Cassady on 7 May 1951, less than two weeks after Kerouac completed the scroll: “The writing is dewlike, everything happens as it really did, with the same juvenescent feel of spring: the hero is you, you are the hero, beginning with appearance on scene 1946. Jack needs, however, an ending.”

The ending we now have is elegiac, with a profound sense of the irretrievability of times past. “Nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty, I think of Dean Moriarty.” (You can hear Kerouac himself read the ending of On The Road here.)

The scroll, now a little brittle round the edges, was sold at Christie’s in May 2001, fifty years after it was typed. The seller was the nephew of Kerouac’s third wife, Stella, to pay inheritance taxes. The buyer, James Irsay, the owner of the Indianapolis Colts, paid $2.43m for one of the most iconic, but partially lost, manuscripts of the twentieth century.

* Photo used courtesy of a creative commons licence from Thomas Hawk.

The real Lowry lost manuscript

Malcolm Lowry was born in 1909, in New Brighton, a small town for which I have a soft spot, just “over the water”, as we say, from Liverpool. He was a restless spirit who wanted to write, and did not want to follow his three older brothers into the family cotton-broking business. At the age of 18, he set sail from Liverpool as a deck-hand on a freighter bound for Yokohama.

Lowry’s first novel, Ultramarine, appeared in 1933 when he was 24 years old. Contrary to popular belief, Lowry did not leave the manuscript of this first novel in a taxi. The manuscript was stolen, yes, but it was in a briefcase taken from the convertible car of the publisher’s editor, Ian Parsons. Lowry alleged that he was forced to re-write the entire work in a matter of weeks because of this loss, but a carbon copy existed, supplied by his friend, Martin Case, who had typed the final manuscript then kept the carbon copy which Lowry had chucked in the bin.

Ultramarine tells the story of a young man growing up during a voyage to the Far East — so far, so autobiographical. Ultramarine was not a commercial success; Lowry was accused of plagiarism* and he spent much of the rest of his life trying to suppress the book.

After Ultramarine appeared, Lowry began travelling through Europe with his friend and mentor Conrad Aiken, got married to the writer Jan Gabrial in Paris, and, in 1935, began a novel called In Ballast to the White Sea.

Albert Finney as the consul in Under the Volcano

Albert Finney as Geoffrey Firmin in the 1984 film of Under the Volcano

Also in 1935, Lowry moved to New York. He had begun a deep and meaningful relationship with alcohol at an early age, and this relationship continued while he and Jan moved to Los Angeles, then Mexico. In Mexico, Lowry began what would turn out to be his masterpiece, Under the Volcanothe work of genius that he sobered up long enough to write.

By 1937, Lowry’s drinking caused Jan to leave him, and he was jailed, then deported from Mexico in July 1938. In Los Angeles, he met Margerie Bonner, an aspiring writer and former silent-film child star. When Lowry moved to Canada after his American visa expired, Bonner followed him. They were married in December 1940. For the next 14 years, they lived as squatters in a cabin without plumbing or electricity at Dollarton, up-inlet from Vancouver.

The cabin was an isolated place. The Lowrys had little money, apart from Lowry’s life-long allowance from his father. In 1944, their house burned down, immolating almost everything they owned, including what had become a 1,000-page re-draft of In Ballast to the White Sea, nine years of literary labour, which Lowry never re-wrote again.

In February 1956, Lowry and Margie came to live in another seaside town: Ripe, on the south coast of England. They were not happy. When Lowry threatened Margerie with a broken bottle (she said), she fled. She returned to the house on the morning of 27 June 1957 to find Lowry dead from an overdose of sleeping pills.

In a nice twist on the planet of lost manuscripts, before T. E. Lawrence burned his personal library, he saved the books he liked. One of these was a relatively unknown seafaring novel called Ultramarine. What would T.E. have made of the truly disappeared In Ballast to the White Sea?

