Why is it that, when an author says very explicitly that she does not want her work published, we publish it? Willa Cather’s letters have been restricted since her death, in 1947. She may be spinning in her grave now that a fat volume of those letters has been published. But she’s not the first person whose wishes have been disregarded: it happens to lots of writers, sooner or later.
Ernest Hemingway’s estate decided to publish posthumously his late work “The Garden of Eden,” which Hemingway himself had (wisely) never published. Georgia O’Keeffe’s letters to her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, were unavailable, even to scholars, for twenty-five years after her death. Now they’re online, accessible to anyone with a laptop and fifteen minutes.
Maybe the only way a writer can prevent this is to do what Somerset Maugham did: he burned his letters in the fireplace, making a roaring pyre as his horrified secretary stood by. His secretary hid some of the letters, trying to save them, but Maugham caught him. Those, too, he said, and the secretary had to put them into the flames with the rest. Those Maugham letters were never published and they never ever will be.
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