Posthumous publications, works by artists which are published after their death, have become commonplace in society. In the music industry this concept is growing in popularity, for example the release of ‘I’ve Been Waiting’ after Little Peep’s death, which saw a collaboration between Little Peep and Fall Out Boy which happened without Fall Out Boy ever meeting Little Peep. Little Peep recorded his parts before he died, and later Fall Out Boy were invited to take part on this track. Fans of Little Peep jumped on this song as a final piece from an artist who cannot produce anymore. However, would Little Peep have wanted this song to be released? He hadn’t agreed to work with Fall Out Boy. Would he be happy with the final product? No matter how close to him you were in his life time, you cannot definitively say he would have been happy with the song, as judgement is shrouded by grief. This example is easy to humanise as his death was so recent, but when it comes to posthumous author publications, there is a tendency to disassociate from the fact these authors are actual people and that in some cases there are still people alive who remember them. The big example is the cultural obsession with Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, with people forgetting that their daughter Freida is still alive and has to deal with such public discourse on her parents. Within our obsessions we tend to forget the people whose lives are still touched.
In some respects, posthumous publications are intentional. In a somewhat narcissistic manner, poets leave works unpublished to have discovered and published once they die. It is a clever attempt to keep their memory alive, micromanaging their art from beyond the grave. Prime example of this is Ted Hughes. Hughes published the collection Birthday Letters before his death, but omitted ‘Last Letter’ which he left to be discovered and was subsequently published in 2010. There is no doubt that ‘Last Letter’ was intended to be a part of Birthday Letters given that it discusses the last days of Sylvia Plath’s life, and the collection Birthday Letters predominately explores Hughes’ relationship with Plath. ‘Last Letter’ is a sensitive subject matter, thus it is understandable that Hughes did not want this published in his lifetime. Leaving it to be found and published after his death is a clever way to keep the ‘Hughes-Plath’ myth alive and flourishing, reigniting a discourse on his own work without needing to be alive. In this respect, posthumous publications are important as they allow the hidden discourse which cannot be voiced in the poet’s lifetime to come to light.
As a society, we tend to want everything we possibly can get our hands on from an author. Take Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman as an example. This novel was published in Lee’s lifetime, but should it have been? Or did she simply feel pressure from the demands in the literary world to see everything related to the classic To Kill a Mockingbird. Go Set a Watchman is the first draft (now presented as a prequel) of To Kill a Mockingbird which was published in 2015. The anticipation surrounding this release was vast and it was Amazon’s most pre-ordered book since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. At the time of publication, Lee’s health was in decline, and she died the following year. The controversy surrounding this publication was large, particularly given that Lee said she would never publish another book after To Kill a Mockingbird. Upon reading Go Set a Watchman, it is evident it wasn’t meant for print and the portrayal of Atticus Finch destroys everything loved about this man from To Kill a Mockingbird. This, combined with Lee’s health issues, makes this publication problematic. But people still brought into it; I for one form a part of Amazon’s pre-order statistic. I knew the controversy but I still paid for it and read it because To Kill a Mockingbird shaped me as a teenager. When a book resonates so heavily with you, it is natural to want to access other works by the author, regardless of whether they are of the same standard. There is a desire to not let a story die, even when realistically it’s over.
There is no issue with publishing posthumously when work by authors was intended for publication. If we stopped doing this, works of great literary value such as Plath’s Ariel would not have been made available (Plath left a full manuscript of Ariel thus intent to publish can be assumed). It is the somewhat bizarre demand for publications of private documents from literary figures which is the issue. Yes, Lee’s Go Set a Watchman probably should not have been published as a new novel, but it isn’t a personal or private affair, it is simply a first attempt at writing the novel which came to be To Kill a Mockingbird. Twentieth century writers in particular seem to have their privacy invaded through the publication of private letters and journals which are readily available to purchase. In a society whereby social media gives us an insight into everyone’s lives, we seem to have developed a desire to delve into the private lives of those who lived pre social media by making their private documents public.
Plath’s letters and journals were published to show Plath the person wasn’t the same as the persona present in Ariel. The issue with this is twofold: firstly, we know there’s a difference between poet and person, we understand poetic license. Secondly, these works are private. Plath puts out works which she wants to be known by to create a public persona, hence why she has unpublished poems, she is very careful regarding the selection of what shapes the public poet. The first series of letters were selected and published by her mother Aurelia. Her journals were initially released by Ted Hughes. These publications are shrouded by people who have an agenda, and the letters and journals chosen to be published are the ones which present the living in a good light. As time has gone on, more recent publications of the letters show how what was omitted from the first publication is more important than what was present. In particular, allegations Plath makes in letters to her therapist Ruth Beuscher highlights a troubled relationship with both Hughes and her mother. These letters are a personal therapy however, something which ethically should stay between patient and therapist.
