How to keep a dead writer alive, in seven books

The trustee of a literary estate has a difficult job. Be too free with the copyrights of a dead writer and you risk ending up with Arthur Rimbaud novelty items; move too quickly to burn materials, as Emily Dickinson’s sister and James Joyce’s grandson did, and you could misrepresent a heirloom. According The GuardianIan Fleming’s estate is “the gold standard”, keeping the James Bond franchise happy and lucrative since the author’s death in 1964. But in its profitability and harmony, it’s an outlier.

When it comes to biographers asking permission to quote from works and personal letters, executors have to do a delicate dance – by silent woman, In her book on the various biographies of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Janet Malcolm called the letters “the fossils of sentiment”. Different heirs adopt different tactics: James Baldwin’s family continues to restrict access to these fossils, perhaps because he is uncomfortable with his sexuality. Conversely, John Cheever’s family went public with his explicit love letters.

My new book, also a poet, although primarily a memoir built around my father and my shared love of poet Frank O’Hara, is also about my experience with the O’Hara estate, which did not support attempts of my father writing an O’Hara biography 40 years ago, or mine now. Despite extensive work on the book, including taped interviews with O’Hara in the late ’70s, my father never finished it. In researching why, I ended up encountering the same resistance.

The obstacles my father and I encountered while trying to uncover the private life of a beloved, deceased literary figure are far from unique. These seven books illuminate the dramatic tension between literary realms and biographers who, depending on one’s point of view, are either vultures preying on a corpse or heroes rescuing their subject from oblivion.


Harcourt

The executioner: a comedy of letters, by Michael Kruger, translated by John Hargraves

“A Helpless and Distraught Executor” is tasked with his old friend’s wild estate, full of rowdy pets and a chaotic assortment of books and papers. Amidst the hoard, he expects to find a long-promised final novel, titled The will, which was to be a “prodigious glowing meteor” of a last book, “the last novel in the world”. What he finds instead doesn’t make sense for a while, and he’s blindsided by articles he thinks misrepresent the deceased author. While seeking to protect his friend’s reputation, the executor makes choices about what to keep and what to discard that the final pages of the book reveal to be less than ideal. In his entertaining novel, Krüger insists that dealing with the effects of a deceased person is difficult, and that even the most well-meaning efforts to restore a character’s legacy can backfire.


The cover of The Aspern Papers and Other Tales
Penguin Classics

The Aspern Papersby Henry James

Start working on a literary biography and someone is sure to tell you about this animated anti-biographical touchstone about an American publisher who sneaks into a house, hoping to gain access to the papers of a dead romantic poet. named Jeffrey Aspern. Under an assumed identity, the protagonist tries to please himself with Aspern’s widow and daughter, and in the course of the ruse acts abominably. He seduces the girl, “Miss Tina”, who shows her own ability to misbehave by using her influence to try to get him to marry her. James’s inspiration for the short story, according to his own 1908 preface, was a story he had heard in Italy about efforts to recover letters sent by Percy Bysshe Shelley to Claire Clairmont, the wife’s half-sister. of Percy, Mary Shelley, and Lord Byron’s lover. The book suggests that coveted literary estates can be as corrupt as Gollum’s ring – for biographers and executors.


The cover of My Father is a Book
Counterpoint Press

my father is a bookby Janna Malamud Smith

When Smith’s father, novelist Bernard Malamud, died, she, her mother, and her brother were stuck trying to figure out what they owed whom. In a 1989 New York Times essay considering how many of his father’s private papers, Smith noted that one reason novelists’ relatives may be annoyed by biographers’ requests is that they’ve probably already had to deal with their undermined lives in some measure by the writer in their family. In 1997, Smith wrote a book arguing more for privacy, Private Affairs: In Defense of Personal Life. But in 2006, after stopping others from writing biographies about him, she wrote her own book about her father. She talks about her affair with a student, as well as the close and not entirely monogamous marriage of her parents. In the preface of My father It’s a book, she writes, “How can I justify my own change of mind? I’m not sure I can. In part, I have to laugh at myself: when I finally read the notebooks, I realized that their contents did not need my protection. Later, she, her brother, and her mother collaborated with writer Philip Davis on an official biography. The story is a good reminder that ultimately, a legacy in the hands of an author’s family is likely to end not only with the wishes of the deceased, but also with the conflicting motivations and emotions of their loved ones. living.


