Culture: Back From the Dead

When Charles Dickens died in 1870, he was publishing monthly installments of a novel called "The Mystery of Edwin Drood." He left no hint of who did the murder—or if there was a murder—so several people kindly finished it for him. One continuation was credited to "the Spirit Pen of Charles Dickens" himself, aided by a medium in Brattleboro, Vt.

No sane person would try to fill in the last 300-odd pages of a book by a great novelist. But what should survivors do with a tantalizingly close-to-finished work whose creator has died? Withhold it? Put it out exactly as is, like Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales"? That's what Algonquin Books did this spring with the late novelist Larry Brown's "A Miracle of Catfish": its final page has Brown's notes on how he planned to end it. Or do you do what Puccini's conductor and family authorized for "Turandot": get a composer to work from Puccini's sketches and approximate his style in the last act? Or you could do what Scribner's did with an incomplete Ernest Hemingway manuscript called "The Garden of Eden." It hired an editor who cut two thirds of it, including a parallel plot and characters, spliced together paragraphs from widely separated pages and ended it by putting a period in the middle of a Hemingway sentence. (Publisher Charles Scribner Jr.'s preface called this "a modest amount of pruning.") But whether touched up or brutalized, every posthumous work raises the same question: what are we really getting, and would the original creators be spinning in their graves?

Consider "The Children of Húrin," published last month. It certainly was written by J.R.R. Tolkien, who died in 1973 and has kept publishing ever since. His son and literary executor, Christopher Tolkien, used only his father's words to tell the story, which Tolkien began in 1918, and worked at on and off for decades. But did "Húrin" ever fully exist anywhere but in Tolkien's imagination and intention? Webster Younce, a senior editor at Houghton Mifflin, says Christopher's version was "brought together from various drafts and forays"; another Tolkien son, Adam, has described this book as "a recomposition of published texts and other 'pieces' that weren't published previously." Christopher didn't just dream up the story and title: his father had conceived it as one of three "Great Tales." (Younce says the other two, far sketchier, will probably never appear.) But the elder Tolkien seems never to have come close to a final version. Without seeing just what Christopher had to work with, there's no telling to what extent this is a "Garden of Eden" job. But at least Houghton Mifflin isn't misrepresenting it.

Larry Crane, archivist for the cult singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, talks more openly about putting together Smith's double CD "New Moon," which has just come out. (It's his second posthumous release, after 2004's "From a Basement on the Hill.") When Smith died in 2003, under still-unexplained circumstances, he left behind all sorts of recordings preserved in all sorts of places. Crane tracked down studio tracks, online bootlegs, cassettes that Smith's friends had kept safe for years, even a hidden track on a DAT. He found songs he never knew existed, some without titles. Smith's father, Gary Smith, named the new album.

In consultation with Smith's family and friends, and with Maggie Vail, VP of Kill Rock Stars—Smith's old label—Crane selected, sequenced, mixed and in some cases titled the best of these recordings, and he wouldn't recommend releasing many more. "You have to draw the line," he says—but he adds that releasing no posthumous work "is also kind of disrespectful." The 24 new/old songs—only three of which had ever been released in any form—are worthy of the work Smith chose to put out during his lifetime. And if it seems highhanded to have bestowed titles without his consent, remember that it wasn't Schubert who named his eighth symphony the "Unfinished."

The revered Cuban singer Ibrahim Ferrer, who died in 2005, left his survivors fewer ethics questions and less work. His new "Mi Sueño," a collection of boleros—love ballads—is an album he'd wanted to do for years, and he knew where to turn for help when he realized he might not live to see the project through. With producer Nick Gold, Ferrer recorded half a dozen songs in 2004, and then kept on working by himself, making demos with his small band. He left this note for Gold: "Can you realize my dream and release this record?" A heavy responsibility, but Gold found that the demos needed only minor "repairs" to become master takes. "What was weird," he recalls, "is that now and then during the mixing you expected him to sort of appear so you could play it to him. Took quite a long time to realize that he wouldn't be able to."

August Wilson also left his colleagues little to do on his last work, "Radio Golf," which had its Broadway debut last week. When he died in October 2005, he'd finished the play and gone to its premiere at the Yale Repertory Theatre that spring. Over the summer, says producer Jack Viertel, "he completely reimagined the play, essentially in one huge rewrite." Wilson had worked by watching production after production before a play hit Broadway, tinkering all the way; this time he knew he wouldn't live long enough. After his rewrite, all "Radio Golf" needed to be Broadway-ready was what Viertel calls "little tricks of the trade that you might not have noticed until the last second, that anyone would do—a little switcheroo here or there, or trimming half a line out of a sentence." True, since Wilson micromanaged right down to the wire—a music cue between scenes, an actor's hat—the play that Broadway crowds are seeing might have been a hair different. Then again, that difference might not have been noticeable.

Another current Broadway hit, though, would be unrecognizable to one of its creators. The musical "Curtains" is only a two-thirds posthumous work: John Kander, 80, of the songwriting team Kander and Ebb ("Cabaret," "Chicago"), is still alive; Fred Ebb died in 2004, and Peter Stone, who worked on the book for some 20 years, died in 2003. To replace Stone, director Scott Ellis chose pop singer turned playwright Rupert Holmes, who in 1986 had won two Tony Awards for his musical—and you're gonna love this—"The Mystery of Edwin Drood." (In his "Drood" the audience votes on alternative endings.) Holmes rebuilt "Curtains" from the foundation. In Stone's version you found out that the actors who were in the show-within-the-show were actually actors in this show on Broadway that—you get the idea. "That was all great," says Ellis, "but we wanted to do an old-fashioned Broadway murder mystery." Both Stone's widow and Kander and Ebb gave their blessing. "I found myself sort of dismantling what one of their collaborators had put in place," Holmes says, "and I tried to do that sensitively. It was like being the second wife—have you ever seen 'Rebecca'?"

If any of these original creators are raising a posthumous ruckus about what's been done to their work, nobody's reported it. (You'd think the shade of Peter Stone might appear to Holmes or Ellis crying "Philistine!" But no.) It makes you think the dead have other things on their minds—or nothing at all on their minds and no minds at all on which to have it. Like funerals—and royalties—posthumous works are really for the living. The collaborators-after-the-fact get to express their respect and love. The public gets to experience a still-living work, even though its creator is gone.