The Ethics of Posthumous Publishing

Sarah Grace Goolden

Opinions Editor

Many revered authors gained infamy after death, including William Blake, Henry David Thoreau and John Keats. Oftentimes authors are not appreciated during their lifetime and later become staples in academia and pop culture. Some are even published posthumously. 

This begs the question: is it ethical to publically share the works of someone that cannot consent to its publication?

It’s hard to imagine a world lacking Emily Dickinson. The truth is, though, only 10 out of her nearly 1800 known poems were published in her lifetime. Dickinson feared that the public would not appreciate her unusual syntax, style and tone. These are all things that have made her work so praised and anthologized. Not only that, though, Dickinson wrote about heavy and private topics, such as suicidal idealizations and forbidden feelings for another woman. 

In the 1800s especially, this was a taboo subject. Even now, mental health and sexuality can be tough to talk about. Dickinson did not agree to be outed to the entire world. However, her sister and Thomas H. Johnson made that decision for her.

In The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, readers get insight into the troubled author’s life as she struggles with bipolar disorder, suicidal thoughts and feelings of hopelessness. It is obvious in her writing the amount of suffering she felt during her life. She writes of being sexually assaulted and guilt associated with the attack. 

There are descriptions of typical day-to-day thoughts and events through the lens of her mental illness. Her pain is evident in her confessions such as “God, but life is loneliness.” Often she describes spending days in bed, harassed by her thoughts.

Sylvia Plath killed herself February 11, 1963, after a tumultuous battle with her mental illness. After her death, a collection of poems entitled Ariel was released. This publication was the beginning of Plath’s notoriety. Although she had previously published The Bell Jar and The Colossus in her lifetime, Ariel is what really cemented her name in literature. 

The loss of such a brilliant mind left a devastating hole in the literary world. I still am saddened to think of the beautiful works the world will never know.

However, her husband Ted Hughes, who was unfaithful during their marriage sparking one of Plath’s most extreme depressive episodes, took it upon himself to share some very private documents with the world. In 1982, a heavily abridged version of Plath’s personal journal entries were published. In 2000, the unabridged version was released. 

As consumers, we are selfish. We want to know intimate, unknown details of celebrities and artists. I do not doubt that these journals could be helpful. As a bipolar individual, I found solidarity in her writing. I felt validated and acknowledged. I also felt guilty.

These were not meant for my eyes. They were not Hughes’ property to share. Plath couldn’t imagine the vulnerability she would be subjected to. If Plath had wanted her personal diary entries to be shared, she would have shared them. She did not. 

One could argue this is a victimless crime. After all, she is dead. She cannot argue with Hughes or editor Karen V. Kukil. However, how cruel is it to pretend the deceased have no right to privacy? Her legacy persists and those that published it without her permission had no idea the ramifications this book might have on her reputation. We cannot claim innocence in exposing the private writings of a dead person. Plath has rights. I believe she is the victim in this situation. 

Plath had no intentions of publishing her journals. This caused her to write freely and be as transparent and candid as possible. She was writing for herself, not me. 

I will be the first to admit I have consumed countless pieces of writing that were not intended for me. This includes The Diary of a Young Girl, a curriculum requirement in most middle and secondary schools.

 I don’t believe we are all bad people for being viewers of these works. I do believe, though, that we need to take a step back from posthumous writing and reflect on the ethics of it.

One might wonder where we would be without the first-hand account of Holocaust refugee, Anne Frank. She offers the details of the terrifying fight for survival in Nazi Germany. I do believe that her diary is critical to understanding the horrors of this event. However, it is a diary and she was a 15-year-old girl. 

Frank wrote about sex and menstruation, trying to cling to a sense of normalcy while her whole world was being upheaved. I don’t think it’s fair for her secret musings to come to life.

Posthumous writing has shaped the world as we know it today. However, I believe that morality outweighs artistic and historical accuracy. When we begin prioritizing the work over the author, we begin invalidating and objectifying the very creator of the thing we so demand. I know personally, I wouldn’t like my personal writing to be released for the world to see, dead or alive. Although there will always be people like Ted Hughes in the world, I believe the onus lies on the individual to make the right decision.

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