5 Famous Books Saved from the Dumpster

Posted by Hayley on June 5, 2015
The road to publication is paved with headaches, heartaches, and crumpled up balls of paper. No one knows this more than the following authors. Their work went on to achieve worldwide acclaim, but in the beginning, it took an unlikely—and often unsung—literary hero to save their manuscripts from obscurity.

Read on for a behind-the-scenes look at the big books that barely made it to the shelf.

Stephen King's Carrie

Bad Beginnings: In 1973, King and his wife Tabitha lived in a trailer. Struggling to make ends meet, he began writing a story about a teen outcast named Carrie White. The process, however, was not an easy one; compounded by the fact that King was modeling his main character on two girls he knew in high school who had both died at an early age. Eventually, he gave up. "I couldn't see wasting two weeks, maybe even a month, creating a novella I didn't like and wouldn't be able to sell. So I threw it away," King wrote in his memoir, On Writing.

To the Rescue... Tabitha! She fished the pages out of the trash and set them right back in front of her husband. "You've got something there," she told him—and she was right. Carrie sold over a million copies in its first year. Since then it's been adapted for film, television, and Broadway.



Bad Beginnings: Almost a decade after the publication of his classic and controversial novel, Nabokov admitted Lolita was a "difficult book" to write. Perhaps this was an understatement. At one point during the novel's creation, Nabokov set a fire in his backyard and fed his entire draft to the flames.

To the Rescue... Vera, Nabokov's wife! A Cornell student witnessed her running out of the house to pluck as many pages as she could out of the fire. Was Nabokov suitably grateful for this act of literary heroism? We'll let a snippet from one of his love letters to Vera answer that question: "How can I explain to you, my happiness, my golden wonderful happiness, how much I am all yours—with all my memories, poems, outbursts, inner whirlwinds? Or explain that I cannot write a word without hearing how you will pronounce it?"


Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl

Bad Beginnings: Anne wrote her diary while she was hiding in an annex from the Nazis during World War II. The sweet, hopeful, and haunting account was abandoned when, on August 4, 1944, she and her family were apprehended and transported to concentration camps.

To the Rescue... Miep Gies. The Dutch woman, a loyal friend of Anne's family, snatched the diary out of the ransacked annex and kept it safe in her desk drawer. She returned the diary to Anne's father, the family's only known survivor, who submitted it for publication in 1946.


John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces

Bad Beginnings: Toole took the numerous rejections of A Confederacy of Dunces hard. He toiled on re-working it for years, writing to his editor, "Something of my soul is in the thing. I can't let it rot without trying." After eventually giving up on the novel ever getting published, Toole committed suicide on March 26, 1969. He was 31 years old.

To the Rescue... Toole's mother, Thelma. Two years after her son's death, she found a smeared carbon copy of the manuscript in Toole's old room. The novel would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981.



Bad Beginnings: It's hard to imagine Lee's beloved novel absent from our bookshelves—and Scout and Atticus and Boo Radley absent from our hearts—but in the late 1950s, publication did not seem likely. The author later admitted to readers she found the writing process so frustrating that at one point she lost hope and threw the entire manuscript out the window and into a pile of snow.

To the Rescue... Lee's agent! He reportedly demanded she retrieve and finish the manuscript. The tough love worked. To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960. It became an instant sensation and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the following year.


Comments Showing 1-36 of 36 (36 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Stoked (new)

Stoked absolutely love to kill a mocking bird - glad it made it!


message 2: by Karen (last edited Jun 05, 2015 07:25AM) (new)

Karen Tabitha was bang on with the call about Carrie - really spooky, and summed up the cruelty of senior (high school) for some people.


message 3: by Phoenix2 (new)

Phoenix2 Loved how their family rescued the books, when their own writters had given up.


message 4: by Louie (new)

Louie If there are classic books that were saved, I can only imagine there were also many classics lost because no one was around to rescue them.


message 5: by Vipin (new)

Vipin Yadav Wow! I didn't knew this but i am feeling bad for John Kennedy and Anne frank.. all 5 books are going to my To-read list..


