Weighing Words Over Last Wishes

M. A. Orthofer
From the November/December 2003 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

British poet and novelist Thomas Hardy, author of Tess of the D’Urbervilles and The Return of the Native, among other literary classics, wanted his personal papers burned after his death. In 1928, a bonfire was dutifully lit but not everything was consigned to the flames. Hardy’s second wife, Florence, saved at least 12 notebooks filled with information and sources on which the author based his later works of fiction. Thomas Hardy’s ‘Facts’ Notebook, edited by William Greenslade and released this month by Ashgate Publishing, is only the most recent to appear.

Published work is largely what defines the lives of writers—it is the legacy they leave behind. Posterity doesn’t demand more, but it certainly welcomes it, especially if it involves some good gossip or, in the case of Hardy’s notebook, offers new insight into the author’s work. Readers are hungry for the written words of their favorite authors, and if there are more of them to be found, even in sources not originally meant for public consumption—diaries, letters, working notes—they will likely find an audience. During their lifetimes authors can usually control what reaches the public and what remains private, but after their deaths even explicit instructions have often failed to prevent those entrusted with the care of literary estates from preserving and publishing what authors would have preferred to be buried (or burned) and forgotten.

Franz Kafka is perhaps the best-known example of an author who wanted his work destroyed after his death; Kafka sought an almost complete literary effacement of not only his private papers but also his creative writing (including several manuscripts like The Trial and The Castle that were posthumously published to great acclaim). Max Brod, his friend and literary executor, famously refused to accede to Kafka’s wishes. The credit he receives for this, and the lingering debate about Kafka’s actual wishes (despite his unambiguous note to Brod: “My last testament will be very simple: a request that you burn everything”), are indicative of the difficulty the public has with accepting the possible destruction of an author’s work.

It seems always to have been so. Roman poet Virgil instructed friends to burn the incomplete Aeneid after his death (and, apparently recognizing their reluctance, unsuccessfully tried to destroy his manuscripts himself). When he died—after returning from a voyage to Athens, on September 21, 19 B.C.E.—there was even imperial intervention: Caesar Augustus himself defied the poet’s wishes and insisted upon publication of the work.

There have been authors who managed to erase the work they did not want preserved, some only in their final moments: 19th-century Russian fiction writer Nikolai Gogol burned the second half of Dead Souls 10 days before his death in 1852; popular 18th-century novelist, dramatist, and actress Elizabeth Inchbald, too weak on her deathbed to do it herself, instructed a friend to cut her memoirs to bits in front of her. Instances of authors leaving entire manuscripts to be burned after their deaths are relatively rare, but stories of private papers that they wanted destroyed—like the ones Florence Hardy spared from the flames—are plentiful, and much has been preserved against their wishes.

A writer’s personal correspondence can be difficult to eradicate, because the letters are in others’ hands, and authors from Hardy to poet Philip Larkin—who wanted all his private papers destroyed at his death—were only partially successful in having their demands met. Among the authors who tried most persistently to control what traces of their lives and work would survive and be made public was 1973 Nobel laureate Patrick White, who died in 1990. He destroyed the manuscript of each of his more than 20 books as soon as it appeared in print, and, from the time of his first fame in the 1950s, continuously pestered and pressured his friends to destroy his letters. Some did, but most didn’t. Four years after his death, a 600-page collection of his letters was published.

M.A. Orthofer is managing editor of the Complete Review.