What to do with an unpublished, undated short story by my grandfather.
November 4, 2013 7:43 PM   Subscribe

I recently found a short story written by my deceased grandfather that has no date or any hints as to when he might have written it. Am I out of luck on dating it, and should I just publish it as is with no special fanfare?

Last night I found a 492 word short story written by my (deceased) grandfather. It was tucked away inside a manila envelope with a bunch of other papers that were mailed *to* him in the 1980s shortly before he died, that haven't seen the light of day for decades and (to paraphrase the famous Sesame Street saying) it was the only item among those papers that stuck out like a sore thumb.

There's no date on it -- nor any helpful clues to even help me narrow it down a bit. He could have been twenty or sixty when he wrote it, for all I know. But I want to publish it because I think it's a lovely little piece. Just in case, I googled several snippets of text and so far, it appears to have been written by him. No one else in the family knows anything about it.

So I have two questions for the more experienced MeFites out there:

#1: How do I figure out when he wrote it? The fact that I found it with unrelated materials put together by his nephew and mailed to him in the 1980s only confuses me because it's a total anomaly in that bundle of papers. I suppose his nephew *could* have been giving the story back to my grandfather for some reason and just stuffed it in there without explanation, but for all I know, my grandfather could have accidentally or purposely placed it with those papers himself, later. And the nephew, who is still alive but pretty old, doesn't remember anything about it. Argh.

Might I have a way of identifying make and model of the typewriter or the age of the paper, through some sort of crazy "only in the movies" forensics? Could I at least get a "no later than" date? I have no idea where to start with that one. That's known as forensic document analysis, right?

#2 (very open-ended): Beyond the problem of not knowing how old my grandfather was when he wrote his story, I feel like I should do something special beyond simply publishing it as is (and under his name) in a short story contest or something. I know I could add a few sentences of introduction/commentary, but I know absolutely zero about the origins of the piece beyond who wrote it, so whatever I added would pretty much be window dressing. To answer my own question, maybe I should just let the publishing idea bake in the oven for a while and not rush it. What would you guys do?
posted by christopherious to Media & Arts (8 answers total)
Could I at least get a "no later than" date?

Speaking archaeologically, all you can really get is a "no earlier than" date. To explain, once a kind of paper or a kind of typewriter is in existence, you can write on it at any time between the time it comes into existence, and now. So there might indeed be kinds of paper that we know were introduced in, say, 1960, meaning that your grandfather typed this piece post-1960 and no earlier than that. We can't establish "no later than" based only on material evidence, because he could have typed it on 1960 paper on a 1960 typewriter, in 1995.

What about the content? Clues within the content could provide much more context with which to date it than the physical properties of the thing.

It is possible to identify paper and typewriter dates, but probably not without your paying someone to do it.

As far as "publishing it" in a contest - entering it into a contest, and having it published, are different things. It seems you might have a little bit of a problem with clear copyright here - assuming it's copyright your grandfather, there might be contest rules that prevent you submitting something that's the property of someone else. Then, too, there's nothing to say that submitting it means it'll get published. It's difficult enough to get one's own short story published, let alone one by someone else, and a piece you don't have clear information about. To publish something, you need a market - an outlet that wants to put it before an audience, usually because it fits their editorial guidelines. Do you have an outlet in mind? Why do you think they'd be interested? Will it make them any money or help them achieve their goals? Depending on the type of publication you have in mind, this may not be the thing to be aiming for.

You could just as easily publish it online, in blog form. If you want it to see the light of day, publish it on a blog, and frame it with what you know here. That's enough, really.

Something really special might be to get it designed, or typeset, maybe in letterpress, and self-publish it as a lovely little booklet and sell it online or in local stores. Prepare to lose money on this, though. It's worth doing if it's the kind of thing you'd like to give away to people, maybe give to his other relatives.
posted by Miko at 8:06 PM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Does your family have a regularly-scheduled family reunion? (Or, if not, could you plan one?) Self-publishing a lovely booklet (as suggested by Miko) could be a beautiful gift to give relatives at such a reunion -- you could also do a reading.

Did your grandfather live in a smaller town, or a larger city? If the former, you could talk to the local librarians/historical societies to gauge their interest in displaying/commemorating the work somehow.

Good luck - this sounds like a lovely discovery and a fulfilling project.
posted by whenbynowandtreebyleaf at 9:15 PM on November 4, 2013

I feel like I should do something special beyond simply publishing it as is (and under his name) in a short story contest or something.

I mean, it has passed on to you and your family. It's yours to do with as you wish. If that wish includes a strong enough undertone of "he'd want us to do X" then feel free to run with that but only because it's what you want to do with this gift from him.

To wit, a personal parallel, after my grandfather passed we were cleaning things up and found a jug of homemade wine in the back of a never-used, or even peeked into, kitchen cabinet. I never knew granddad to drink, nor did anyone else, up to and including my father. Having some homebrew wine experience my cousin and I figured it must be vinegar by now since it would have to be 10+ years old at the youngest.

