This week, Cambridge University Press published the first volume of The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, a series which will eventually contain at least sixteen (!) volumes.

Part of me would love to read them.

But the rest of me wouldn’t feel right doing so.


Because Hemingway made it clear that he did not want his letters to be published after his death, and posthumous publishing that ignores an author’s wishes makes me extremely uncomfortable. Reading such works (particularly correspondence) makes me feel like a sleazy voyeur who is violating the author’s privacy.

Yes, I know: the author is dead, so there’s no rational or logical reason to worry about such things. Still, reading them makes me feels icky and disrespectful. In general, I just can’t bring myself to do it (I’ve certainly made exceptions, though (two favorites: A Literate Passion: Letters of Anaïs Nin & Henry Miller and The Letters of Kingsley Amis)).

I find my response to such works to be a bit strange and frustratingly irrational. As is almost always the case, I want to find a rational explanation for my response. I feel a bit odd making a literary choice based on a feeling that I can’t properly explain.

What do you think? Do you feel uncomfortable reading a posthumously published work that ignores an author’s stated wishes? I think that the ethics of posthumous publishing is a tricky and complex issue, and I’d love to hear your take on it.

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36 Responses to The ethics of posthumous publishing

  1. One mans grave is another mans archaeological dig.

    • Derek says:

      And one mans wife is another mans mistress.

      Having a witty little quip doesn’t make it right.

      • And having a boorish response doesn’t mean you’re not a simpleton, My remark was demonstrating that this is a quandary that has been faced by historians and archaeologists all along.

        My response has utterly nothing to do with rightness or wrongness.

        Having a last name does make me a real person and not a troll.

  2. ZenSoapbox says:

    I don’t know if public figures get to make the choice of whether or not their letters are published after their death. That’s my first thought, although I’m very divided about it. Now, the letters of historical figures, such as presidents, generals, inventors, etc., clearly contain information that is useful and enlightening and from which we can learn a great deal. There is, therefore, a “greater good” argument that can be made. I’m not sure that same argument washes with literary figures.

  3. MrPickwick says:

    I also feel a bit uncomfortable, but I have no doubt that it is ultimately right to publish and read those kind of books. Apart form the fact that nobody gets hurt, the main factor that helps me reach that conclusion is that most of their readers (at least in the long term) will be people who love the author and greatly respect and admire his/her work. Also, what about the beauty you bring into the world (yours and everybody’s)?

  4. Alexandra says:

    I see nothing irrational in your thoughts and feelings ( by the way, feelings don’t have to be rational, but that’s an off topic)

    That’s interesting, I found your post searching the tag “cats” :) And then I saw Hem’s face and then I knew this post was written for me too.

    I totally agree with you and I’ve always had this opinion and when Amazon sent me the list of books I’d like to read and there was Hemingway’s letters I felt upset I couldn’t answer: no thank you, I don’t read other people’s letters.

    Have you read ‘The Moveable Feast’? Hemingway is talking to a reader there. I felt like I was having a dialogue with him and I’ve never read anything more genuine and sincere. So I’ve read what Hemingway wrote to me and I heard what he wanted to say to me and I don’t want to hear the things that he planned to be heard by other people .

    That’s just respect and I know he is dead and doesn’t need it. But when you respect somebody you do this not because the person needs it, but because you just have the feeling. And as with all the feelings they don’t go away because the one you have the feeling for is dead.

    • Justicar says:

      I agree that the feelings one has for another don’t dissipate at death. Well, at least the death of the other; clearly, what I feel for people will dissipate when I die. But such as I understand the question Miranda is asking, it’s about ethics – is it correct or incorrect? Not whether it’s comfortable. I think the issues are discrete.

      Do you disagree that whether we are ethically entitled to look at them is a different issue than whether or not it’s comfortable to do so? I ask you (and it goes to Miranda as well) because it seems there’s some overlap on these issues implied in what you (and Miranda) have said that I can’t quite square.

      For instance, at an aesthetics level, I don’t watch certain types of television shows, movies, read certain types of books, or attend debates on certain topics. However, even though I profoundly dislike certain genres of these various species of events, there is in my mind no overlap between the fact that I dislike them, and the fact that others are acting perfectly ethically if they do like them and watch, attend, listen, whatever.

