A short time ago, I came across Shortlist.com’s list of the “30 Greatest Posthumous Novels.” There were the usual suspects: Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger, David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, etc. etc. Some of the books on the list I had read or just heard of, and some I was surprised to learn were published after the author’s death. Not knowing the circumstances behind the posthumous publications of most of these works, though, allowed me to fit them into my mental bookcase with ease. Okay, so The Mysterious Stranger was published six years after Twain’s death, but all that was nearly a century ago. Not much, therefore, has changed when I think about Twain’s body of work.
And yet, how different it felt to hear about the publication of Pearl Buck’s latest novel, The Eternal Wonder, which just came out at the end of October. Best known for The Good Earth
(1931), a novel about a Chinese family set in the years leading up to
World War I, Buck is also famous for being the first American woman to
win the Nobel Prize in Literature (1938). I read The Good Earth
at some point during high school, but I stopped there, never hearing
about Buck in high school or college English classes, and thus not
knowing that she wrote dozens of novels and several works of nonfiction.
So when I received a review copy of The Eternal Wonder and
learned about the circumstances of its discovery and eventual
publication, I was fascinated. Apparently, after Buck died in 1973, her
estate was in disarray, and manuscripts and other items disappeared.
Somehow, the manuscript of The Eternal Wonder wound up clear
across the country in a storage unit in Texas. Her family only recently
learned about its existence. Despite the fact that it wasn’t a polished,
completed manuscript, Buck’s son and literary executor worked with the
publisher to prepare it for publication. It is a patient and beautiful
book about the emotional and artistic development of a genius, a young
man who learns that wonder and curiosity are what drive our quest to
understand the world around us.
I suppose that this particular posthumous novel stood out to me
because I had already read one of Buck’s novels but hadn’t known about
the others. Then, suddenly, here comes a new novel, appearing as if by
magic, and I’m in the right place at the right time to read it, hot off
the presses, if you will. I guess what I’m saying is, I’ve never had
good timing when it comes to fiction written after 1920. I’m always
hearing about great new novels late, after everyone else has already
read them and raved about them. I’m always telling myself, “I’ll read
his books, I’ll read her books, one day,” but I never get around to it
because there are still so many pre-20th-century books I need to read.
This time, though, I caught a posthumous novel (by a writer who died
not that long ago, in the grand scheme of things) as it floated by on
the river of time, and now I’m inspired to turn back and revisit Pearl
Buck. And some of those other posthumous novels that call out to be
(first posted on Book Riot 11/4/13)