In the Preface to the New York edition of The Aspern Papers, Henry James wrote, “The historian, essentially, wants more documents than he can really use; the dramatist only wants more liberties than he can really take.” So the tension between author and the character he has created: the unnamed scholar craves original documents, violating the privacy of those around him; yet novelist James based his work perhaps a little too closely on a real event, as James did for The Aspern Papers. How much privacy are even the famous entitled to?
Those were some of the issues discussed during our hour-and-a-half Another Look discussion, which included audience questions, on August 24. Panelists included: novelist Tobias Wolff, a National Medal of Arts winner; author Robert Pogue Harrison, director of Another Look; Elena Danielson, emerita director of Hoover Library & Archives; and author Cynthia Haven. The event was sponsored by Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute and moderated by Donna Slade.
Our wide-ranging conversation considered privacy in the cyberworld, the role of letters in the Jamesian world, the ruthlessness of scholarly acquisitiveness, and much more.
Said translator Diana Seneschal, writing from Hungary: “I watched it this afternoon. It was wonderful. I loved the discussion of privacy, hero-worship, letter-writing, telegraphs, archives, Venice vs. Florence, the narrator’s hypocrisy, his failure at the end, the ‘fourth wall,’ the question of why James didn’t include Aspern’s poems, and more.”
We also received a thoughtful email from literary scholar Elizabeth Conquest, a former Another Look panelist. She speaks with authority: she is currently editing the Selected Letters of her husband, the Stanford poet and historian Robert Conquest:
At which point, exactly, does a deceased author become public property? During their lives libel laws provide some protection to authors, but once dead unscrupulous editors can libel them and invent stories without penalty. Such editors also fail to ask permission from an author’s estate when they publish private letters. As a result many authors go to great lengths to protect themselves from critical vultures who, like the novella’s editor, often hover over the literary remains of the famous dead or dying, waiting for the moment to dive down to a repast that will feed their professional ambitions and fill their scholarly bellies. As she catches the editor rifling through her desk, Juliana’s exclamation “Ah you publishing scoundrel!” issues a magnificent plea for the private life, and a rebuke to the unconscionable demand of such editors: “Let us pry.”