Should we publish posthumously?

Christopher Wilkinson comments on the morality of publishing work posthumously, in light of the recent publication of Sylvia Plath's previously unseen letters.

Chris Wilkinson
20th November 2017
Image: Instagram

With the recent publication of Sylvia Plath’s unseen letters, an old spirit from the Pandora’s box of World Literature has flown overhead and revealed itself once again.

Generally, it is the question of whether should we publish works of an author posthumously, but it is certainly not a new question, and because of this we know that is not a question concerned solely with death. Rather, it is: Should we presume to know the wishes of an author?

Sylvia Plath, as we know, was subjected to horrendous, barbaric emotional and physical abuse underneath the draconian hand of Ted Hughes. He beat her, caused her to miscarry, pushed her to suicide, and then after her death published the poetry which made her name. You can see the moral perplexity of all this. Hughes brought her to her death, but propelled her to the forefront of the literary world.

A line should be drawn between the purely artistic and the autobiographical

Because of this, Plath has always been mentioned closely with the morality of publication, but the poems which she wrote she had intended to be published. These recent letters, on the other hand, are not. Some of these letters date back to the age of 12, to an age where Plath was writing to her mother from summer camp, whereas some explore her artistic sensibilities at Cambridge. If it is at all possible (and I myself doubt whether it is) I think a line should be drawn between the purely artistic and the autobiographical.

This is not to say that one should be published and the other not. The autobiographical content is invaluable in that it helps us to understand the content of the art itself, but the artistic can sometimes be disastrous. Take, for example, J.R Tolkien and the legacy of the Lord of the Rings. As superb as the Lord of the Rings is, Christopher Tolkien, the son, feels compelled to release any scratching that his father may have noted down; and some of it is rubbish. Some, it is not too hard to tell, was quite obviously not intended for release, and by going hand in hand with this unremitting drive for material simply serves to dilute the brilliance of the original, refined works.

With regards to the autobiographical content of the letters, I think we can remain calm

Another case is Harper Lee, and the publication of ‘go set a watchmen’. Although she has now died, when ‘go set a watchmen’ was published Harper Lee was very much alive, albeit extremely reliant on those around her and resigned to complete inactivity. The decision to publish ‘watchmen’ was not initially hers, and the fact that she had for 60 years declared she would never publish another book arose suspicion in whether she was fully aware of what was going on. The book was released as a sequel, but upon reception it became quite clear it was simply a first draft for the unparalleled ‘to kill a mockingbird’.

So with regards to the autobiographical content of the letters, I think we can remain calm. But if any other unreleased poetry comes forth, be careful you don’t lose what you loved in the first place.

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