      Put another way, I divorce my level of comfort with a thing from considering whether the thing is actually harmful to people, which is what determines in my estimation whether the issue is one of ethics or otherwise.

      On the off topic bit: of course feelings need not be constrained by what’s happening. Animals which don’t have false positive emotional reactions aren’t as likely to survive long enough to have propagated and thus wouldn’t be with us today. It’s far better for an animal to be scared and react when there’s no actual threat than to fail to be scared and react in the face of one. It’s a byproduct of evolution that our emotions are what they are; that doesn’t imply we should base actual reflective decisions on this faulty–but necessary–artifact.

      • Alexandra says:

        That is what Miranda was saying: “posthumous publishing that ignores an author’s wishes makes me extremely uncomfortable. ” and “I find my response to such works to be a bit strange and frustratingly irrational. As is almost always the case, I want to find a rational explanation for my response. I feel a bit odd making a literary choice based on a feeling that I can’t properly explain.” As Miranda was talking about her feelings I was talking about the same.

        I wasn’t talking about ethics and I’m not going to as it’s everybody’s own choice here.

  5. Juno Walker says:

    Hmm. It is complicated. I generally don’t read posthumous correspondence unless it’s indicated that there is some scholarship value to be gleaned, or I feel that I could better understand the psychology behind the person’s ideas, etc.

    One of the most famous posthumously published works was Nietzsche’s “The Will to Power” which was published by his anti-Semitic sister – and it was a travesty. “The Will to Power” was merely a collection of his notes over a period of several years that his sister arranged to look like his magnum opus – and to serve her and her husband’s German nationalist ends.

    At any rate, Hemmingway’s son had this to say about the decision to publish the letters:

    “Patrick Hemingway says it’s been long enough since his father’s death that it’s time they became more widely available, partly as a response to the stereotype of the writer as a tortured figure. ‘My principal motive for wanting it to happen was that I think it gives a much better picture of Hemingway’s life than any of his biographers to date, including Mr. Hendrickson,’ Patrick Hemingway says.”

    So I think that that may be a really good and defensible reason for publishing the letters. On the other hand, I think that we (the general public) have a somewhat binding ‘social contract,’ if you will, with Hemmingway, since he expressly stated that his letters are not to be published. Why does death make a difference to our assumed obligation to respect his express wishes?

  6. John Rizzuto says:

    I have to agree with you. No matter how much people would like to read his letters, I feel that respect for his desires should be respected. I would think if he really wanted them read he would have published them or left instructions for his heirs to do so.

  7. Justicar says:

    I can see no reason that we should honor the request after the person has died, unless we’re also going to extend to the dead any request they choose to leave behind with respect to property rights. No one can visit any property I own for 10,002 years after I’ve died and so on.

    Concern for well-being of a person ends when they die.

    To the extent that, perhaps, there should be some deference to the wishes it would have ot be in some important fashion correlated to people who are still living and could suffer potentially by the publication of certain materials. Maybe some kind of rule like with the release of a census could just be used. Or in people’s wills when property is being sorted out, a trusted friend/family member/attorney could be designated to destroy the material.

    I might not like certain details of my life to get out, but unless I’m around to suffer from it (or others), then I see no reason why others should be deprived of access to information about me. Certainly being famous doesn’t change this calculus after the famous person (and perhaps any still living people) is no longer around to suffer because of it.

    Nothing is sacred.

    As was said upstream, which was similar to my original thoughts, one person’s trash is another’s treasure. How do we know that all the pottery we pull out of the ground isn’t being taken out against the wishes of the now dead people who left instructions otherwise before they died? We don’t know, but we also don’t care.

    I see nothing compelling (except for the proviso of how it might impact still living people who are directly involved) in the novelty of time or familiarity with the person whose wishes we’re ignoring that changes the situation at all. Unless one is going to make the case that this is simply an emotional issue on which reason and rationality should not apply.

    I hope that no one I know would make such an argument. =P

  8. I feel Ya on the icky sense of privacy invasion.
    Another reason I probably won’t buy or borrow this, is because of the nature of his death. A person,( Famous or Not), who chooses suicide as their exit from the Mortal plane is bound to have demons and desires that are too painful to share, and would be torturous to read, especially in the form of Hemingway’s powerful prose.

