The Ethics of Posthumous Publishing

This weekend, I went to see the play Manuscript by Paul Grellong produced by the Theater Project that raised some interesting questions about the literary value of unpublished works and what to do with them after the author is deceased.  The play had some major twists and turns, and I do not want to spoil the plot, but here is the blurb used by the theater company to promote the show: "Three ambitious college students discover the unpublished manuscript of a famous reclusive -- and recently deceased -- author.  Plagiarism is such an ugly word..."

I instantly thought of J.D. Salinger and the news that a treasure trove of unpublished documents were discovered.  Could new novels by the creator of The Catcher in the Rye be waiting to finally see the light of day?  Of course, the moral questions quickly emerge -- Did the famous writer, who shied away from publicity during his lifetime, want any of his personal writings to be made public after his death?

Even if a renowned writer specifically wishes his or her written, unpublished words to be eventually destroyed, is there a responsibility to save those writings for scholars and future generations?

The majority of the poems by Emily Dickinson, for example, were only published after her death.  The world might never have known her as one of the greatest American poets who ever lived if her work was not discovered and then published after she died.

Who should profit from such situations?  Are the interests of the next of kin necessarily in line with what the author would have wanted?  Are the publishers' interests in tune with the intentions of the author?

Each situation, obviously, should be based on a case by case basis, but I can see the desire to read everything that stemmed from the pen or word processor of a beloved writer, even the personal notes, the rejected drafts, the incomplete works in progress that the author might never have desired thousands or even millions of people to read.

Continuing my "what if" stream of thought:  If we found a chest full of never-before-discovered stories by Mark Twain or Agatha Christie or Tennessee Williams or any other literary figure in history, even if there was a note stating that they did not wish these documents to ever be read by the public, wouldn't they eventually see the light of day?  Would we be doing a heinous disservice to art, culture, and human knowledge by hiding or even destroying such documents, even if that was the writer's will?

Interesting scenarios to ponder -- and if the Salinger rumors are true, maybe not such a purely hypothetical dilemma as we might imagine.

What would you do?


LAS said…
This issue came up about a year ago, when Vladimir Nabakov's son decided to publish "The Original of Laura". I don't recall all of the details, but I believe he had left explicit instructions to have the manuscript destroyed. His son agonized over the decision for years but eventually decided that his father's work and legacy were more important than his wishes. It's an interesting issue, part of the larger question of who really "owns" art - not technically or legally but morally.