Nope. It was delicious. Hands down the best homemade wine I've ever had. We even found the recipe, or what we think is the recipe, scrawled in a nearby cookbook. One of those recipes that includes the nomenclature "branch water" and uses an egg and it's flotation status as the hydrometer.

It was a great thing to think that he was making, or at least accepting of, homebrew at some point in his earlier years, much as I was at that particular time, despite his fairly rigorous and staunch Southern Baptist view of alcohol when I knew him.

I didn't feel the need to publish the recipe or anything like that... but I did archive it, share it with the family that I thought would enjoy it's existence, and enjoy the hell out of that wine, with the hopes of maybe making some from that recipe myself someday.

If I can find some branch water I can trust that is... Ours was fouled by the coal mines years ago.

Congrats on the find, grandfathers are something special, enjoy the story with him in your heart.
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:33 PM on November 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

If you provide a sample of a page, it is possible that someone on Metafilter could ID what typewriter was used. As Miko says, identifying the paper would require an expert, though some clues to its age might come if has a watermark, or if it seems yellowed or brittle or faded or foxed. As she says, the content of the story could give you some clues, particularly if events are alluded to that could date it, brand names are mentioned, or if particular out-of-date words or phrases might appear, even though the story is set in the present (or the present of the time it was written.)
posted by gudrun at 10:58 PM on November 4, 2013

I googled several snippets of text and so far, it appears to have been written by him

This is by no means definitive, at all. Various people in various places have pieces I wrote before the Internet was really A Thing, and the fact they are not online does not mean the copyright belongs to the people who have physical possession of them. The fact there are no other stories actually makes this seem less likely to me, and I'd be hesitant to publish this online and very hesitant to submit it anywhere (which can cause problems for you and for the online publisher.)

500 words is not lengthy. Were it me, I'd get it inexpensively printed in a small run (25 is the minimum) at Bookleteer with a little one page intro at the front telling the story of it's discovery and the fact you assume it is your grandfather's writing, and send copies to family.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:25 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is by no means definitive, at all.

This is true. I am also remembering the tradition, in formal education, of having students copy out essays or stories as part of instruction in composition, or to prepare for recitation. If it's something like that, it could come out of a textbook or teacher's manual from some time back.

Not that your grandfather couldn't have written it - he certainly could. But he could also have been assigned it as a speaking piece in school, or seen it in a magazine and wanted a fair copy to keep, or heard it as a sermon or radio play and asked for a typescript. Those things are possible. I don't know if your Googling has already taken you to Google books (date-limit the search to before his death) and Internet Archive, but you could run some of it through those to see whether they're in some more obscure printed source. If not, it's still possible it was someone else's.
posted by Miko at 5:48 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sidestepping the dating question, I would question why your grandfather didn't publish it in his lifetime. Perhaps he didn't wish to publish it. Maybe he just needed to get something out and he didn't care for it, so he put it aside.

So question why you want to publish it. I think it would be nice to share it amongst your family, but without clear guidance on what to do with it from someone who knew him like your grandmother or your parents who can better speak to why he didn't publish it when he could have, I would sit on it.
posted by inturnaround at 7:14 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you! Appreciate all the thoughtful and prudent comments. Thus far, all of them are "best answers".

To the questions about what I think he might have wanted, my feeling is that he would have appreciated it being shared, in the family or more widely.

To the question about authorship, he typed "By [his name]" under the title, so for now I'm going to trust his claim until I dig further into the internet and other resources.

To the questions about clues and content: there aren't any, really. Given that it was found with a package mailed in ~1986, containing letters from his brothers, given that it's an original and not a copy and given that it's in pristine condition, I'm guessing that he wrote it shortly before he passed away in 1988, filed it where he did and never pulled it out again. The story relates an experience walking along an empty beach after the sunbathers have all gone home and seems to be a metaphorical reflection on the life he'd lived, which also suggests old age at the time of writing (or to play devil's advocate, youthful pretensions of wisdom and world-weariness).

To the questions about my family, I totally plan on sharing this with them as I've shared other stuff I've been finding, just wanted to figure out my overall strategy with this piece, first. I've already touched base with some of the older folks and they don't know anything. I like the small town idea and yes, he did hail from one. Contacting them is a great idea.

The consensus here seems to be pointing to self-publishing and/or blogging. That's my default option -- I've been blogging about a big collection of items (from which I just found this little gem) for six months. Contrasting with the other materials, the story represents the first independent piece of content that totally stands up its own and my first reaction was that it might deserve a little more than just a place on a blog.

But the spirit of caution and forbearance here -- and the spirit of maybe just appreciating it for what it is without giving into an impulse to put it out in the world without a particularly strong reason to do so or a plan -- is motivating me to hold off for the time being. I'll wait a few months at least before doing anything while I do my homework and mull things over.

First stop: University library! Thanks again.
posted by christopherious at 8:55 PM on November 5, 2013

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