by Brendan Sullivan
June 16th, 2010
In this column last week I tried to explore the role of an editor in relation to stories, novels, and all sorts of art. My jumping off point was the novel An American Type, by Henry Roth, posthumously edited and published by Willing Davidson of the New Yorker. I may have misjudged my reader; where I saw no need to discuss the moral aspects of posthumous publication readers responded that they did have a problem with what Davidson has done, that boiling down 1900 pages and imposing a structure was reprehensible. For my assumption I offer an apology; for reparations I offer a question – is posthumously publishing a writer’s work after he or she has died an invasion of the individual’s rights?
As I wrote last week, I don’t believe so, but I’m a little ashamed that I automatically thought everyone was on my side about it. As a writer the idea of being remembered on into eternity is a common and understandable goal. Lincoln insisted on it as an escape from his “melancholy”. Joyce was obsessed with it, as he felt like nationless and a personal failure. He’s been quoted saying he intentionally filled Ulysses with enough material to keep English students talking for centuries. Being able to recall writers by their last name alone should point to the importance of legacy to our group. So naturally, I see now, some writers would fear or find distasteful the idea of another person amending their legacy without their input of consent. My brother, always a good source of antagonism, offered this statement in reaction to An American Type and the 1900 pages of Batch 2: “[Roth] should have burned them all.”
But the fact remains that Roth didn’t, for whatever reason, burn everything he wrote. Maybe he never envisioned someone like Davidson would put in the effort, or maybe he thought no one would even bother looking, but the pages remain, and this leads us to another vague and difficult question – can someone retain property rights after their dead? Even if they can, is it right?
I heard yesterday of a situation that fits very well into this question. There is, much to my surprise, the manuscript of a story by J. D. Salinger that has never been published sitting in a basement somewhere at Princeton University. To read the story you must present two forms of ID, and read the story in the library while under supervision. To posses this story, Princeton agreed not only to the reading requirements, but also to not publish the story until fifty years after Salinger’s death. This second proviso, I must say, seriously irked me. What difference could it possibly make to a dead man if his story is published a day or a year after he dies? And the Salinger situation isn’t even as convoluted or vague as the Roth/Davidson conundrum; this story was completed by the author and to the author’s satisfaction. He must simply have been feeling vindictive.
Let me try to get to the point. After you’re dead, even if you believe in the afterlife, your interactions with the living world are kaput. And no matter how many controls you put on your legacy, no matter how many pages you burn, your legacy is out of your hands. There’s no question about it, your legacy will change inexorably. It’s not that I have no respect for the dead, it just seems to me that trying to cement your legacy for eternity is the equivalent of stopping a flood with a dam made of twigs. All that said, doesn’t it make sense that writers would be drawn to trying to control their legacy? Words are like little cement building blocks that writers insist on believing are immutable. But we writers are lying to ourselves, and not only that but we do it upfront, in our own classes and reading groups. Any English class that moves beyond Dick and Jane primers are taught that there are a great number of ways to look at a piece of writing. Writers know this, but we insist that there is a right way to read whatever it is we wrote. Just like language, which is more the basis of stories and novels than mere words, art is fluid and those who don’t agree will have an uphill battle against it. No one puts baby in a corner.
If what I’m really trying to say is give up on legacy, then readers have to meet us in the middle. Readers must be conscientious of writers, of where a writer was when he or she was writing. They must keep an eye for the context, the political, social, and emotional background of the time and place of writing. Then maybe writers won’t be so afraid of a tarnished legacy, and they can begin to see their work as representative only of who they were at the moment of creation, not before or for all eternity. Because no matter how timeless Catcher in the Rye feels, it came from a place that couldn’t have existed outside of New York in the 1950s. And no matter how long we wait for a new Salinger story, it will still have been written half a century before. Writers need to learn to let go.