William Manchester: He's Dead. His Book on Churchill Will Still Be Published

Historians in the News

Steven Zeitchik, in the WSJ (June 3, 2004):

When William Manchester died earlier this week at age 82, the literary community mourned the death of a great biographer. Best known for his controversial portrayal of the Kennedys, he had later in his career earned fame for a different subject. In the first two volumes of "The Last Lion," his acclaimed series on Winston Churchill, he had coaxed fresh dramatic material out of a familiar subject -- and written an exciting story to boot. Fans had been hungrily awaiting the final installment, which was to begin in 1940 and cover the crux of Churchill's wartime leadership.

Almost immediately, speculation flew on what would become of that evolving book, at one time subtitled "Defender of the Realm." Manchester had been working on it for more than a decade and had written about 230 pages. But in the past few years, after a series of strokes, he had completely stopped writing. His publisher, the Time Warner imprint of Little, Brown, knew that Manchester's health was failing, and it knew that others knew it too; last month the company finally secured a co-writer to help finish the project after years of Manchester rejecting the idea.

The mid-project death or enfeeblement of an author is one of the stranger crucibles a publisher must face. Unlike more collaborative art forms, a piece of writing bears a highly individual style, making it hard for others to complete a book without it seeming choppy or fraudulent. (One thinks of the old joke where a writing professor asks students to take inspiration from Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist"; they return passages about barkdogs and bahsheeps.) Nor can a company release a book's fragment the way it might a CD; a piece of writing more than most creative efforts is an integrated whole and immune to such partialness.

Yet creative legacy (if not commercial imperative) demands that a publisher find a way to get the book out -- whether by hook, crook or seance.

The easiest method is to conceal the changes in the publishing process -- i.e., by allowing the editor to interpolate freely. One telltale clue this has happened: an author is in the middle of writing right before he passes away, then, mysteriously, turns out to have completed his book right before his death....

Despite the absurdity of literary fingernails growing after the body has gone, a publisher carrying on an author's work can radiate a certain poignancy. Ralph Ellison struggled for 40 years (and 2,000 pages) on a second novel until his death in 1994. Five years later, Random House published "Juneteenth," a 360-page streamlining by Ellison literary executor John Callahan. Critics carped, but there was something sweet in seeing so much self-torture finally resolved.

Manchester, by all accounts, wanted to finish as badly as Ellison did. In an excruciatingly melancholic interview three years ago, the once-famously sharp mind told the New York Times that he could barely put a sentence together. "I can't make the connections," he said. "If I believed in the power of prayer, I would pray every day that he would carry me away."

Manchester's publisher now says it hopes to bring out the book in 2007. The chosen co-writer, a features reporter for the Palm Beach Post named Paul Reid, knew Manchester. He has already written 60 pages, picking up where Manchester left off, and has also carefully gone through the author's outline. Mr. Reid will do what Saul Karoo tried to do -- take the confetti and turn it into a story.

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