Personally, I’ve devoured Plath’s letters and journals and I don’t feel good about it, something doesn’t sit right in this action. From an empathetic standpoint, imagine how it would feel to have your diary from when you were eight years old made public. Over Spring break my mum dug out some of my old diaries from when I was nine and reading parts aloud from them made me wince in embarrassment. Our deepest childish thoughts are not made to be shared, and when they are, no matter how long it has been, it is embarrassing. Of course, Plath is not alive to witness the publication of her personal journals and letters, but this is how she is remembered. In a narcissistic and controlling way, there is a natural human desire to control the way one is remembered once they die. Conversation about what you would want at your hypothetical funeral and how you wish to be remembered feel common place in discourse. In this way, it feels wrong to absorb oneself in Plath’s personal life.
Just as with the Beuscher letters publication, there is a controversy surrounding poet Anne Sexton’s therapy tapes. Sexton recorded her therapy with Dr Orne due to disassociation, which allowed her to listen back to what she has said and make sense of her condition. All these tapes are available in a library and some are transcribed in part for public viewing. In the 1990s Middlebrook speculated that the therapy tapes would become public, and by 2012 this had begun to happen. The controversy of releasing these tapes is vast as it breaks patient confidentiality to the extreme. These tapes were meant as a way to help Sexton in her battle with her mental health, and by making them accessible to the general public, it feels reductive both to her struggle, as it is easy to dehumanise her and make her a case study in ‘madness’, whilst also being detrimental to the lives of the people mentioned on the tapes, particularly when Sexton reveals her struggle to love her children.
To play devils advocate, it is fair to say that when you like an author you want to see all their work. What is the difference between picking up private letters and a biography? At least with private letters you see the words straight from the author’s mouth, rather than the tainted bias which necessarily appears in all biographies. Plath is such an interesting person and her private works really do illuminate her poetry. Furthermore, she had so much beautiful poetry which went unpublished in her lifetime. Imagine not publishing the masterpiece that is Ariel just because she died. Yes, the letters are problematic, but they play into the Plath myth which keeps her legacy alive. Furthermore, now these publications are not under the control of Hughes and Aurelia, they can be more objective, as seen in the size differences between the first publication of the letters and the most recent one.
Sexton was happy to make her private life public as seen in her poetry which is very open about her struggles with mental health. In her lifetime, Sexton chose to make her daughter Linda her literary executor, which is very different to Plath whereby Hughes was in control of publication. Sexton had a say in what happened to all her works once she died through her choice of who to appoint as executor. Whilst of course, therapy tapes are different to a piece of created art, her daughter decided it was what her mother would have wanted. Sexton is almost exhibitionist in her openness, and her poetry mirrors the discourse within the tapes. Whilst the tapes are restricted and only available to listen to in person, a recent publication by Skorczewski sees some of the tapes transcribed. There does seem to be a sensitivity in what is completely public and what is restricted. So yes, hypothetically anyone could hear Sexton’s therapy tapes, but what is readily available to the public eye is very minimal and carefully controlled, understandably to protect those who are mentioned and still alive.
Are posthumous publications of private documents acceptable? Fence sitting is the only conclusion I can personally give. It does feel like a gross invasion of privacy, and particularly regarding Plath it is most definitely a political power game between Aurelia and Hughes. Does that stop me reading them? No. Human nature is curious. When you relate to a person you want to explore every element of their life that you can get your hands on. I know I buy into this invasion of privacy, and perhaps I am part of the problem whereby we disassociate from the reality of authors as people who have touched lives in a more literal sense than just through their work. The private lives and experiences of a writer illuminates their writing and in this regard it humanises their work. Sexton’s personal writing on the birth of the dogs which inspired her poem Live reflects that she was funny and hyperbolic. It humanises her and changes the way the poem is read. In a catch 22 situation, without the private documents, it is easy to forget authors are people. There is an assumption Plath and Sexton are morbid, when their private communications reflect their warmth and humour. Perhaps this isn’t how they want to be remembered, but it shows they’re human. It is a difficult debate, as either way there is a simultaneously a dehumanising and humanising of the author. Perhaps there is no right answer as to whether these publications are acceptable. Perhaps the only people who could tell us whether these publications are acceptable are the ones that have no active voice anymore, dying before they could say whether they want this made public.