Originally published at Wunderkammer

Writers have always sought fame. “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes shall outlast my powerful rhyme,” Shakespeare wrote, with obvious satisfaction. The philosopher David Hume confessed that what drove him more than anything else was “love of literary fame.” Even Gerard Manley Hopkins, who published only two poems in his lifetime, said that it was natural and proper for a poet to seek fame.

For centuries writers either earned such lasting prestige or they didn’t, depending on the favor of the common reader. But with the advent of modern law — especially concerning estates and copyrights — and of modern research universities, authorial reputations have fallen into other hands: those of executors, and those of scholars. And the owners of those hands don’t have the same agenda, which can result in a good deal of tugging and slapping.

Or perhaps I should say that they tend to believe that they don’t have the same agenda. One might think that the work of scholars — work that after all brings more attention to authors — would be perfectly compatible with the work of executors, who are typically eager to heighten their charges’ reputations. But then not all scholarship is flattering; and a little bit of negative criticism can, it seems, make executors permanently wary.

Consider the case of T. S. Eliot. In 1957, when he was 69 years old, Eliot married 32-year-old Valerie Fletcher. When he died in 1965 she took charge of his literary estate and has controlled it ever since, with — from the scholar’s point of view — uneven results. When Peter Ackroyd was writing his biography of Eliot — which eventually appeared in 1984 — Mrs. Eliot first gave him free access to Eliot’s letters and papers, but then, apparently disliking some of what he had written, denied him permission to quote from them. He had to re-write his biography to remove the quotations and replace them with summaries and paraphrases.

In 1988 Mrs. Eliot published the first volume of his collected letters, which covered the period through 1922 — after the publication of The Waste Land but before his conversion to Christianity — and promised that a second volume would come out the following year. In fact, it was November 2009 before the book appeared, in England anyway. An American edition has yet to come out.

In terms of making life difficult for scholars, Valerie Eliot can’t hold a candle to Stephen Joyce, who controls the estate of his grandfather James Joyce. Mrs. Eliot has been content merely to impede, but Mr. Joyce goes as far as active legal persecution. He thinks that people who simply recite passages of his grandfather’s work aloud are violating his copyright, and has claimed that he will no longer grant anyone permission to quote from Joyce’s works for any reason. Acting on these principles, he made life absolutely miserable for Carol Loeb Shloss during and after the writing of her biography of Joyce’s talented but troubled daughter Lucia, fighting in every possible legal venue to prevent her from quoting family letters — and for a time succeeding.

Schloss’s book received mixed notices when it first came out in 2002; reviewers tended to note that it made a great many unsubstantiated claims. What they didn’t realize was that those claims had been substantiated in the version of the book Schloss had originally submitted to her publisher, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux — but the publisher, fearing legal action, had removed the quotations that the Joyce estate objected to.

To her great credit, Schloss didn’t give up, and with legal assistance from the Fair Use Project of Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society — the wonderful brainchild of Lawrence Lessig, currently at Harvard — she created a website featuring the offending material. She argued that her selective quotations from the Joyce family letters met the criteria for “fair use” in U. S. Copyright law, and resisted all attempts by the Joyce estate’s attorneys to force her to shut down the site. (At one point they filed a 475-page motion in opposition to her work.)

Not only did Schloss win, in 2007, the right to keep her website up, and the right to republish the book with the expunged material restored, but in September 2009, a U. S. court ordered the Joyce estate to pay $240,000 in legal fees.

This is great news for scholars and students and for the general reader as well. The law can’t compel executors of literary estates to be generous, but it can, it seems, at least restrain them from vindictiveness.

Relations between scholars and executors don’t have to be this way — and I know from first-hand experience. For the past couple of years I have been working on the most challenging — and maybe the most fascinating — project of my scholarly life: a critical edition of W. H. Auden’s immensely difficult long poem The Age of Anxiety(1947), which will be published by Princeton University Press in early 2011.

Like most Auden scholars, I have had the great pleasure of working with the most admirable literary executor I can imagine, Edward Mendelson of Columbia University. Mendelson was a graduate student in his mid-twenties when Auden asked him to oversee his literary estate, and has been faithfully devoted to the job ever since. In addition to his own brilliant critical work on Auden — Early Auden and Later Auden are the major texts — he has been for many years editing the poet’s complete works.

And in the midst of these vast editorial and scholarly projects (and some others not related to Auden) Edward has been immensely — staggeringly — helpful to others who labor in the same vineyard. Here’s just one instance among many: a few months ago I sent him a complete draft of my Age of Anxiety edition — a long introduction, a carefully established text, and many, many explanatory notes — and after reading it he thought there might be some significant archival material I had overlooked. So he went to the magnificent Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, which holds a great deal of Auden material, and spent all day looking for drafts, letters, and manuscripts that could make my edition better. Sure enough, in my previous visit to the Berg I had overlooked some valuable documents, so I returned to the Berg to incorporate their content into my edition’s notes. But I never even would have known what I was missing had it not been for Edward’s acute eye, excellent memory, and — above all — his willingness to take time away from his own work to make my work better.

For Edward Mendelson, service to Auden’s work does not compete with service to scholarship. His philosophy (though he has never stated it explicitly to me) is pretty evident: everything he can do to aid those doing serious work on Auden — to help make it accurate, responsible, and deep — is service to the estate, and to the good cause of remembering Auden’s poetic achievement. And that’s true even when some of those scholars hold views and make arguments that Mendelson doesn’t agree with — which indeed sometimes happens.

When I think what my scholarly life would have been like if I had had Stephen Joyce or Valerie Eliot to deal with, I shudder. But instead I have been honored to work with Edward Mendelson, for which I am very grateful. And I think there are lessons in this story for those who care for the literary reputations — for the fame — of writers. In this literary world at least, cooperation means that everyone wins.