    Perhaps if a living relative, or a Hemingway Scholar of some standing, were to condense and organize the letters, it would be more palatable, but even that would be in direct contradiction of Ernest’s wishes.

    P.S., Having just read ” Justicar’s” post above, I have to agree that accessing these artifacts is probably no more invasive that what we do as archeologists, and as these are written in a “living” language, maybe our posterity would be better served by perserving the private thoughts of what many believe to be the Greatest American Writer of the 20th Century ?

    • Justicar says:

      Given the choice, I’d argue that we are actually far more interested, or even obliged for that matter, in reading his private letters despite his express wishes to the contrary than to read, say, those of a Britney Spears even if it’s her wish to make them public upon the occasion of her death. Whether one thinks him to be the greatest of his ilk in his time, one thing is fairly incontrovertible is that whatever nuggets of information we find in sorting through his private correspondence, it’s far likelier to improve our understanding of the world than to read, again, the private thoughts of a Britney Spears.

      Perhaps there is something in those letters which will usher in a new wave of literary thinking in students coming up in a way that reading about Spears’ decision to shave her head is almost certainly never going to do. I realize that I’ve chosen a rather extreme example in her, but it’s to highlight the point that I’m kind of leaning towards not only are we ‘ethically allowed’ to, but also that depending on the person we are in some situations probably ‘ethically obligated’ to.

  9. John Greg says:

    “Do you feel uncomfortable reading a posthumously published work that ignores an author’s stated wishes?”


    But I must admit to some serious hypocrisy here because I feel quite strongly that publishers really should follow an author’s wishes regarding whether or not to publish their personal documents after they’re gone.

  10. Michael Fisher says:

    I never could get into Hemingway ~ I didn’t believe him. He got in the way of the story ~ the studied reverse snobbery, embellishments, lies & fake manly bullshit. I think that most public figures have a little editor slaving away in the back of their brains reviewing the content as it’s being spewed & asking the question “how will this play in one hundred years”. I think they undergo this review process for private material too. Publish & be damned.

    I realise this isn’t an ethical argument BTW :)

  11. Rik G says:

    I guess how guilty I’d feel reading an author’s posthumously published letters would partly
    depend on how long after the author’s death they were published. Since the letters can affect the reputation of the people the author corresponded with, as well as the author, it might be a good idea to wait until all those folks are also dead and then give it a generation or so for good measure.

    Obviously, public figures who are currently dead no longer have a say in the matter, but perhaps not-yet-dead public figures who do not want their letters published posthumously could include a provision in their will stating that before their beneficiaries can receive money and/or property they must destroy the letters in question. I wonder how many would forgo material gains in order to preserve history?

  12. Jeff Almeida says:

    I think it would be one thing if this were the first publication of his correspondence; however, I can recall using a fairly-massive (and presumably also posthumous, though I haven’t tried to dig through mountains of my own papers to find the citation) tome of his correspondence as reference material when I was doing a paper on The Old Man and the Sea my senior year of high school, 23 years ago!

    In the words of his rough contemporary, Kurt Vonnegut, “When you’re dead, you’re dead.” At some point — and Hemingway now being 50 years gone is easily well-past it — his wishes regarding his correspondence necessarily become subordinate to their value as a shared piece of our cultural history. The scholarly value of gaining a broader understanding of his mindset and thus his work by reading them MUST trump any sense of guilt regarding some perceived (on his part) embarrassment regarding posthumous release of their content.

  13. Amir says:

    The question of why am I going to (or not going to) read it can be generalized. It has to do with our basic attitude towards a dead person, or more specifically, our own death. For example, ask yourself “Would I mind people taking my organs for transplants after I’m dead”? This is an easy one, most non-religious people would say yes here. But.. “Would I mind being eaten after I’m dead?” or.. “Would I mind people playing around with my body once I’m dead?”. I know this latter question is a bit gruesome, but I’m stating it to pinpoint the attitude you have towards mortality. If the answer is yes, then your perception of “a person” once he died is greatly diminished. Once he’s dead, the identity is sort of removed. If this is the case, then reading his letters even though he didn’t want people to read them, would be rather mundane and unimportant from an ethical point of view. But if you think that even if a person has died, s/he is still a person, then now you can cascade the question of “Am I going to read the letters” into a much simpler one – “Do I respect people’s wishes enough, regardless of their current brain activity status?”.