Update October 2014: An early draft of the novel turned up in Jan Gabrial’s papers when she died in 2001, and her estate went to the New York Public Library. Lowry had given a copy of the manuscript to Gabrial’s mother. That early draft was finally published in October 2014, in a scholarly edition by the University of Ottawa Press.

But the manuscript of Dollarton, the one that might have been a masterpiece, is truly gone.

* Lowry was accused of plagiarising Nordahl Grieg’s The Ship Sails On, published by Knopf in translation from the original Norwegian in 1927. Lowry actually admitted in a letter to Grieg in 1938 that “Much of Ultramarine is paraphrase, plagiarism, or pastiche from you.” See: Harvey Breit and Margerie Bonner Lowry (Eds.) The Selected Letters of Malcolm Lowry, London, 1967, p16.

I’ll eat my words

In the annals of lost manuscripts, possibly far too few have been lost to posterity through devourment. (Some say the world might be a better place if authors were more often compelled to perform this operation literally, rather than leaving the activity to mere bookworms and mice.)

One heroic exception is the Danish author Theodore Reinking. In 1644, Theodore wrote a political tract entitled Dania ad exteros de perfidia Suecorum (From the Danes to the world on the treachery of the Swedes — you have to remember that people expected to read important documents in Latin in those days.)

At that particular point, just after the Thirty Years’ War, Denmark was a shadow of its former power, and in sway to the strength of its neighbour, Sweden. Reinking’s tract blamed the Swedes roundly for this appalling situation. Whatever the literary merits of Reinking’s work, or its accuracy, the Swedes took agin it. The tetchy Scandinavians cast Reinking into a dark prison, where he mouldered for many years. At last, he was offered a stark choice: to lose his head or eat his book. (An early variation on Izzard’s cake or death, obviously.) A politician through and through, Reinking preferred the culinary challenge. We don’t know whether his tract was weighty enough to provide an entire meal or merely an amuse-bouche, or whether he acted alone or with kitchen accomplices, but he boiled his manuscript up into a broth and ate it that way.

Ezekiel by Raphael

Ezekiel by Raphael

We can’t be certain what the manuscript tasted like, but previous reports from this little-explored gastronomical field sound promising. The Lord once gave Ezekiel a scroll of a book written within and without with lamentations, and mourning, and woe, and obliged him to eat it. Reports the prophet: “It was in my mouth as honey for sweetness.” (Ezekiel, 3:3)

Honey or wormwood, the manuscript-eating experience dissuaded Reinking completely from further pursuing politics, penmanship or cookery as a career.

The French Revolution

In 1834, the philosopher John Stuart Mill discovered that, although he had signed a contract with his publisher to produce a general history of the French revolution, he was actually too busy with other commitments to come up with the promised work. So he proposed to his friend Thomas Carlyle that Carlyle write it instead. Carlyle, struggling to make ends meet, and unwilling to stoop to mere journalism, took on the project with a fury — it was, he hoped, the work that would make his literary reputation.

Throughout 1834, Carlyle slaved over his history of the French Revolution with passion late into the night. When he had completed Volume One, he sent it to Mill to for his review.

On the evening of the 6th of March, 1835, Mill turned up at Carlyle’s house in Cheyne Walk, looking, Carlyle later wrote, “the very picture of desperation”.

Mill had left the manuscript at the house of his friend, Mrs Taylor. Her servant, who could not read, had used it to light the fire. All that was left of Carlyle’s passion and fury were a few charred leaves. Mill brought the leaves, as confirmation.

While most of us would greet this circumstance with hysteria and retribution, Carlyle was the epitome of politeness. Mill was beside himself with grief and self-recrimination. Carlyle probably offered him some tea. Mill offered to pay Carlyle for the damage, but Carlyle refused, saying that he could simply start again. Mill stayed very late, meaning that Carlyle, and his wife, Jane, had to stay up late, too, to comfort him.

