Friday, May 2, 2008

Silas Marner, Mrs McTeague; Or The Literary Executor

Ruth Panofsky spins a great article on the role of the literary executor in showing the long finger to the literary-critical community. As a critic I can share the formula with you: The scholar wants to know something about a dead author; the scholar sends the author's literary executor a letter begging for help; the literary executor says, "Naw." It doesn't always go that way, but too often the critic gets spiked by the executor's arbitrary yea or nay.

Panofsky's article, "Halted by the Archive," describes her battle with Adele Wiseman's daughter--and literary executor--to gain access to the Wiseman fonds at York University's Archives. York had purchased boxes of documents from Wiseman while Wiseman was alive, but the caveat was that all researchers needed permission from Wiseman or, later, Wiseman's estate to access the fonds. Wiseman was the kind of person who'd have a researcher over for coffee. Her estate? Not so much.

Panofsky had actually been working with Wiseman while the latter was alive. Wiseman liked her, and considered her a friend. But, you see, she was just giving away all that copyright-able flow. All that good stuff was being given away. Who'd be comfortable with that.

Don't think that the Wiseman case is exceptional.

A researcher looking to access the Norman Levine fonds finds himself in the same situation. He goes, on hands and knees, to the Levine family, asking for access. They scratch their chin, think about it for a second, and say, "No."

But wait--there's more. Want to read Levine's letters to Richler? Richler's letters to Levine? Now you not only need Levine's permission; you need Richler's as well. They're both dead. So you go to the executor. You mail a letter. Canada Post is pretty good--they do coast-to-coast service in five-to-seven days. Three months later you get a reply. So even if the Richlers say yes (which they won't), you've still got the Levines to deal with. And if they say "Yes," and the Richlers change their mind...then you pack up your library card and head home.

I know a fifth-year PhD student writing a thesis on Levine's anti-nationalism. It was (and is) crucial to this student that he gain access to Levine's fonds. He needed to see Levine's letters to Jack McClelland; he needed to know what Richler and Levine were saying about centennial-era Canada.

This student wrote the Levines; he wrote the Richlers. They wanted to know about his project; they wanted to know about him. So he told them. He was a PhD candidate who'd won a SSHRC grant for his proposal. He'd read everything written by their two patriarchs. Literary-criticism was his life; his car even had books in the trunk--just in case it broke down and he wasn't in the mood to whistle.

A few weeks later their replies came in the mail. "No," and "No." Thanks for your interest, but I don't think so...

Then, five years later, the son/daughter publishes the letters. S/he gets in a bind, needs to make a few bucks, and walks away smiling. That, folks, is what it's all about.

Now some people'll say these writers deserve their privacy. Their letters weren't meant to be published; their correspondence was and should remain private.

OK. Then why'd they sell their shopping bags and bankers boxes to government-subsidized universities who paid with public cash? Explain the value of protecting documents no one'll ever be allowed to see. Because that's the rationale behind the archive--it's a place where your letters won't get wet. But let them get wet; let them bloom with exotic moulds and mildews. If we weren't meant to know what Levine thinks about Morley Torgov, then why wasn't that letter destroyed? Why wasn't it tossed in a bonfire at Memphremagog?

Because they had cash value. They were tax deductions waiting to happen. So the taxpayer got hit twice, coming and going. And now the executors are doing what a lot of kids and grandkids and widows and sisters and brothers do: protect the myth; inflate the myth; sugar-coat the myth. "Writer X was the kindest wo/man in the world. When s/he tossed the coffee on the homeless man, it was because of a strong wind." "Writer X was the most talented wo/man in the world. Once s/he recited The Iliad to a group of New England tourists, and they all agreed it was better than sex." They say it's about not wanting to hurt anyone's feelings, but c'mon. So Levine (possibly) said Trudeau cheated on Margaret. Wow! Better start hoarding non-perishables.

Michael Moir, an archivist at York, describes the hands-tied plight of archivists who must abide by donors' wishes. Does that mean that Moir, if he wanted, couldn't take a peek at verboten fonds? From reading his response to Panofsky, I'd guess the answer's No. No, he couldn't.

Once you're dead, that's it. You've got six feet of privacy. We'll handle the rest.

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