  14. Rob Levinson says:

    Many interesting points expressed here.

    My opinion is that respect for the dead is always of great importance. Regarding the argument above as to what happens to the most basic of our remains, our bodies, there is a difference between respectful harvesting of organs and using Aunt Mildred as a couch. It’s not what you do, it’s how and why you do it.

    Hemingway was a public figure, and one whose living intent was to interact with peoples’ thoughts. As such a public figure, his privacy rights are modified in much the same way as any political figure. The potential impact or effect, as his son Patrick is actively wanting to accomplish, may be of greater benefit to readers and even to the figure themselves may be of more value overall than just the figure’s wishes. Take Anne Frank’s diary as an example; no little girl would ever want her diary published for millions to read, yet look at what the publication has brought us, and gave her an immortality of empathy.

    In a nutshell, it’s the ethics of intent. Patrick’s motives are to clear a misguided public perception of his father, the publication is respectful. And who knows, maybe if Hemingway could hear the things people say about him now, he would agree.

  15. I tend to agree with those who say that Hemingway’s wishes should be respected even though he is dead. That said, his son’s motivation seems good-hearted, and I don’t condemn his choice. Still, I think that even in death a person has a right to a certain amount of privacy, even a public figure, particularly if he or she has specifically asked that some things not be made public.

    I’ve also thought about this question in terms of less public people. My mother left a huge stash of diaries when she died, going back many years, and part of me really wanted to have a look at them. I had no idea whether she would have been comfortable with anyone else reading them, however, and as curious as I was, I was strongly disinclined to read them if she wouldn’t have wanted me to. Before I could ask my father about them, he destroyed them all. I suspect she had asked him to, and perhaps the only way she felt free to write them might have been because she trusted him to make sure no one else ever saw them. My initial feeling of not being willing to read them if she hadn’t wanted anyone to also struck me as somewhat irrational–she was gone and couldn’t possibly be hurt by it or even aware of it–but it was a very strong feeling. When I think of it as respecting the terms under which she wrote those words while she was still here, it made more sense.

  16. I think that if you have respect for the author, you should also have respect for his/her wishes for the disposition of such personal artifacts. In other words, if I was made aware that an author did not want letters published, I would not attempt to read them myself. Would I condemn someone else for breaching that? No. It is not for me to judge how others decide to interpret such desires; I can only act according to my own set of values.

    This having been said, I agree with others who’ve made a distinction between recently deceased and long dead authors, whose corespondents are also long dead. The historical artifact angle does hold some weight with me, especially when time has passed. It’s not a black and white moral imperative; there is a continuum between immorality and morality that evolves over time following the death of an author. In other words, I could, in fact, see myself reading a reticent author’s letters, say fifty or a hundred years after his/her death, but I would struggle with the notion of peeking at them a year after their death. This continuum would also depend on how important it was for me to read them — would it be for mere prurient interest? Or would it be to achieve a scholarly or artistic end?

    A good test would be to ask yourself how you might feel were you the author in question? The old “Golden Rule…”

    • Justicar says:

      Were I the author in question, I’d be dead and undisturbed in the slightest any of those still living did. Which is why, one notes, we kind of consider death the difference between being and not.

      To say that the author’s wishes are at all a factor is to say the living have a responsibility to do what the dead hypothetically want. Unless, judging by this other line of reasoning you have, enough time has passed that we can stop factoring in what a given dead person might still hypothetically want.

      I don’t see how the passage of a millennium changes the answer to the question: is it ethical to publish the private correspondence of dead writer.

      You imply a moral continuum which is mitigated through time – how can that possibly work?

      • Letters are a private communication between sender and recipient. Hence the moral imperative to respect the wishes of the correspondents. The wishes do not change simply because the people have died — they existed at the time that they were expressed and continue to exist, therefore, as no one has rescinded them.