Erin *Proud Book Hoarder* I knew about Carrie and the Diary of Anne Frank. Although from my response about Stephen King for a school project, I read she got it out of the trash and told him she liked it, but it needed to be longer and some work.

That's tragic on John Kennedy Toole. How sad.


message 7: by Alan (new)

Alan Erin (Paperback stash) *is juggle-reading* wrote: "I knew about Carrie and the Diary of Anne Frank. Although from my response about Stephen King for a school project, I read she got it out of the trash and told him she liked it, but it needed to be..."

Yes, tragic for JKToole, even sadder for American letters. Here was a writer to follow the greats, Bellow and Updike. Instead we have humorless and mediocre writers, though highly touted (bec of absence of greater).


message 8: by Kirsten (new)

Kirsten I really need to re-read some of these books.


message 9: by Richp (new)

Richp Louie wrote: "If there are classic books that were saved, I can only imagine there were also many classics lost because no one was around to rescue them."
There are certainly many reports of various famous authors destroying some of their works out of frustration or depression. On the other hand, it was likely often for good reason, as Sturgeon's law applies: 90% of everything is crap.

This list could easily be largely expanded with some group effort. I am currently working through the poems of Emily Dickenson, very few of which were published in her lifetime. She gave up trying to publish them (but not writing them) early in her productive period due to a very high rejection rate. Her sister Lavinia found them after Emily's death and began getting them published.


message 10: by Katarzyna (new)

Katarzyna S. i'm reading Carrie right now, nice to know that it was "rescued" :)


message 11: by Kelly (new)

Kelly Martin Don't bother ith To Kill a Mocking bird. Its a story of racism as seem through the eyes of a little white girl and her lawyer father ho could not save an innocent man. Just turn on the new to find out which innocent Black Man was killed by the cops today!


message 12: by [deleted user] (new)

On his deathbed Virgil gave orders for the manuscript of The Aeneid to be burned because he wasn't finished with it.


message 13: by Clare (new)

Clare I have read all- with the exception of A Confederacy Of Dunces, which I just added to my want to read list. Love how others rescued these works, even though the writer had given up, just goes to show, often we are our own worst enemies, and should believe in ourselves more.


message 14: by Creaturecare8 (new)

Creaturecare8 Stoked&Magical wrote: "absolutely love to kill a mocking bird - glad it made it!"

I completely agree. I can't imagine such a remarkable book being thrown out the window. Now the second book is coming out!! So happy that Harper Lee's agent rescued the model of perfect literature.


message 15: by Dee (new)

Dee i wonder if the TAKM story is true - based on how the reports of the new book is being portrayed...it is the book that become TKAM; started out as Scout going back to her hometown as an adult etc


message 16: by Ashley (new)

Ashley Dee wrote: "i wonder if the TAKM story is true - based on how the reports of the new book is being portrayed...it is the book that become TKAM; started out as Scout going back to her hometown as an adult etc"

I believe it was loosely based on an event that Harper Lee experienced or witnessed in her home town. I don't know where I read that, but I believe yes, at least inspired by true events.


message 17: by Shay (new)

Shay Caroline I love what Nabokov said to his wife. That last line is how i feel about my #1 reader, too.


message 18: by Mario (new)

Mario Otero Though he never came to the point of thrashing a manuscript, Mercedes Barcha, Gabriel García Marquez's wife, was his support and the energy to lovely stretch family resources and smooth the way for him to be able to keep with his literary production. Had not this been this way, a Nobel prize would not have made available to the world latin american and colombian literature.

Check Gerald Martin's "Gabriel García Marquez: A Life" (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/5...)


message 19: by Alan (new)

Alan Richp wrote: "Louie wrote: "If there are classic books that were saved, I can only imagine there were also many classics lost because no one was around to rescue them."
There are certainly many reports of variou..."


True for E Dickinson; but Dawes, the Springfield newspaper publisher and a family friend, did sneak a few into print. My father's Springfield Electrotype began in the Depression in the rear of the Dawes Building, Spfld. corner of Main and Fort Streets.


message 20: by Alan (new)

Alan :æ: wrote: "On his deathbed Virgil gave orders for the manuscript of The Aeneid to be burned because he wasn't finished with it."

