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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, a novel by Louisa May Alcott, famous author of the 19th century, best known for her work “Little Women.” Now an unpublished first novel called “The Inheritance” has been proclaimeddiscovered. One of the proclaimed discoverers was Joel Myerson, a professor of English at the University of South Carolina. Professor Myerson, welcome.
JOEL MYERSON, University of South Carolina. Hello.
JIM LEHRER: Harvard University late today has either confused your parade or rained on your parade a little bit. They issued a statement, held a news conference, and said that some published manuscript has been sitting on Harvard’s Houghton Library shelves for the past 22 years clearly listed in the card catalog as unpublished. What’s the story? What’s going on here?
PROFESSOR MYERSON: Harvard’s right, but remember that Emerson’s journals were also at Harvard for 20 years when they were published in 1960. It was news because everyone could now read them. They did not have to go to the library and read the manuscript. Our news is that we’re now going to make this material available to a wide audience to read.
JIM LEHRER: Now when and how did you come upon this?
PROFESSOR MYERSON: We found it in the late 1980s, when we were editing Emerson’s–I’m sorry–Alcott’s letters and journals, and it was part of the material we were reading for the editing and annotation of that edition. We found it, thought it was a wonderful story, xeroxed it, brought it home with us, fulfilled our contractual obligations to the other Alcott editions we were doing, and finally got around to editing it and transcribing it.
JIM LEHRER: Well, when you say found it, you didn’t find it like in eureka terms. In other words, it was catalogued, right? I mean–
PROFESSOR MYERSON: It was catalogued.
JIM LEHRER: It wasn’t lost or miscatalogued or anything like that?
PROFESSOR MYERSON: No. Harvard is a very responsible library, and it was catalogued very well. What we did was recognize it for what it is, and also read it. I’m sure that the other people who saw it were put off by a 150-page manuscript that was in handwriting that was very hard to read. Now, people who want to buy the book will be able to read it, instead of having to go to Harvard and possibly damage the manuscript.
JIM LEHRER: All right. How old was she when she wrote this?
PROFESSOR MYERSON: Seventeen years old.
JIM LEHRER: How do you know that?
PROFESSOR MYERSON: Uh, there’s a little slip of paper in it that said, “written when I was 17 in Boston.”
JIM LEHRER: Yeah, okay. And you say it’s a hundred and fifty some pages, right?
PROFESSOR MYERSON: That’s correct.
JIM LEHRER: Handwritten, on what kind of paper?
PROFESSOR MYERSON: Handwritten, uh, I don’t know the paper type because it’s so long ago I forgot, and I’ve been working for xeroxes.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. But I mean, was it, was it lined paper, or, or just regular manuscript paper?
PROFESSOR MYERSON: She would work on both sheets. I’m sorry, I don’t know.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Okay. And how does it compare with Little Women?
PROFESSOR MYERSON: It has a lot of the themes that you see in Little Women, the sense of community, the sense of a feminist community, the sense of doing good for other people, the sense of social responsibility. They’re all present in “The Inheritance.”
JIM LEHRER: Is it–how does it rate as literature?
PROFESSOR MYERSON: Very good. It’s obviously not of the same quality as “Little Women” because Alcott was about half the age that she was when she published “Little Women,” but it is much better than you would expect from a 17-year-old person at any time.
JIM LEHRER: Give us–what’s the time and, uh, the setting and place for this novel.
PROFESSOR MYERSON: 19th century Britain.
JIM LEHRER: And where in Britain, what kind–what’s the basis for the story?
PROFESSOR MYERSON: The basis of the story is a young lady named Edith who is adopted at an Italian orphanage by a lord, brought back to England, and made part of the lord’s family, but as a ward of the, uh, family. As the story opens, young Lord Percy has come to visit the family. He falls in love with her. Another visitor is Lady Ida, who sees Edith as taking Percy away from her. She wants to get Percy, and the wheels are set in motion.
JIM LEHRER: I see. What is your theory based on your research or just a hunch as to why she didn’t publish this herself?
PROFESSOR MYERSON: We have no idea, other than because it was an early effort, she may have wanted to put it aside until she had something that was more finished and of a different length.
