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Should A Dead Author’s Private Letters Become Public?

One of the few things that stood out to me while I was reading Possession was this issue of publishing letters of dead authors.

The long-winding story in Possession is partly about this issue, and it touches on a real situation we’ve seen many times over. For example, excerpts from Elizabeth Bowen’s love letters to Charles Ritchie (and many diary entries about him) were published in 2009 as Love’s Civil War: Elizabeth Bowen and Charles Ritchie, Letters and Diaries 1941-1973.

The book’s editor, Victoria Glendinning discusses how she came across the letters in this Guardian article:

I met Charles Ritchie for the first time in the mid-70s when I was researching my biography of Elizabeth Bowen. I visited him in the London flat that he and Sylvia were renting on a trip from Ottawa. He found it difficult on that first occasion to talk to me about her, feeling, as he said, that she might just come into the room at any minute. In the event it was Sylvia who kept coming into the room. Her side of the story remains untold.

Ritchie never gave me Bowen’s letters to read for my book. He had his secretary type out interesting but impersonal extracts – about London on VE day, for example, and about Iris Murdoch staying at Bowen’s Court. In the two decades between Bowen’s death and his own, he fretted constantly about what he should do with her letters, and proposed destroying them, as he had destroyed his to her when they were returned to him. He said he could not bear anyone else ever to read them. Some of his friends, myself included, urged him to bequeath them, with an embargo, to a university library. This did not appeal to him. In the end he culled them, removing the most intimate material either by cutting, tearing, taking out whole pages or, sometimes for consecutive weeks or months, whole batches of letters. There is nothing, for example, about the death of Bowen’s husband, nor about her feelings following the loss of Bowen’s Court, nor about the worst of her resentment of his married state.

That’s what the scholars always say, right? “Donate these highly intimate letters to the university library—for research, of course!”

It just make me uncomfortable. My first reaction is simply, “Would Elizabeth Bowen have approved of this?” I understand that this guy excerpted her letters, and didn’t even hand over the originals. But, still, would she approved of her words—written solely to one person in great private and intimate detail—being published to potentially millions?

I don’t think so.

And I think that’s a pretty big issue in the world of literature today—that of publishing the works of deceased authors without their prior permission. Another less intimate example is David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. Would DFW, known to be such a highly detailed perfectionist, been okay with having a rough, incomplete draft of a novel being published?

Should we even have to ask that question?

If Frank Lloyd Wright had died halfway through building a famous house, would anyone feel comfortable living in that house—without a ceiling, without running water, with no doors? That’s what this is.

I don’t get it. I feel like it’s highly intrusive and, honestly, morally questionable to publish any piece without the author’s consent—alive or dead. But, especially, ESPECIALLY, when it involves private letters.

Here’s hoping we can ignore our voyeuristic side and avoid feeding this monster. The more we read, the more they’ll publish.

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

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23 Comments Post a comment
  1. Interesting. I have wondered the same thing about a authors unfinished work that gets published after they die. For example, Maeve Binchy passed away in 2012 and a book “Chestnut Street” is just now coming out full of short stories she thought she might publish one day that her husband has now published. Then, books that are written as sequels by different authors after the original author died. For example, the book “Scarlet” by Alexandra Ripley written as a sequel to Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With The Wind”. What would Margaret Mitchell have thought of that sequel?

    Like

    May 22, 2014
    • Yes, the sequel/prequel not by the same author is a pet peeve of mine. Here’s another Gone With The Wind example coming out soon.

      https://101books.net/2014/03/31/a-prequel-to-gone-with-the-wind-is-coming/

      Like

      May 22, 2014
    • Do you find that any writing which relies on a close association with another well-known and successful work, either by being an adaptation, re-imagining, prequel, sequel, or otherwise literary rip-off, reprehensible? If so, you are suggesting that a great deal of literature is not worthy of our attention. I guess I’ll throw away all my copies of Ulysses and burn most of Shakespeare.

