Dude, Where's My Masterpiece?

A pattern’s forming in this week’s reading.

First up, “Can You Forgive Him? How a Book and a Friendship Went Up in Flames,” a New Yorker article by Rachel Cohen, author of this year’s wonderful non-fiction book “A Chance Meeting.” Cohen chronicles the excruciating story of John Stuart Mill showing up at the house of his close friend Thomas Carlyle, whose uncopied, much-worked-on manuscript, “History of the French Revolution,” Mill had been reviewing. Mill’s news? Um, it burned. It’s gone. Cohen recounts:

Carlyle had entrusted Mill with his manuscript and was awaiting his response. Now Mill staggered into the parlor looking, Carlyle wrote later in his memoirs, ‘pale as Hector’s ghost,’ and asked that Jane Carlyle go down to the carriage, where his companion, Harriet Taylor (who was married to a merchant named John Taylor), was waiting. Mrs. Carlyle assumed that their friend was about to run off with someone else’s wife. She rushed downstairs, but could get nothing from Harriet Taylor, who said only, over and over, that Carlyle would never forgive Mill. Running back up the stairs, Mrs. Carlyle entered the parlor, where her husband now sat with a ghastly look on his face. Carlyle’s manuscript had been mistaken for wastepaper, and it had been, with the exception of four charred pages, entirely burned.

This morning I happened to finish William Gass’s novel “Omensetter’s Luck.” There’s an afterword by the author, which begins this way:

If, to reach this point, you have actually read the novel, you will know that its final chapter is short as a sneeze. I had reached that place myself, writing the book, when the manuscript was stolen. It disappeared like dew does on a warm morning. The manuscript was lying on the desk in my unlocked office at Purdue University. I had left it to its own indolent devices in order to teach a class, and when I returned, a fifty-minute hour later, the familiar stack in its customary stationary box was no longer there.

Damn. Gass’s book was also uncopied. (In typical fashion, he makes even this sound poetic: “I loathed the carbon copy look. I would write what would seem to me an appealing line, but beneath my Underwood’s boldly hammered page, the same words slunk–weak and pale, fuzzy and fake. In any case, I wrote by changing my mind. I couldn’t make copies of words so provisional. So I hadn’t any carbons, any copies, any doubles, any duplicates. Not one.”)

Gass goes on to tell the story, which is very odd. A prof in Purdue’s English Department was the culprit, and he was found out later trying to pass off the stolen novel as his own play. He had also taken essays he’d commissioned (Gass’s included) for literary journals, then published them under his own name in other journals.

Eventually, this guy fled the country, Gass rewrote the book (then reread it, shook his head, then rewrote it again), and went on to write many more. Still, the final part of the story that Gass tells reveals the rage he felt, that Carlyle must have felt: Years later, “Omensetter” is out. Gass is driving down a campus road. He sees, walking right there on the sidewalk, the thief. He bombs the gas and drives up over the curb straight at him. At the last second, Gass breaks, stopping short of the man. Good thing. It wasn’t the thief.

Withdrawing to the road, I wondered what had come over me. How could I have made such an immense and serious mistake? And where had my hatred come from, to surface so suddenly, on such an innocent afternoon? I’ve never been able to form even a fanciful explanation.