        That having been said, one has to look at the underlying reasons for such wishes. Were they made because of the desire to avoid embarrassing or hurting people connected with the author? That is most often why we want things to be kept private after our death.

        Once many years have passed, however, and those directly connected to the author are also long gone, the reasons for keeping letters private diminishes. Indeed, one can reasonably surmise that the author him/herself might care less, were he/she to still be alive, knowing that all those affected by the letters were dead. And then the historical imperatives begin to accumulate, in no small part because those connected with the author are not around to answer questions that might arise. Hence, there is a stronger case to be made for publication after the passage of time.

    • Justicar says:

      Whatever ethical concerns one might on any given matter, it is a concern that has to be related to living creatures. To the extent that we are in any way obliged to respect the wishes of the dead, it is to the extent that it affects the living; commonly, this is executed through a will (which one notes isn’t the do all, end all of a matter). One leaves to another one’s possessions, and we’ve long recognized that the right to take over the dead’s property is best a right left to those close to the deceased.

      So, whatever rights attend a given piece of property then fall within the province of whoever it was left to. As I said earlier, to the extent that any matter worth considering in regards the publishing of one’s private letters is to the extent that a living person may be harmed by it.

      If, say, I’m the last of my family and friends to die and I leave instructions behind that my letters not be published, no one would have any obligation to respect that because no living creature can be aggrieved. This would be true the afternoon I died, or 100 years on. This is why the time component, alone, isn’t a relevant factor in the calculus of ‘to publish or not to publish’.

      And then there might even be cases where publication of one’s private correspondence is ethical demanded even if it will have the result of aggrieving some living person/people. Say, a scientist dies and has in private correspondence a cure for a type of cancer, or something important – publishing that cure would be the most ethically serious mandate a given person is likely to face in her life – even if it harms a few people. Or perhaps even if leads to the death of some few people.

      I am, again, at a loss to see how the wishes of deceased are a relevant factor.

  17. I strongly agree in the fact that one´s wishes should be respected either one´s dead or not.
    Actions have, no doubt about it, real consecuences, you can´t avoid them.
    I like to feel myself a person with an ethical and moral way of living. I won´t be reading them.
    His desire should be observed.
    May ev´rything be auspicious to ye!
    Yers, truly

  18. Michael Choate says:

    “Sacred cows make the best hamburgers”…Isn’t it interesting the difference in ethical importance of a dying request vs. a typical daily request? Personally, I think it’s a bit of transference. A demonstration of respect or deep feelings for the person onto the item of focal point of the wish. For some, it’s probably difficult to even throw away a birthday card.

    Even then, it seems we compare the ethical value of a request based more on what we identify with on an emotional level, rather than the person we are supposedly respecting. For example: please don’t print my personal notes vs. please keep the house in the family. If a person who identifies more with the issues of privacy might honor the first request with more discipline while perhaps rationalizing that selling the house is what grandpa would have wanted if he knew we were using the money for your college son. Oh wait, the notes are worth how much? Well then let’s sell the notes so people will understand grandpa better and keep the house in the family because he really loved that place.

    Perhaps Hemingway himself would offer the best advice on his notes. From Death in the Afternoon; “”I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.”

  19. Will says:

    “The wishes do not change simply because the people have died — they existed at the time that they were expressed and continue to exist, therefore, as no one has rescinded them.”

    Why would we think that wishes remain the same, “simply because the people have died”, as though death were capable of freezing will in time?
    We cannot, even in principle, ask Mr. Hemingway “Do you still feel this way?” Thus, the ideas “He would probably still not want …” and “He would now probably want…” are equally probable. A dead man’s wishes cannot guide us – not because we disrespect those, who can no longer voice their wishes, but because we have no right to assume that they themselves would feel bound to what they once considered desirable.

  20. Thank you all for the interesting & thought-provoking comments. I apologize for not responding sooner. I’ve been swamped with midterm grading.

