Seven Books Grappling With What Writers Leave Behind
When an author dies, their legacy can be left entirely in the hands of their estate.
The trustee of a literary estate has a tough job. Be too free with a dead writer’s copyrights and you may wind up with Arthur Rimbaud novelty items; act too quickly to burn materials, as Emily Dickinson’s sister and James Joyce’s grandson did, and you could distort a legacy. According to The Guardian, Ian Fleming’s estate is “the gold standard,” keeping the James Bond franchise happily and lucratively thrumming along since the author’s death in 1964. But in its profitability and harmony, it’s an outlier.
When it comes to biographers seeking permission to quote from work and from personal letters, executors have to do a delicate dance—in The Silent Woman, her book about the various biographies of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Janet Malcolm called letters “the fossils of feeling.” Different heirs take different tacks: James Baldwin’s family continues to restrict access to those fossils, possibly out of discomfort with his sexuality. Conversely, John Cheever’s family made his explicit love letters public.
My new book, Also a Poet, while primarily a memoir built around my father’s and my shared love of the poet Frank O’Hara, is also about my experience with the O’Hara estate, which did not support my father’s attempts to write an O’Hara biography 40 years ago, or mine now. In spite of extensive work on the book, including recorded interviews with O’Hara from the late ’70s, my father never finished it. In figuring out why, I wound up encountering the same resistance.
The obstacles my father and I faced in trying to unearth the private life of a beloved, deceased literary figure are far from unique. These seven books cast light on the dramatic tension between literary estates and the biographers who, depending on your point of view, are either vultures picking at a corpse or heroes rescuing their subject from oblivion.
The Executor: A Comedy of Letters, by Michael Krüger, translated by John Hargraves
“A helpless, clueless executor” is put in charge of his old friend’s wild estate, full of rowdy pets and a chaotic assortment of books and papers. Amid the trove, he expects to find a final novel, long promised, called The Testament, which was intended to be a “prodigious glowing meteor” of a final book, “the world’s last novel.” What he finds instead doesn’t make sense for a time, and he’s blindsided by papers that he believes reflect badly on the dead author. While seeking to protect his friend’s reputation, the executor makes choices about what to keep and what to suppress that the book’s final pages reveal to be less than ideal. In his entertaining novel, Krüger drives home the point that managing a dead person’s effects is hard, and that even the most well-meaning efforts to burnish a figure’s legacy can backfire.
The Aspern Papers, by Henry James
Start working on a literary biography and someone is sure to mention to you this lively anti-biography touchstone about an American editor who wheedles his way into a household, hoping to get access to the papers of a dead Romantic poet named Jeffrey Aspern. Under an assumed identity, the protagonist tries to ingratiate himself with Aspern’s widow and daughter, and in the course of the ruse acts abominably. He seduces the daughter, “Miss Tina,” who shows her own capacity for bad behavior by using her leverage to try to get him to marry her. James’s inspiration for the novella, per his own 1908 preface, was a story he’d heard in Italy about efforts to retrieve letters sent by Percy Bysshe Shelley to Claire Clairmont, the stepsister of Percy’s wife, Mary Shelley, and the lover of Lord Byron. The book suggests that coveted literary estates can be as corrupting as Gollum’s ring—for biographers and executors both.
My Father Is a Book, by Janna Malamud Smith
When Smith’s father, the novelist Bernard Malamud, died, she, her mother, and her brother were stuck trying to figure out what they owed to whom. In a 1989 New York Times essay considering how much to share of her father’s private papers, Smith noted that one reason novelists’ relatives can be annoyed by biographers’ requests is that they’ve likely already had to deal with their lives being mined to some extent by the writer in their family. In 1997, Smith wrote a book further arguing for privacy, Private Matters: In Defense of the Personal Life. But in 2006, after preventing others from writing biographies about him, she wrote her own book about her father. In it, she talks about his affair with a student, as well as her parents’ close and not entirely monogamous marriage. In the preface of My Father Is a Book, she writes, “How do I justify my own change of heart? I’m not sure I can. In part I have to laugh at myself: When I finally read the notebooks, I realized their content didn’t need my protection.” Later, she, her brother, and her mother collaborated with the 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 wind up subject to not just the wishes of the deceased but also the conflicted motivations and emotions of their living relatives.
