Tuesday, January 8, 2019
Royalty and biography rights of dead authors have become highly fought over assets within the writer's estate, and often the interests are cemented by secreting away parts of the truth. Hallam Tennyson did just that when he wrote his father's memoir, omitting matters that did not play into the image he wanted the world to have of his poet father, and destroyed many of its source material. In essence, he made himself the first modern executor, as the monopolizing on the literary works of his father was amplified when in 1911 the term of copyright was extended to 50 years after an author’s death.
This whitewashing of authors is common, and can cause conflict when a later biographer appears to produce a more realistic and accurate view of the writer. Authors such as Emily Dickinson and Jane Austen have appeared haver their writing and image be created and recreated after death, especially Dickinson when an ex-lover of her brother's found a chest of her writing many years after her passing. Fighting ensued with the next Dickinson generation about who owned the original manuscripts and which institution should buy them.
The stories of literary estates testify for the most part to the futility of legislating for determining, from a fixed point in time and single point of view, what will prove to be “best” for a writer’s personal or critical reputation.
See Leo Robson, Bitter Feuds, Buried Scandal: The Contested World of Literary Estates, New Statesman, January 2, 2019.
Special thanks to Joel C. Dobris (Professor of Law, UC Davis School of Law) for bringing this article to my attention.