Title page of Thomas Carlyle's The French Revolution

Title page from the 1837 first edition

When Mill left, Carlyle’s first words to Jane were: “Mill, poor fellow, is terribly cut up. We must endeavour to hide from him how very serious this business is for us.” And it was serious. The Carlyles had no money, and Thomas knew he could never write that book again. He had destroyed his notes and could not remember what he had written: “I remember and can still remember less of it than of anything I ever wrote with such toil. It is gone.” He would have to tell Mill he couldn’t carry on.

That night, however, he had a dream. His father and brother rose from the grave and begged him not to abandon the work. The next morning, Carlyle told Mill that he would take the money after all. He used it to buy paper, and started writing again.

First, he wrote volumes two and three. Then, he recreated volume one. Carlyle wrote the entire manuscript from memory, words that came “direct and flamingly from the heart”.

The three-volume work — a heroic undertaking which charts the course of the French Revolution from 1789 to 1795 — was completed and published in 1837. It has never been out of print and is still in print nearly 200 years later.

Carlyle kept the charred leaves in his study for the rest of his life.

The Ghost of Plath’s Double Exposure

Sylvia Plath is famous for her poetry and for one novel, The Bell Jar. It was published in the UK in 1963 but not in the US until 1971. Plath did begin another novel. Her husband told us so. In 1977, in the introduction to Johnny Panic and The Bible of Dreams, a collection of Plath’s journals and stories, Ted Hughes wrote that she had “typed some 130 pages of another novel, provisionally titled Double Exposure. That manuscript disappeared somewhere around 1970.”

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath

We know how the life, if not the novel, ended. In December 1962, after her marriage with Hughes had broken down, Plath moved herself and their children from the family house in Devon back to London. She moved into a flat at 23 Fitzroy Road, a house once occupied by the poet W. B. Yeats. In the early morning of 11 February 1963, Plath put some bread and milk in the bedroom of their children, Frieda and Nicholas, opened their window to let in a small breath of air, then sealed the door with damp cloths. Plath went downstairs and sealed herself similarly in the kitchen. She put her head in the oven, turned on the gas, and killed herself.

During the last months of her life, Plath found her Ariel voice and wrote the poems that confirmed her reputation, including Lady Lazarus, Daddy, and Edge. She also, as she had done since she was a child, kept her journal. One volume of these journals, like the novel, “disappeared“. Another volume was destroyed.

Hughes wrote: “Two more notebooks survived for a while… The last of these contained entries for several months, and I destroyed it because I did not want her children to have to read it… The other disappeared.” (In his foreword to 1982 edition of The Journals of Sylvia Plath.)

The 1962 notebook and a typescript. Both “disappeared”. What does that mean? As Plath and Hughes were still married at the time of her death, and she died without a will, Hughes became the heir to Plath’s estate, and all her belongings. Over the years, he was often accused of withholding certain papers, just as he had burned the journal.

Ronald Hayman, in The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath, says that Judith Kroll saw an outline of the novel, titled Doubletake and later, Double Exposure. Like so much of Plath’s work, the writing had its origins in biography. Hughes had begun an affair with Assia Wevill while Plath was in Devon, and his infidelity hurt her bitterly. Plath wrote to a friend that the novel was “semi-autobiographical about a wife whose husband turns out to be a deserter and philanderer”.

There are rumours about the disappeared manuscript. It’s been said that Esther Greenwood, the protagonist of Plath’s much-loved novel, The Bell Jar, turns up again in Double Exposure. It’s been said that the rare books collection at Smith College in Massachusetts, where Plath studied, has a secret copy of the typescript under seal. Plath’s mother, Aurelia, also claimed that her daughter had told her about the book, while Plath’s husband accused Aurelia (after Aurelia was safely dead) of stealing it: “Her mother said she saw a whole novel, but I never knew about it. What I was aware of was sixty, seventy pages which disappeared. And to tell you the truth, I always assumed her mother took them all.” (See the 1995 interview with The Paris Review.)

