Category Archives: Disappeared manuscripts

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.

Autumn_Leaves

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.

The Ghost of Plath’s Double Exposure

Sylvia Plath is famous for her poetry and for one novel, The Bell Jar, 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 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 their 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. Of the disappeared journals, 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.”