Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Context, Content, Puptent, Blatent

I read this today in The Smithsonian and it reminded me, not so much of the outcome of Frank Stanford's Estate, but of the circumstances surrounding it:

Much Ado About Dickinson
Amherst, Massachusetts—For decades after Emily Dickinson's death in 1886 at age 55, her family battled over her literary legacy. "My Verse Is Alive," an exhibition at the Emily Dickinson Museum through 2009, brings the feud to life.

Dickinson, who never married, left behind nearly 1,800 unpublished poems. The family entrusted them to her brother Austin's wife, Susan, but she was slow to edit them. It was Austin's mistress, a young neighbor named Mabel Loomis Todd, who first arranged to publish some of the poems, in 1890. The ensuing family dispute, fueled by the scandalous affair, created bitterness for generations. By the 1960s, Todd's heirs had transferred about half of the works to Amherst College and Dickinson's had given the rest to Harvard. Even "ordinary town residents seemed to take sides" in the flap, says museum director Jane Wald. "Strong loyalties persisted into the 1990s."

Founded in 2003, the museum includes the 1813 Federal-style residence where the poet lived and Austin's house next-door. At Emily's, pore over photographs, scrapbooks and replicas of manuscripts and letters. Here, too, is the typewriter Todd used to transcribe and edit the poems. It's haunting to visit where the poet worked—a corner bedroom as spare as her verse, reflecting perhaps the "solitude of space....that polar privacy" she wrote about in an 1855 poem....

I don't know the details of the C.D.Wright/Ginny Stanford relationship, but it occurs to me that this might be a reference in which to begin speaking about it, i.e., the complexities of intellectual estates and how ownership of these properties can sometimes overshadow the work itself and how the executors of said estates can develop extremely personal relationships with the work, perhaps even more so than what they had with the actual person.

I think it also speaks to the real life blurriness of the lines between creative control and profiteering (think 2pac), and creative control and hording. Though it's easy to dig up plenty of these examples, one that seems to be working quite well is Ronald Johnson/Peter O'Leary; Johnson's work is readily available and the reasoning behind that seems, at least to me, to be simply to keep Johnson's work readily available (great forward to Johnson's "Knitting Poems" in jubilat 12).

Granted, being a literary executor can become a life's pursuit all on its own, and granted, it means being able to overcome the emotional connection with the art in order to become a student of it, and granted, you would thereby lose a good portion of your personal connection to the artist, but it seems to me that there is no shortage of interest in Stanford's work (nor has there been in some time). So, one must ask why, and I think this story regarding Dickinson helps to shine some light on the subject.

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