    Anyway, a few thoughts:

    1) Just to clarify: I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that my own squeamishness regarding this issue should have any bearing on whether or not anyone else chooses to read these books. As is the case with just about any decision (however minor) that I make based off of an emotional response, I would never even consider trying to force my emotionally-derived opinion/decision onto anyone else. And I think that’s an important point to keep in mind in this debate/discussion: although I find my inability to come up with a rational reason for my take on this issue quite frustrating, I don’t think that there’s necessarily anything wrong with making certain decisions based on emotional responses. What is wrong, though, is when an individual tries to force others to make that same decision, regardless of the other person’s take on the issue. In other words, I’d almost certainly never try to persuade someone to make a decision/take an action based solely on my feeling that it’s the right thing to do. If I do attempt to persuade someone to act in a certain way, or to make certain decisions on an issue, I make sure that I have strong evidence to back up my opinion. In such situations, feelings just aren’t enough (to say the very least).

    2) Those of you who don’t feel that posthumous publishing presents an ethical quandary have provided me with some important rational/logical points to consider, and I appreciate that a lot. For some reason, this is one of those issues that I have a difficult time thinking rationally about (which is very frustrating), and outside perspectives can often be very helpful when trying to make myself think in a more rational and logical way about a particular issue/topic, etc.

    3) Considering that author’s wishes are often ignored after their deaths, I guess the only way that these authors could have insured that their letters, etc., wouldn’t be published would have been to destroy them. I suppose that they could have also left a relevant dictate in their will, but I’m not sure whether or not such a dictate would ultimately have any legal merit. I think that the executor of the author’s estate could probably override it. I don’t know, though.

    4) Something occurred to me shortly after writing this post: this issue is something that contemporary authors most likely won’t have to worry too much about, as letter writing has fallen out of fashion. There will probably be similar issues regarding digital correspondence, but that’s not really the same thing. It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out in the future. However, although letters won’t be much of a concern anymore, there is always the issue of unfinished novels and such. That happened with Nabokov two years ago, when one of his unfinished novels (The Original of Laura) was released, in clear defiance of his wishes (he left direct orders for his widow to burn any unfinished writing after his death). If I remember correctly, he made it clear that he didn’t want any unfinished work published after his death because he knew that it wouldn’t be ready for public consumption. It wouldn’t be up to par. And it wasn’t. It was really quite bad. I think that it would have eventually become a great book, but, as it stands, it was just a draft. After I read it, I started to think about this issue, and I started to feel uncomfortable reading books that were published in defiance of the author’s wishes. It would be almost impossible to avoid thinking about the ethical implications of this issue after reading that novel, as it was clearly not fit for publication, and, more importantly, Nabokov made it very clear that he wanted it destroyed.

    Anyway, just some additional thoughts. Thanks again for the comments. Please feel free to continue discussing this issue. I find it fascinating, and I’m really enjoying this discussion.

  21. Roger Watson says:

    We wouldn’t have heard of Gregor Samsa if Max hadn’t gone against Kafka’s wishes and published his work posthumously.

  22. Miranda, I understand and admire your feelings of respect for another person’s wishes. Respect is even more important than sex or money in a happy marriage – although if you read Codename Wildcard (to be published in November) you’ll see how important this writer thinks sex is to fulfillment in life!

  23. I’m a writer and I’ve had some very serious “back and forth” about this. In this era, our personal thoughts are broadcast by blogs and the digital age. I have some very personal stuff on my blog that I sort of wish wasn’t ‘out there’, but then what’s the point? I am who I am, my past is my past.

    If I am gone and no one remaining is harmed, I wouldn’t care what was published of mine–unless it was, as one earlier comment stated, used to justify something devious and politically corrupt. Then again, what control do we have, literally, once we write our words? We either burn them/destroy them upon inception, or we run the risk of those words being exposed. Once exposed, there is no control over how they will be used. Control of this nature is an illusion.

    HOWEVER, I do have some things that I would destroy sitting in my computer. Hemingway had much more control over his demise than most people…why didn’t he destroy the letters himself? And if we were to contact him now, would he care?

    All of this we can’t know. All we can do is take it, case by case, and follow our best judgement. I would read the letters. I don’t think it’s disrespectful because the way in which I would read them is not disrespectful. We aren’t talking National Enquirer here; we’re talking about people who loved his work and words and want to crawl inside that brilliance and bathe in it. If my personal letters were read like that…I don’t know that I could say ‘no.’

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