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?