Willa Cather was a famously private writer. She destroyed many literary manuscripts, personal papers, and letters, and her will forbade the adaptation of her works into plays or movies and the publication of her personal letters. Cather's will expired two years ago, however, after the death of her nephew and the will's executor. This left her remaining personal letters up for grabs, so to speak, and a new book publishes over 500 of Cather's letters.
Released last month, The Selected Letters of Willa Cather is co-edited by Andrew Jewell, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraires and the editor of the Willa Cather Archive, and Janis Stout, the author of nine scholarly books and editor of two other books on Cather. Jewell and Stout acknowledge that they have gone against Cather's will and personal wishes, but justify doing so with the best intentions for the public good, so that everyone can "read and interpret her letters" for themselves. Their introduction states that:
"Cather is now a part of our cultural history. Her works belong to something greater than herself. It is time to let the letters speak for themselves."
Tom Perrotta, who reviewed the book for the NY Times, said that he didn't disagree with the editors, but that he " the reading experience uncomfortable, especially when bumped up against one of Cather's frequent declarations that she considers her letters 'entirely personal and confidential.'"
Although I am intrigued to have a glimpse at one of America's foremost writers through the lens of her letters, I imagine I would feel the same way. I am interested in hearing what others, especially those in the scholarly field, think about this quandary: is there a point at which an author's own wishes for their letters, papers, personal effects, etc. are superseded by a cultural or scholarly need? Where and how do you draw the line, if you were to do so at all? Do great authors owe the public anything more than the works they produce?