      The way I see it, the apparently contemporary reliance on the fame or success of an earlier novel is no worse than most of the dreck being turned out by writers who are filling the wire rack down at the Rex-All today. It’s even more obvious in the movies: can you imagine “Ulysses 6: The Return of Paddy Dignam?”

      Like so many tropes in literature (movies, television, podcasts), when it’s first done, it’s imaginative, but when it’s done because earlier examples were successful, it’s greed.

      Like

      May 22, 2014
      • Mike,

        No, I don’t think writing which relies on another’s work is reprehensible. I would be a hypocrite to think that, if you go out to my website you will see that I copy Robert’s (101 Books) format that he uses for his book reviews titled “other stuff”. lauriemcclaryblog.com

        However, what I do think is wrong is exactly what you are saying, when it is done for greed. And, I also agree with what Robert said in the post about the prequel to “Gone With The Wind” in regards to respecting the art.

        Like

        May 22, 2014
  2. I am of two minds concerning this.
    1) Yes, it is truly invasive and sometimes just plain rude. I don’t know that any of the authors would appreciate their private correspondences being for the public eye. In private is where we share our problems, our discontents, and our passions…all rough and nakedly for those whom know us best. That can’t be something people wish to have thrown around willy nilly on street corners.

    2) HOWEVER, if I pass away I want my daughter and family to publish any unfinished/unpublished work they find. I want my father or, if she’s old enough to write, my daughter to finish what I started and hopefully make some money from it so that they can live comfortably. I want my legacy to know their heritage through my work. Of course, unless they search and find embarrassing old drunk text messages there really isn’t much in the letter department.

    Like

    May 22, 2014
    • Well, then you’ve consented and you’ve made it clear you want this done. It’s just the non-consent part that bugs me.

      Like

      May 23, 2014
      • I totally agree! But I would hope that even if I had not said the words, my child would go ahead and honor my memory this way. Although I’m sure there are several who would prefer their families had not.

        Like

        May 23, 2014
  3. Of course Bowen had no idea that the letters she kept would be a part of her estate and if she didn’t want them published, she would have indicated it in her will … but it didn’t happen that way. Was it because she was unaware that a writer’s thoughts, often expressed in letters, were routinely used by scholars in analyzing the writer’s work and by avid followers who want to be as intimate as possible with their favorite authors (movies stars, politicians, etc.)? If not, why did she save the letters?

    On the other hand, we are a society of crude, rude, and extremely greedy Yahoos that will grab-on and exploit anything that will make a few extras bucks for us, even at the expense of a dead person. If Bowen had requested in her will that her personal letters be destroyed, I have no doubt that her heirs would have gone to court to preserve their right to exploit the dead author.

    Like

    May 22, 2014
    • Should the default be “publish unless I say not to,” or “don’t publish unless I say it’s okay”? I’m going with the latter.

      Like

      May 23, 2014
      • Legally, if it is a part of the estate and if there are no specific stipulations given in the will, then it is up to the heirs to do with as they wish. The author is dead and no matter what we may think, the heirs now own the letters.

        Nowadays many esteemed authors bequeth their non-published papers to an institute, usually a college or university. Of course this is done mostly for its tax advantages. Authors are also businessmen.

        Like

        May 23, 2014
  4. I, too, am of two minds about publishing private correspondence. (And don’t get me started on unfinished work!) That said, it seems some writers have made peace with the idea that once they die, what was private becomes public (if it still exists). The two ways to deal with the phenomenon is to either destroy what you don’t want to be public or write with this secondary and tertiary readership in mind. I write a post about Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet a little while back, and this is one case where the letter-writer pretty much assumed that these letters would be read by more than just the one person they were meant for — so they are written with this in mind.
    Then, there’s also the complicated concept of ‘private’ vs ‘public’ — this has changed quite a bit over the decades and centuries. While I felt only a little odd reading Charlotte Stieglitz’s letters to her husband and others, I would not read some of the ‘private become public’ that’s out there, such as Middlebrook’s biography of Anne Sexton that draws information directly from Sexton’s therapy sessions. It just feels wrong.

