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Published and Forgotten: The Life and Death of Edward Whittemore

There are many motives behind the decision to write fiction. One reason is to secure a legacy by producing a number of books that will be read and treasured by later generations. Often this is a pipe dream as many books do not survive the life of the author. Editors and agents apparently don’t recognize chapters taken from the books of Booker award winning books. I have already discussed this issue in an earlier blog entry, Our Collective Memory of Books.

Don’t think that having extraordinary talent is a guarantee that the author’s book will be read by more than a handful of people after his death. A case in point is Edward Whittemore, an American expat writer, who has been dead more than ten years. Never heard of him?

Most readers haven’t.

Edward Whittemore's story began in Portland, Maine where he was born and went to high school. After he graduated in the 1950s from Yale, he joined the marines. He was stationed in Japan. Recruited by the CIA he worked undercover as a reporter for The Japan Times between 1958 to 1967. Living abroad was in his blood. Writing was his passion. He wrote five novels:

Quin's Shanghai Circus (1974)

The Jerusalem Quartet:

o Sinai Tapestry (1977)

o Jerusalem Poker (1978)

o Nile Shadows (1983)

o Jericho Mosaic (1987)


His sales according to one site never exceeded 3,000 copies of the hardback editions and 10,000 sales for the paperback editions. Another site the number was 5,000 hardback copies. By New York or London standards in place today these sales would have doomed him.

The critics loved him. “’Reviewers and critics compared his work to the novels of Carlos Fuentes, Thomas Pynchon, and Kurt Vonnegut. Publishers Weekly called him "our best unknown novelist.’ Jim Hougan, writing in Harper's Magazine, said Whittemore was ‘one of the last, best arguments against television ... He is an author of extraordinary talents ... The milieu is one in which readers of espionage novels may think themselves familiar, and yet it is a totally transformed by the writer's wild humor, his mystical bent, and his bicameral perception of history and time.’"

He refused to give interviews and his favorite word was “inscrutable” (a word that might have applied to him).

Christian Science Monitor characterized Whittemore’s writing, “Stylistically, Whittemore's novels are hard to classify. Some readers describe them as having a blend of the enigmatic qualities of the works of Jorge Luis Borges with the exoticism of the novels of Laurence Durrell. (Borges and Durrell were Whittemore's two chief literary idols.)”

In 1995 he died in New York City. At the time of his death, Edward Whittemore was working in a New York law office making photocopies.

He died in poverty and largely forgotten.

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