JIM LEHRER: Are you concerned at all that this may not be what she wanted, what you all have done, or what you are in the process of doing?
PROFESSOR MYERSON: No, not at all, because Louisa May Alcott earned her living as a publishing author, and I think she would be very happy to have her descendants also profit from her work.
JIM LEHRER: Well, that’s–who–that was my next question. Who owns this manuscript that you, you all xeroxed?
PROFESSOR MYERSON: I believe the manuscript is owned by the Houghton Library at Harvard, but the literary rights are in the descendants of the Alcott family.
JIM LEHRER: Did you all make a deal with the Houghton Library, or have you made a deal with the descendants? What, what’s the business transactions that happen now?
PROFESSOR MYERSON: Uh, the business transactions are being handled by my agent.
JIM LEHRER: Your agent. And what is he going to do, submit it to publishers for auction?
PROFESSOR MYERSON: I believe so, next week.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. You consider this a blockbuster possibility as a book?
PROFESSOR MYERSON: We hope a lot of people will read it. The previous Alcott novel, “A Long Fatal Love Chase,” was in the “New York Times” best seller list, and we hope this will get a wide audience as well.
JIM LEHRER: And who gets the profits if that–I mean, if it is a huge success, who benefits from this?
PROFESSOR MYERSON: The Harvard Library, the Alcott heirs, Mr. Shealy, and myself, and Orchard House, because we will make a donation to them.
JIM LEHRER: Now, Mr. Shealy is the other professor who worked with you on this.
PROFESSOR MYERSON: Right.
JIM LEHRER: And what is Orchid House?
PROFESSOR MYERSON: Orchard House–
JIM LEHRER: Orchard House.
PROFESSOR MYERSON: –is the home of the Alcotts in Concord, Massachusetts, the house they actually lived in. It’s been restored to period furnishings, most of them original to the Alcott family, and it’s a mecca for people who are interested in Bronson and Louisa May Alcott.
JIM LEHRER: The story, the wire story said earlier today too that there was already movie interest in this, is that true?
PROFESSOR MYERSON: I just know what I read in the wire stories.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah, yeah. You’re, you are not concerned about what Harvard, Harvard did this afternoon with their news conference? In fact, there’s a quote here, “We all,” talking about you and Mister–and your colleague–”We all have our private discoveries, but the manuscript is hardly unknown.” You don’t dispute that?
PROFESSOR MYERSON: No. I think what Harvard was upset at was some of the press reports that suggested that they had miscatalogued it and not performed their job properly and I agree with Harvard, that they have performed their job properly.
They and the Alcott heirs have been wonderful stewards of these materials and made them available to qualified researchers. The news is that now anyone who wants to read it will be able to without having to go to Boston.
JIM LEHRER: And you think they will be pleased if and when they read it?
PROFESSOR MYERSON: I think so, very much.
JIM LEHRER: I mean, should they read it in comparison with the other works of Louisa May Alcott? Should they read it as a period piece? Should they read it and say, all right, this is a very unusual 17-year-old girl who wrote this, and what, what should be in their head when they sit down to read this book?
PROFESSOR MYERSON: A first-time reader should sit down and read it for a very valuable picture of what it was like to be a woman in 19th century Britain and by extension 19th century America, in terms of the restrictions and possibilities that were put out in front of one. If someone has read “Little Women”, it would be a fascinating book to see in it the germ of a lot of the ideas of “Little Women.”
JIM LEHRER: Would it be of interest to anybody if it had been written by somebody–a 17 year old today?
PROFESSOR MYERSON: That’s hard to answer, because I haven’t read many things by 17 year olds today.
JIM LEHRER: Right. But I mean–in other words, would it be a legitimate piece of literature in today’s market if it had not been written by Louisa May Alcott when she was 17 years old and had just been brought out of the archives of Harvard University?
PROFESSOR MYERSON: Yes. It stands on its own, no question about it.
JIM LEHRER: As a novel?
PROFESSOR MYERSON: Absolutely.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Well, again, thank you very much, Professor Myerson, for being with us.
PROFESSOR MYERSON: Thank you for having me.