AfterWord is not quite what I expected but that is not a bad thing. What I expected was a book of somewhat lighthearted essays by authors imagining conversations with their favorite dead authors asking them things like, as John Halper does in “A Tardy Talk With Edith Wharton,” did Lily Bart commit suicide or was it an accident? (Imagined Wharton offers an answer but I’m not telling what it is). There are plenty of such essays but there are also plenty that do some serious biography and literary criticism as well. So it ends up being a nice mix of fun and fanciful and thoughtful and serious. One thing that does run through all the essays is the living writer’s love of and appreciation for the work of the dead writer. As Salwak notes in his introduction:
while the book began as an inquiry into the connection between the living and the dead, it became an exploration of the relationship between author and text, between reality and imagination.
Margaret Atwood’s opening essay, “Negotiating with the Dead,” is a reprint from her book Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing and alone is worth the price of admission.
But there are also wonderful essays on Samuel Johnson, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Oscar Wilde, and a somewhat snooty Jane Austen just to name a few. In the Austen essay, Eugene Goodheart questions Austen about why Emma is her favorite character and whether she really thought that Emma and Mr. Knightley would have a happy marriage.
Carl Rollyson writes a fascinating essay in which he meets William Faulkner and manages to blend musings on biography and literature and how the two interact to great effect. At one point “Faulkner” says
Novelists’ lives are not novels, their characters are never traceable back to their creators.
Rollyson doesn’t entirely agree. It is a pleasure to read the back and forth between Rollyson and “Faulkner” each using Faulkner’s biography to make his point.
Even when the essayist takes a more serious approach, it is always fun to see how they actually contrive to “meet” the chosen author. Dreams, a time machine, a sudden and inexplicable appearance of the living author outside the dead author’s door. I found it curious that a good many of the essayists went back in time to the author instead of the author coming forward in time to the essayist.
Unfortunately, AfterWord isn’t due to be published by the University of Iowa Press until early May. Put the book on your wishlist so you don’t forget about it!