Publication of Personal Letters: Pieces of History or Unforgivable Intrusion?

Mod note: I wasn’t sure if this went in CS or IMHO. Please move it if you think it belongs elsewhere. Thanks!

Let me preface by saying that I’m an avid reader of Gertrude Stein’s work, and collect everything I can by or about her. I finally got my hands on a copy of Staying On Alone: Letters of Alice B. Toklas, which is a book I’ve been wanting for at least nine years now. As I was reading it last night, I started thinking about how the publication of these letters went expressly against Alice’s wishes. IIRC, she had directly instructed that all of her personal correspondence was to be burned or otherwise destroyed after her death.

If she would have thrown a fit about those letters being published, Baby Precious Always Shines: Selected Love Notes Between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas would have put her in the grave on first sight. The notes contained in that collection are sometimes erotic, frequently sensual, and always highly intimate. I also own that book and have taken a good deal of pleasure in it, and have gained much more insight into Gertrude’s personality and ways of writing.

As to their importance, Stein was not only a writer but also an important patron of the arts, and she would go on to become a notable lesbian icon. So, I think her personal communications and those that involve her are of great importance when learning about her life and her work.

I find myself veering between two thoughts on this. Certainly, without them we wouldn’t know all facets of the artist or public figure. We wouldn’t have the “meat” of their lives and their social circles, which are sometimes of great importance. Using Stein as an example again, the influence she had as mentor and friend of artists and writers [i.e. Hemingway and Picasso] is as important, and some would argue more so, than her own work. Can we learn and grasp the connections and ideas that flowed between them without their letters and diaries? In this specific example, I think one of Alice’s chief motivations in wanting the letters destroyed was the era she and Gertrude were from and the “don’t speak of it” mindset about lesbianism. So are we not somewhat excused because of the radically different world we now live in? As much as Alice championed Gertrude’s writing, any of Gertrude’s writing, isn’t it rather logical to think she would have made quite different choices in a less oppressive atmosphere? OTOH, I have a huge amount of respect for an individual’s choice of how to handle their own property and can easily see how the use of these papers is almost repellant.

Now to the point and my question: Does the knowledge and insight we gain from such papers outweigh the personal wishes of the writer and/or owner of them? Do we justify the publication of such intimate and personal possessions with the understanding that the owner had no way of knowing their historical value? Or is just crass disregard for the individual that’s inexcusable?

Since I loved reading H.P. Lovecraft’s letters, I would have to say yes.

Yup. H.P.L. didn’t really seem to stop and think about how important he was to American culture. (Conan, tentacle monsters, Psycho, Stephen King)

As a biographer, I pounce on letters like Roman Polanski on a teenaged girl. I have a number of Vernon Castle’s letters from the Front that I will use in my next book, and I was distraught when Irene Castle’s son told me he burned all her letters when she died: “As a daughter, I say, ‘good for you,’ but as a biographer, I could strangle you.”

My first thought is this: after I’m dead, I won’t care whether any of my stuff is published. The historians/celebrity magazine publishers/abnormal psychologists can then have the contents of my sketchbooks.

On second thought, I’m not sure its so simple. What if, upon my death after 2050, they discover the rant about The Faults Of The Woman Who Is Now A Prominent Politician, which I wrote in 2031? Letters, sketchbooks, diaries and such can have contents that would affect the still-living: restarting old feuds, for instance.

On third thought, evin if it does restart old feuds, it still helps the people of the future understand the author. And eventually, it’ll only be of historical interest anyways (though, geven the way that some people can hang onto grudges, that could take a while).

On fourth thought, letting executors go against the wishes of the deceased kinda puts a hole through the whole idea of a will, doesn’t it?

I’m conflicted about this.

Heh, yes. If you could guess, what amount of your research material consists of letters and personal papers?

Uh-huh, exactly. While they can serve to illuminate beloved figures, they can also mar their reputations equally. Which, of course, we should want to do on both accounts as to have an entire picture of the individual. OTOH, what right do we have to any of that knowledge to begin with? Shouldn’t their published work or public lives be sufficient enough?

I have an extensive collection of letters, diaries, indentures, what have you. Handwritten paper items of all sorts. Some go back to the 1600s.

So, yes, I find that, after one is dead and gone, such item’s historical value far outweighs the rights of privacy of the correspondents. The insights gained, even from non ‘iconic’ figures, into the life and times of their, well, TIMES, is invaluable.

Woo, certainly this one diary I have of a teenage ‘wild’ girl in the thirties would qualify. I suppose it’s possible she’s still alive (she’d be in her 80s now, I’d guess) and I’d bet she doesn’t want to see those published in a wide form.

I agree that they are invaluable.

How did you start your collection, by the way? Are they of a specific interest, or do you just collect letters and journals?

Usually, not so much; survivors tend to destroy their famous relatives’ letters, if they ever existed. In this case, Irene Castle—bless her heart—published Vernon’s letters from the Front right after he died (leaving out the stuff about the girl he met, of course . . . ). But all of Vernon & Irene’s non-published letters were burned. I can’t even bring myself to think about it . . .

Lady Chance, back in college, bought me as a gift two old journals from just after the Civil War of a man who moved from Connecticut to Iowa and related his move and setting up his carpentry business in Iowa City. I was hooked. Since then I’ve kept an eye out.

No particular specialty. I like to have things that are ‘chatty’. That give me a feel for the time in which the writer lived.

Gah, I can only imagine how frustrating that must be to a biographer – to know perhaps the best material illustrating the subject’s personality and relationships has been destroyed.

A question for you, then, Eve (since you’ve personally experienced that frustration) – have you thought about what you’ll do with your letters and personal papers at that stage of life? The odds aren’t bad for someone wanting to write a book on you, so will you leave them for research purposes?

What a cool thing to collect! Do such things go for very high prices, assuming these are from ‘ordinary’ people versus high profile individuals?

Anything during the Civil War, even if not a soldiers diary, is brutally expensive. Ditto for the Revolution.

Basically, anything from a large historical event commands a premium price. Outside of that you can pay anywhere from $10 for a single-page letter to three figures for a set of diaries in good shape.

Not too terribly bad, after all.

I just poked around eBay and saw some Civil War era diaries going for up to $2,000. I think I need to change the dates in my old journals and spill some tea!

I visited my dad once about two years ago and found that he was in possession of his late mother’s diary from when she was a teenager in the thirties. I read that and lemme tell ya - she was quite popular with the gents. I realized that I had been reading it for about six months worth of entries when I hit one that said “Nothing much today. Slept alone.” Then I looked back and realized that she hadn’t really slept alone for a long time at that point…damn, Grandma!

It was especially interesting when she started dating her longtime friend Kenny (my late grandfather). It was a little creepy when she talked about the first time she let him get her blouse off. A female friend of mine who had accompanied me on the trip was quite jealous of my grandma’s exploits.

The “…damn, Grandma!” cracked me right up, interface. That’s very cool, though, to have something like that. I wouldn’t mind at all having my mother’s old diaries at some point, even though I’d be conflicted as I described in the OP. We’re estranged, and it would help me to shed light on the motivations behind some of her behaviors and choices.

I’ve always been torn on this issue. There are questions about Jane Austen’s personal life that would very probably have been cleared up by the letters she wrote to her sister Cassandra–which Cassandra burnt after Jane’s death. On the one hand, this is stuff that everyone who’s ever been interested in Austen and her writing would love to know; on the other, it’s information that she never confided to anyone except her sister, and didn’t want anyone else to know.