The cover of Another Side of Bob Dylan
Saint Martin’s Griffon

Another side of Bob Dylan: A personal story on the road and off the beaten path, by Victor and Jacob Maymudes

Formally, this book is the closest I have come across to mine. Jacob Maymudes found tapes recorded by his father, Victor, a friend of Bob Dylan (not the owner of a purely literary estate, although of course it was enough for the Nobel committee to award Dylan the 2016 literature prize ), and put together a hybrid memoir-biography that evades the need to cite the work of the central character. There is even, as in my book, a devastating house fire. Victor and Dylan met in their twenties in the village and bonded over music and politics. They had a falling out, however, and Dylan didn’t talk about Victor in depth in his own memoir. But Jacob doesn’t write about Dylan; instead, he writes about himself. Probably saving a small fortune in clearance fees, Jacob quotes not Dylan’s work but poems by his own father, including “LSD”: “Well I got up out of bed / I sat down on head / I didn’t know if I was alive or dead / Staggering to the door but fell to the floor In what struck me as a poignant attempt to put a positive spin on absence, Jacob says of his father’s poetry: “The text looks like the way Bob types his text.


The cover of In Search of JD Salinger
Faber

Looking for JD Salingerby Ian Hamilton

Ian Hamilton’s potential Salinger biography has blossomed into a sometimes fascinating, if bittersweet, account of the quest to write the book against the still-living author’s wishes, and then Salinger’s 1986 legal action. – successfully – against him as a result. . Hamilton grapples with the ethics of his business, setting ground rules for himself and boringly referring to his “biography alter ego” in the third person. He asks: “When does decent curiosity become indecent? And he admits to caring about the answer to this question, but not too a lot: “This circular questioning…was genuine; it was genuine. But that didn’t really seem to be stopping me from taking the next step in the operation. Hamilton continued this work with Keepers of the Flame: Literary Successions and the Rise of Biography, a book rich in anecdotes about a dozen heavy estates, including those of John Donne and Robert Louis Stevenson. His attitude towards what writers leave behind is bold, bordering on petulant, and reading about how he got his reward will benefit any bright-eyed researcher sure a research project will turn out well.


The cover of The Silent Woman
Ancient

The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, by Janet Malcolm

Janet Malcolm’s meta-biography of Sylvia Plath remains the go-to non-fiction book on the dueling motivations of biographers and descendants. She examines the levels of literary merit and pervasiveness in the various biographies of Plath, interviewing his biographers and people related to Plath. Malcolm’s constant view of the writer as a bad actor appears in The silent woman: She compares the biographer to the “professional burglar, breaking into a house, rummaging through certain drawers which he has good reason to believe contain the jewels and the money, and carrying off the loot triumphantly”. In a world defined by formal demands and politics, Malcolm’s bomb-throwing is refreshing. One update to note regarding Plath: more loot is out in the open than there used to be. Biographer Heather Clark, who wrote the 2020 Thousand Page Biography Red comet: The short life and flamboyant art of Sylvia Plath, said she was able to use material others weren’t when control of the estate shifted away from Plath’s sister-in-law, Olywn Hughes, who was notoriously hostile to Plath, and was granted to Plath’s daughter, Frieda Hughes. . Clark’s was the first major book to use the archive under new management — and she mentioned in at least one podcast interview that Frieda liked it.


The cover of The Shadow in the Garden
Ancient

The Shadow of the Gardenby James Atlas

For a nuanced contrast to Malcolm’s cynicism, this Atlas book published just a few years before his passing in 2019, hailed by legendary biographers like Ron Chernow, is a great option. Atlas delves into the emotional push-pull of writing about other people’s lives, including the conflicting feelings about his own biography of Saul Bellow, who has called biographers “the shadow of the tombstone in the garden”. What might be the most moving rebuttal to the biographer’s “burglar” portrayal of Malcolm is his account of trying to be fair and empathetic in his work. After gaining access to the Delmore Schwartz papers (carefully handled by his old friend, critic Dwight Macdonald), Atlas describes scouring the pages, finding treasures from WH Auden and TS Eliot, among others, that would delight any literary biographer. But as he leaves the library, what he looks forward to most, he writes, is to spend “long days in the company of someone I had never met but would know better than anyone in the world”.


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