Another Side of Bob Dylan: A Personal History on the Road and Off the Tracks, by Victor and Jacob Maymudes
Formally, this book is the closest I’ve encountered to my own. Jacob Maymudes found cassettes recorded by his father, Victor, a friend of Bob Dylan’s (not the owner of a purely literary estate, though of course it was enough of one for the Nobel committee to award Dylan the 2016 prize in literature), and put together a hybrid memoir-biography that evades the need to quote from the central figure’s work. There is even, as in my book, a devastating house fire. Victor and Dylan met in their 20s in the Village and bonded over music and politics. They had a falling out, however, and Dylan did not talk in depth about Victor in his own memoir. But Jacob isn’t writing about Dylan; instead, he’s writing around him. Saving no doubt a small fortune in permissions fees, Jacob quotes not from Dylan’s work but from poems by his own father, including “LSD”: “Well I rolled out of bed / sat on my head / didn’t know if I was alive or dead / staggered to the door but fell to the floor.” In what struck me as a poignant attempt to put a positive spin on the absence, Jacob says of his father’s poetry, “The text looks similar to the way Bob types his text.”
In Search of J. D. Salinger, by Ian Hamilton
Ian Hamilton’s would-be biography of Salinger turned into an intermittently fascinating, if bitter, account of the quest to write the book against the still-living author’s wishes, and then about the 1986 legal action Salinger brought—successfully—against him as a result. Hamilton grapples throughout with the ethics of his endeavor, setting ground rules for himself and rather annoyingly referring to his “biographizing alter ego” in the third person. He asks, “At what point does decent curiosity become indecent?” And he confesses to caring about the answer to that question, but not too much: “This circular self-questioning … was genuine; it felt genuine. But it didn’t seem to be actually stopping me from moving on to the next stage of the operation.” Hamilton followed up this work with Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography, an anecdote-dense book about a dozen fraught estates, including those of John Donne and Robert Louis Stevenson. His attitude toward what writers leave behind is bold, bordering on petulant, and reading about how he got his comeuppance will benefit any bright-eyed scholar sure that a research project will go great.
The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, by Janet Malcolm
Janet Malcolm’s meta-biography about Sylvia Plath remains the go-to nonfiction book about the dueling motivations of biographers and descendants. She looks at the levels of literary merit and invasiveness in the various Plath biographies, interviewing her biographers and people connected with Plath. Malcolm’s consistent take on writer-as-bad-actor shows up in The Silent Woman: She compares the biographer to “the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing the loot away.” In a world defined by formal requests and politics, Malcolm’s bomb-throwing is refreshing. One update worth noting when it comes to Plath: More loot is out in the open than there once was. The biographer Heather Clark, who wrote the 2020 thousand-page biography Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath, has said that she was able to make use of material others hadn’t when control of the estate shifted away from Plath’s sister-in-law, Olywn Hughes, who was famously hostile to Plath, and was granted to Plath’s daughter, Frieda Hughes. Clark’s was the first major book to make use of the archive under new management—and she mentioned in at least one podcast interview that Frieda liked it.
The Shadow in the Garden, by James Atlas
For a nuanced contrast to Malcolm’s cynicism, this book Atlas published just a couple of years before he passed away in 2019, praised by such legendary biographers as Ron Chernow, is an excellent option. Atlas looks at the emotional push-pull of writing about others’ lives, including conflicted feelings about his own biography of Saul Bellow, who called biographers “the shadow of the tombstone in the garden.” What might be the most moving rebuttal to Malcolm’s “burglar” portrait of the biographer is his account of trying to be fair and empathetic in his work. Upon receiving access to the papers of Delmore Schwartz (thoughtfully stewarded by his old friend, the critic Dwight Macdonald), Atlas describes skimming the pages, finding treasures from W. H. Auden and T. S. Eliot, among others, that would delight any literary biographer. But as he leaves the library, what he most looks forward to, he writes, is spending “long days in the company of someone I had never met but would come to know better than anyone else in the world.”
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