Missing Plath novels do turn up occasionally. In 1999, a team working in special collections at Emory University in Georgia, which acquired the library of Ted Hughes, discovered two chapters of an early novel called Falcon Yard. Falcon Yard is the place in Cambridge where, in 1956, Plath met (and, famously, bit) Hughes. The novel would have fictionalised their life together. It was never completed.

The draft of Double Exposure may have been destroyed; it may have been stolen; it may have been lost. It might lie unfound in a university archive. Certainly, some of the files at Emory are closed until 2022, but that is probably to protect the privacy of Carol Hughes, the Poet Laureate’s second wife. (Researcher Michael, in the comments below, gives a link that seems to confirm this.)

The disappeared typescript was a draft of a novel, not a finished work. Would Sylvia herself wish us to read Double Exposure in its raw state?

She burned many manuscripts. But not this one. Or that missing journal.

“Her blacks crackle and drag.”

Hemingway’s lost suitcase

In December 1922, Ernest Hemingway was in Switzerland, on assignment as a correspondent for the Toronto Daily Star, covering the Lausanne Peace Conference. The journalist and editor Lincoln Steffens, whom Hemingway had met in Genoa, was also there. Apparently, Steffens was impressed with Hemingway’s writing and asked to see more. Hemingway’s wife, Elizabeth Hadley Richardson, always known as Hadley, was in Paris, where they were living at the time. She packed up all of Hemingway’s papers in a suitcase, to take them to him in Switzerland. She packed everything she could find.

While the train was still standing in the Gare de Lyon, Hadley went to buy a bottle of Evian water for the trip. She left the suitcase unattended on the train while she did so. When she came back, it was gone.

Hadley and Ernest Hemingway

Hadley and Ernest Hemingway

At that point, nothing of Hemingway’s fiction had been published. In Paris, there was nothing left. With touching thoroughness, Hadley had packed both the originals and their carbons. Only two short stories survived the disaster. “Up in Michigan”, which he had buried in a drawer because Gertrude Stein had said it was unpublishable, while “My Old Man” was out with an editor at a magazine.

In a letter to Ezra Pound, in January 1923, Hemingway wrote: “I suppose you heard about the loss of my Juvenalia? I went up to Paris last week to see what was left and found that Hadley had made the job complete by including all carbons, duplicates, etc. All that remains of my complete works are three pencil drafts of a bum poem which was later scrapped, some correspondence between John McClure and me, and some journalistic carbons. You, naturally, would say, ‘Good’ etc. But don’t say it to me. I ain’t yet reached that mood.”

But maybe he did reach that mood. “The first and most important thing of all, for writers today,” Hemingway later said, “is to strip language clean, to lay it bare down to the bone.” Juvenilia (or Juvenalia in Hemingway’s misspelling) are often just that – rambling, unstructured, wayward pieces of adolescent hopes and dreams. Which of us would gladly publish our teenage love poetry?

Hemingway had his language stripped clean all right. Indeed, with the loss of the manuscripts, and with time pressing to replace those vanished words in his bid to become a respected writer, Hemingway may have adopted and adapted the lean prose style for which he became famous.

(It is often said that he used the style guide of the Kansas City Star, where he had been a cub reporter, as his rule-book: “Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English.”)

Hemingway never bothered to run a newspaper advertisement seeking the return of the manuscripts. When he considered one, he thought of offering a reward of 150 francs. About ten dollars. Grace under pressure? Or a sign that the manuscripts were not so valuable?

They would be valuable today, of course. If they survived. If they ever turned up.

What did the thief do, on realising that the stolen suitcase contained paper, worthless paper with the juvenile scribblings of an unknown writer? No gold, no diamonds, no lucrative passports to be traded on the black market. Throw them in the Seine? Burn them? Bury them in an attic?

Of course, if they do turn up in an attic, these lost manuscripts of a Nobel prize-winning author, they will be worth more than their weight in gold.