I believe Spenser was similarly unhappy with his Fairie Queene, because unfinished (only 6 of planned 12 bks, possibly more). Perhaps Spenser was alone in wishing it longer. Though it is remarkable (Spiro-Agnevskan alliteration) it seems "finished" with the last virtue, Courtesy, a Renaissance ideal.


message 21: by Caroline (new)

Caroline I am so glad To Kill a Mockingbird and Anne Franks diary were published and not lost.I haven't read the other three books yet. If two classics like this were nearly thrown away,I wonder how many other fantastic manuscripts have been thrown away and lost to us.


message 22: by Doseofbella (new)

Doseofbella Bravo dumpster divers'! A true loss if not saved. Thank you.


message 23: by Hallie (new)

Hallie Boy, am I glad that To Kill a Mockingbird made it!


message 24: by Aelene (new)

Aelene Dear Lord, what would the world be now if these extraordinary and life-changing books had never been published?


message 25: by [deleted user] (new)

Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman was lost until it was rediscovered by her lawyer in 2014.

I wish it always turned out this way. We've lost most of Aeschylus, probably forever.


message 26: by Tom (new)

Tom Erin (Paperback stash) *is juggle-reading* wrote: "I knew about Carrie and the Diary of Anne Frank. Although from my response about Stephen King for a school project, I read she got it out of the trash and told him she liked it, but it needed to be..."

Erin (Paperback stash) *is juggle-reading* wrote: "I knew about Carrie and the Diary of Anne Frank. Although from my response about Stephen King for a school project, I read she got it out of the trash and told him she liked it, but it needed to be..."

Fellow Louisiana writer Walker Percy also deserves credit for bringing us Toole's book. Toole's mother brought the draft to Percy, who then lobbied for its publication after the author's death. Percy, who won the National Book Award in 1961 for his first novel The Moviegoer, had the "juice" to see Confederacy of Dunces published.


Carol She's So Novel꧁꧂ I remember reading that after multiple rejections, Keri Hulme was going to encase The Bone People manuscript in perspex & use it as a door stop.


message 28: by ~Leslie~ (new)

~Leslie~ Confederacy of Dunces is a true depiction of life in New Orleans during a certain period of time. Great stuff!


message 29: by Meredith (new)

Meredith Beasley If I'm not mistaken, JK Rowling's Harry Potter almost got trashed.


message 30: by Marilee (new)

Marilee :æ: wrote: "Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman was lost until it was rediscovered by her lawyer in 2014.

I'm not so sure Go Set a Watchman was ever really "lost", not based on the stories that have been published, about how Lee's recently passed away agent/lawyer sister, acting at her sister's behest, kept it filed away, since Lee didn't want it published. Her new lawyer, some feel, is taking advantage of the stroke impaired Lee. Of course, the literary world is champing at the bit to read the original book… the one which was reworked into into TKAM.



message 31: by Jibran (new)

Jibran They were right about the last one. Shouldn't have been published. It's terrible.


message 32: by Deuce (new)

Deuce Naftel Richp wrote: "Louie wrote: "If there are classic books that were saved, I can only imagine there were also many classics lost because no one was around to rescue them."
There are certainly many reports of variou..."


"as Sturgeon's law applies: 90% of everything is crap." Oh my god I love you! Ted Sturgeon is one of my favourite authors. To see him quoted so casually is just fantastic.


message 33: by bea (new)

bea Thank God for author's with supportive wives!


message 34: by Alan (new)

Alan Bea wrote: "Thank God for author's with supportive wives!"

Hmm. Dunno. I'd say Thank God for authors with no husbands--Austen and Dickinson (even George Eliot, to some extent). The greatest we've had. For JK Toole (as for the artist Van Gogh), a woman relative.


message 35: by bea (new)

bea Well, it looks like both King and Nabokov's wives saved their drafts from the dump/fire! Thank God for them


message 36: by Alan (new)

Alan Bea wrote: "Well, it looks like both King and Nabokov's wives saved their drafts from the dump/fire! Thank God for them"

Yes.


back to top