Growing up, I was always fascinated by the idea that Otto Frank took it upon himself to publish his daughter’s diary. Of course, I was enough of a teenage narcissist to imagine any number of my relatives marching to a publishing house, loosely-bound denim notebook in hand, if something were to happen to me. But would I have honestly wanted that? Unfortunately (or fortunately), there’s no check box on the back of my driver’s license for this kind of thing like there is for organ donation—despite that my four volumes of childhood self-correspondence are sometimes akin to emotional arms and legs.
So how much of a say do we have over the public release of our letters and reflections after we die? For some people, the only writings at risk are Facebook messages, emails, and other online documents. But dealing with a deceased person’s digital records seems like a nebulous affair; my good friend Kate Tummarello at Communications Daily wrote a fascinating story on the subject. It’s a sticky business, and that’s why the recent release of Willa Cather’s letters (NPR) is something we should all be thinking about, especially now that post-mortem vulnerability isn’t limited to famous or affluent people.
I’m really torn on this issue—on the one hand, Cather was vehemently opposed (Jezebel) to her letters ever being available to the public eye; she wanted her readers to know her solely through her work. On the other hand, this article from The Guardian raises some interesting points:
Acknowledging in their preface that the publication “flagrantly” violates Cather’s intentions, [Cather scholars Andrew] Jewell and [Janis] Stout assert that “these lively, illuminating letters will do nothing to damage her reputation”, instead showing the author as “a complicated, funny, brilliant, flinty, sensitive, sometimes confounding human being”. Cather, Stout told the New York Times, “no longer belongs entirely to herself. She belongs to everyone.”to herself. She belongs to everyone.”
It leads me to wonder what our values are when it comes to understanding people better—should we poke and prod until we understand how thoroughly complicated someone once was? Or should we respect her innermost wishes, and limit ourselves to the persona she exuded merely through her life’s work and actions? Both approaches have different intentions and they yield different results. But it’s worth thinking about, and it’s worth considering why we (myself very much included) have such strong desires to read these people’s letters in the first place.
Addendum: In a follow-up blog post, I’ll relate this issue to that of privacy and the human genome, specifically with regard to the Henrietta Lacks case (The Scientist), which is making headlines in many publications including NOVA Next—a project I’m heavily involved in now at work. I think there’s a fair amount of crosstalk between these two situations, and of course I love an excuse to merge science and literature! Stay tuned.