    Like

    May 22, 2014
  5. Yes, it’s an invasion of privacy. But the dead have no voice, unless they have a well-paid lawyer and incontestable will. I think about Hemingway’s “Garden of Eden,” still half-baked at his death but resurrected by those (relatives, editor, publisher) who want to make more money under the guise of “sharing the last great work.” So many authors rolling over in their graves.

    Like

    May 22, 2014
  6. Denise #

    I tend to avoid posthumous works by any author or relative of an author. I’ve read a few in the past and the story is never right because the spirit or specific nature of the writing lacks it’s original vigor. I think that personal letters especially are private. If that author did not publish her personal letters in her lifetime, then please let them lie unpublished after her death. We do not need to know everything, no matter how beautiful or passionate. I think it’s valid to know only the face that is shown willingly and accept that as enough.

    Like

    May 22, 2014
  7. I get upset when this happens to musicians, too. Often I think the pressure comes from a friend/family member/acquaintance hoping to make a quick buck.

    Like

    May 22, 2014
  8. It’s like once a famous author or artist is dead, it’s open season. It doesn’t matter who gets hurt. And the excuse used is that we need to know all the nitty-gritty.

    I cannot bring myself to read Hemingway’s Garden of Eden or Albert Camus’ The First Man. And how about all those books Christopher Tolkien has published. And George, Paul and Ringo should never have released Free as a Bird and Real Love. They did not enhance John Lennon’s rep. The only exception to this posthumous publishing ban is when an author requests that works be published after their death. J. D. Salinger is the latest. And, oh yeah, I too would never have burned Kafka’s works. Max Brod made the right decision on that one.

    Like

    May 22, 2014
  9. J.R.Barker #

    I think it’s interesting to see unfinished works, we know they’re unfinished. I couldn’t say how other authors would feel about it. I know I’d be gutted I couldn’t finish it, but flattered that people wanted to read what I have written that much that they would buy the incomplete version.
    As for private letters, unless otherwise stated, private letters should remain private. Unless it’s from an ancient civilisation or bygone era, and there is no-one to be embarrassed by them, in which case that really is research but not for public consumption.

    Like

    May 23, 2014
  10. I agree–unless someone has consented (before they die) to the sharing, the letters/journals/private-whatever should stay private.

    Like

    May 23, 2014
  11. I got myself into reading ‘Possesion’ after reading your blog post on it. I have only just reached ‘their letters’ part in the book but have already developed a negative feel about it. Totally agree with you that unless any author has stated explicitly his/her wish in making his personal ltters public, no literary organisation or even the author’s closest in the family should have the right to make them freely accessible.

    Like

    May 23, 2014
  12. Short answer: no. Long answer: no because private correspondence should not be considered public just because your a writer. I do see the other side though, it does bring a lot more to a work having that back ground, but it is still something that violates the privacy of the author on a fundamental level. It has the aura of creepiness, grave robbing kind of thing. Being an author I know I would not want my private letters made public when I die, so maybe I’m a little biased.

    Like

    May 23, 2014
  13. No, an author’s private letter even their unfinished works should never be made public unless consented by the author themselves. It would be invasion of their privacy plus many author themselves provide letters in the novels to read.

    Like

    May 27, 2014
  14. Should private letters become public? My answer is “no”

    I believe it’s just right that authors should write a letter of consent at the beginning of their projects or whatever they are working on (valuable to them). In that way, we can avoid conflict when they’re gone.

    Like

    June 18, 2014
  15. Agreed. Thank you for writing and sharing 🙂

    Like

    February 15, 2017

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  1. Nine Pressing Question About Communication Privacy and Epistolary Culture | ialsaffar

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