The Seven Pillars of Reading Station

You play an outstandingly successful role as a British liaison officer in the Arab Revolt of 1916-1918, a revolt initiated by Sherif Hussein of Mecca to secure independence from the ruling Ottoman Turks and create a single unified Arab state. You serve with the forces of the Emir Feisal, one of the four sons of Sherif Hussein. You develop a strategy that prevents the Turkish forces at Medina from reaching the Palestine front. Working with local tribesmen and using your knowledge of the region, you secure the supply route at Akaba. You travel by camel across the Sinai peninsula to ask the British for supplies.

After the war, you write a thousand-page book describing these events that, if anything, understates your remarkable personal role in history.

And then you leave the manuscript in the refreshment room at Reading Station while changing trains there around Christmas in 1919.

The 2004 one-volume edition of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom

The 2004 one-volume edition

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. The great work of Thomas Edward Lawrence — Lawrence of Arabia — looks like it was always destined to have a difficult birth. The title, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, doesn’t really belong to the book. It was the title of an earlier work, in which Lawrence described his adventures in seven cities across Arabia. He burned this first step into the realms of authorship but, with an obvious fond memory, named the later work after it.

Lawrence wrote most of the first draft of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom in France during the spring of 1919, while at the Paris Peace Conference. After the railway-related loss of that first manuscript, Lawrence rewrote the book from memory. He had to. Like so many reckless authors, he had destroyed (burned, probably) most of his working notes, some written on army message pads while in Arabia. Some notes were also in the stolen briefcase. The rewrite took Lawrence three months. Unusually for a lost-manuscript author, he preferred his original work. “It was shorter, snappier, and more truthful than the present version,” he wrote in a letter to Frederic Manning in 1930.

Lawrence sold the first three chapters of his second draft to Robert Graves, who published them in an American journal, The World’s Work, between July and October 1921. Those three chapters are all that remain of the 400,000-word second draft. Lawrence wasn’t satisfied with it and, sticking with the proven successful method of dealing with poor quality prose by pyrotechnic means, burned it with a blow lamp in 1922.

It was the third draft — although he still considered it “diffuse and unsatisfactory”, it escaped pyrotechnic attentions — that became the first edition of the book. The original manuscript of that draft is now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

However, Lawrence published the first edition mainly to circulate to friends and literary critics, not the public. Just eight copies were typeset and printed at the works of the Oxford Times newspaper; it was cheaper, in those days, than getting copies typewritten. This is the version of the book the world now calls the “Oxford text”. Lawrence corrected six copies of the proofs and had them bound. Of the original eight copies printed, only those six copies remain at large in the world. Lawrence’s own bound copy, in which he made further amendments in response to the comments of his readers, was sold at auction at Christie’s, New York, in May 2001. The buyer paid nearly one million dollars.

An article in the press asking for the return of the manuscript

An article in the press asking for the return of the manuscript

What happened to the lost manuscript? Lawrence telephoned Reading Station from Oxford an hour after the discovery of the loss, but there was no sign of his writing. Despite articles, offers of a reward, and pleas in the press, no one came forward and nothing of the original manuscript was ever recovered.

There are those who say that there was no thief at Reading, but that Lawrence, true to form when it came to manuscript destruction, burned the pages. Or lost the briefcase deliberately. It wouldn’t have been difficult. It was in a bank messenger’s bag — the kind, Lawrence said later, that usually holds gold. Tempting.

If that “more truthful” version of The Seven Pillars had ever been published, would it have become the enduring masterpiece we have today? Or did Lawrence, between 1919 and 1922, teach himself how to write? In 1919, he was a soldier. By 1922, after correspondence with E. M. Forster, Siegfried Sassoon and George Bernard Shaw, he wanted to be a writer. He wanted to produce a book that would be “an English fourth” on an exclusive bookshelf that contained Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, and Melville’s Moby-Dick.

In The Sunday Times in August, 1920, Lawrence wrote about the country he called Mesopotamia — the one which we would later call Iraq:

“The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Baghdad communiques are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows.”

I’d say T. E. didn’t need too many lessons on writing. But if that Reading manuscript ever turns up, we’ll know.