Saturday, September 21, 2013

Letters, Diaries, and Private Papers: Should We Publish Them?

In April of this year, a volume of Willa Cather's previously unreleased correspondence was published, despite her explicitly stated desire that it remain private. The editors of the letters, in defiance of her will, decided to publish them anyway, justifying their decision by arguing that her personal (and legally expressed) desires are of less importance than her place in the American cultural legacy. The editors make what is in these cases a frequent assumption - that Cather's position as a literary figure annuls her right to privacy, even when it is legally invoked in a will. Is it ethical, or at the very least justifiable, to publish private letters in such a case? The question is particularly perplexing given that interest in Cather's sex life is one of the main catalysts for publishing them.

 One of the most popular literary figures of all time, Jane Austen, is also one of the most elusive, thanks to the fact that her sister and closest confidante, Cassandra, burned much of her correspondence and other private papers. As a result, biographers and literary voyeurs can only speculate on many aspects of her private life. Cassandra's actions have been deplored by scholars and biographers, who have reproached her as short-sighted and prudish. But Cassandra was protecting her sister Jane (as well as her entire family circle), not the writer, not the public figure, but the private individual. We may regret the loss of the material, but condemning Cassandra is absurd, particularly given that she and her brother arranged that both Persuasion and Northanger Abbey be published after Austen's death. Cassandra looked after both the private and the public legacy of her sister in a way that, we can speculate, Austen would have approved. (It's worth noting that Austen's novels were not published under her name until after her death.)

In some cases, the ethical implications of publishing seem more clear-cut, especially when letters and diaries are testaments of a major historical event. Diaries and letters of victims of the Holocaust, most prominently The Diary of Anne Frank, have immense importance - they are testimonials of the millions of voices silenced in concentration camps and death marches. Of course, this situation seems clear-cut to me, but many may disagree. After all, we have many published testimonials by such brilliant writers as Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel. Perhaps the line I've drawn is arbitrary - who gets to decide when an historical event is of such a magnitude that all related documents ought to be made public? One could argue that any public person's letters and diaries have significance to the public - whether the person is an artist, writer, movie star, politician, scientist, or soldier. Anne Frank, however, was a private person. Her status as a public person was attained only with the publishing of her diary. One could even argue that any diary or correspondence has significance as an historical record, something we routinely do with any written material more than a hundred years old. One could say that the expiration of a certain amount of time renders the issue of privacy null and void, but how do we determine that amount of time?

The traditional association of men with public life and women with private life has also led to differing attitudes towards private writing by men and by women. Men's diaries were more often records of their public lives, their careers and extracurricular concerns, meant to be passed down to male descendents, while women's diaries were records of private family life, their emotions and domestic concerns. Naturally there are exceptions, but the patriarchal imprint of an outmoded societal structure lives on today in our attitudes towards diaries and letters. The critical focus changes. We read C. S. Lewis's letters in order to gain insight into his writing and his Christianity; we read Sylvia Plath's letters in order to gain insight into her troubled marriage. These divisions are slowly breaking down, but there remains a tendency to treat women's private writing as more personal and more intimate, a reflection of the person rather than the writer (or artist or scientist, etc.).

When a public person chooses to publish diaries and letters, they are usually edited - potentially hurtful or libelous comments are excised, other people's secrets concealed, passages about sex are toned down. The writer is able to craft what he or she deems an acceptable persona. These are not dishonest representations; they are simply crafted for a particular audience, just as private diaries and letters are. In the case of some private individuals, names and other identifying information is changed - a classic example is A Young Girl's Diary, a diary that Freud felt was of the utmost importance in understanding the psycho-sexual development of girls.

In Willa Cather's case, the choice to publish her letters is unethical, but also inevitable. The thorny issue of publication has to be determined on a case-by-case basis, though if there is money to be made, publication will most likely always win. The significance of a person's private papers, to history and his or her cultural legacy, should be considered, but so should the expressed desires of that person, particularly if expressed in a legal document. At the very least, we, as readers, need to acknowledge the breach of privacy we necessarily commit when we read letters and diaries,no matter how old they are, no matter who has written them.


  1. Interesting entry. I hadn't heard about the brouhaha over Cather.....I have enough trouble keeping up with all the gossip about the Royals, you know? LOL. But seriously: my opinion in all things is that life is for the living. Say what you want about how you want things arranged after your own death, but to my mind there is no shame in the living ignoring every word. If you want control, take it during your life. Burn your own papers, letters, diaries, unfinished manuscripts, and anything else you would not like to share with posterity. If you want them published, then do it, get what money you can, and leave that to your heirs, rather than the headaches of dealing with lawyers, executors, agents, and even the courts. Forget about dictating your own funeral, too. Let those who mourn you decide what would make THEM feel better.

    I've found most diaries, collections of letters, and journals rather dull going anyway, even when penned by writers whose other work I admire. I just don't bother with 'em any more. I'd much rather spend my time reading a well-researched & clearly written biography, by a writer who has done all the synthesizing for me. Lazy? Maybe. Happy? Absolutely!

    1. I think you have a point, Ellen, but I think there's an additional complication - what if someone dies unexpectedly without having a chance to deal with their papers? Also, and this was true in Cather's case, letters often aren't in the hands of the writer, but the person to whom they were written. So she never had a chance to destroy them.

      I would agree though that biographies make for much better reading!

    2. Well, of course, once you send a letter, it's no longer your property---it belongs to the recipient. If someone really has "control issues" then they shouldn't send letters. Of course an unexpected death brings different concerns, and I have no pat answer for that.