The Canterbury Tales
Chaucer’s inimitable tale of a group of English pilgrims’ journey to Canterbury, who each in their turn regale the others with a story, is certainly one of history’s most significant achievements—not least because it rendered ordinary vernacular literary—but Chaucer, a courtier and comptroller, died before completing it. In the “General Prologue” Chaucer introduces 30 characters, each of whom were supposed to tell four stories, making a total of 120, but all that he finished (or all that survives) are the 24 we know today. Already a paradigm of humor, insight, and narrative ingenuity, imagine if we had nearly a hundred more.
Though some iteration of The Prince was distributed in his lifetime, Machiavelli’s notorious political treatise wasn’t published until five years after his death. A crassly pragmatic and power-grabbing text, The Prince instructs new royalty how to exert and maintain political control of their kingdom (as in, do all your violent acts in one fell swoop at the beginning of your tenure, so as to get it out of the way). Maybe if Machiavelli had been alive for its publication and seen the kinds of assholes who swear by his book, he wouldn’t have written it to begin with.
The Will to Power
After health concerns forced him to resign from his post as Classical Chair of Philology at the University of Basel in 1879, Friedrich Nietzsche spent the next decade writing his now infamous works of philosophy, including Twilight of the Idols, The Birth of Tragedy, The Antichrist, and Beyond Good and Evil. In 1889, however, Nietzsche suffered a mental breakdown and until his death in 1900 remained house-bound, taken care of first by his mother and then by his sister Elisabeth. In the years following his demise, it was Elisabeth who arranged the publication of The Will to Power, supposedly Nietzsche’s magnum opus, but Elisabeth, later a supporter of the Nazis, fashioned her brother’s writing to promote her German nationalism, which subsequently lead to the association of Nietzsche’s notion of the Übermensch (an “overman” or “superman” whose emergence would signify a new and more ideal generation of humanity) with Hitler and fascism in general. Scholars, over the decades, have corrected this grievous error, and later editions of The Will to Power more accurately reflect Nietzsche’s intent.
Franz Kafka—now there’s a real chipper fellow. Mostly unpublished during his life, Kafka worked at an insurance company until his death at the age of 40 in 1924. He instructed his friend Max Brod to burn every shred of writing he left behind, but Brod, thankfully, ignored him. The Trial, probably more than any other posthumous work (“The Metamorphosis” saw publication while Kafka was alive), cemented Kafka’s reputation as a singular genius and a tragic figure whose existence reads like one of his own surreal stories.
To Be Young, Gifted and Black
Best known for her landmark play A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry lived a fascinating and harrowing life, fighting against racism and sexism (and, less, overtly, homophobia; Hansberry was a lesbian) in order to get her drama produced on Broadway. When she died of cancer in 1965 at the age of 34, her ex-husband Robert Nemiroff compiled a selection of her unpublished autobiographical and political writing (including from her time at Freedom, where she worked with Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois) and turned it into To Be Young, Gifted and Black, making it both a beautiful addition to her oeuvre as well as a celebration of her immense talent and passionate activism.
A Death in the Family
A novel about the death of Jay Follet and its consequences on his family, James Agee’s most famous work wasn’t published until two years after the writer’s own demise. A moving portrait of loss, A Death in the Family is both a classic in the sense that it’s a staple of American literature, and in the sense of being a timeless story that each of us, tragically, can relate to.
The fifth volume of Proust’s wide-ranging, deeply immersive seven-volume novel In Search of Lost Time, The Prisoner is the first of the Albertine section of the massive fictional masterpiece. The unnamed protagonist (conventionally referred to as the Narrator) gets into a complex and painful relationship with a tempestuous woman who he first met in the second volume. The Prisoner is a fascinating glimpse into what the books refer to as “the intermittencies of the heart.”
You could call it a prequel to his monumental trilogy The Lord of the Rings, but Tolkien’s The Simarillion reads more like a history text of Middle-Earth. It tells the story of the First Age, in which some of the most beloved characters of Tolkien’s elaborately realized fantasy world recall tales from the beginnings of the eventual epic we’ve come to know so well.
The Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson
One of America’s seminal poets only published 11 poems during her lifetime, though she wrote over 1,800. It wasn’t that she had no interest in seeing them to print—in 1862 she wrote to literary critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson to ask if her “Verse is alive”—but her extreme introversion (some have gone so far as to describe it as agoraphobia) and the fact that she was a woman, worked against her, and she remained unknown until her sister Lavinia discovered Dickinson’s treasure trove of poetry in the wake of her death from kidney disease.
The Diary of a Young Girl
First published in 1947, Anne Frank’s diary has become the most recognized and horrifying evidence of the Holocaust. But it’s sometimes hard to remember that the writer of these gorgeous words, unbelievably wise sentiments, and resolute convictions was 13 when she wrote them, and under incredible duress and terror. When one thinks of oneself at 13, how frivolous we were and how carefree, it is shocking to compare that to the bravery and intelligence of Anne Frank, who accomplished more in her short years (though tragically she never knew it) than most of us would in multiple lifetimes.
“Some men are born posthumously.” —Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist
Classic works of literature can seem so historical, so chiseled in stone by antiquity or genius, that it’s easy to forget the frail human beings behind them. We forget—or overlook—that all writers from Shakespeare to Sophocles possess the same weaknesses and idiosyncrasies as the rest of us, because their artistry not only survived history but created it. So ancient tragedies like “Antigone” and “Oedipus the King” become foundational texts around which subsequent tragedies are designed, retroactively creating the impression that the originals, rather than copied templates, were always crystalized paragons.
But of course this is not the truth. Obviously these masterpieces deserve to be remembered—this isn’t a challenge to their merit—it’s that it’s difficult through the grand lens of history to accurately see the humanity of their creators. And nothing humanizes a person more than, to employ a ghost’s phrase, unfinished business, because for all their brilliance these titans could not avoid, nor predict, the inevitability of their own deaths.
So here is a collection of “classic” books that were published after the author perished—sometimes because they worried about hurting people they loved, other times because of sheer time, their work interrupted by mortality, and still other times because they wanted the book, the play, the poem, to die with them. No matter what the reason, the circumstances surrounding these books are all, in Nietzsche’s phrase, human, all too human.
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