A story in The Guardian, “Unseen Sylvia Plath letters claim domestic abuse by Ted Hughes,” focuses on letters Sylvia Plath wrote to her former therapist between 1960 and 1963, the last of which was sent a week before her suicide.
Scholars have sought information about this period of the author’s life for years and are drooling over the secrets contained in correspondence that isn’t part of any official public record (such as court proceedings) in hopes of understanding Plath, her poetry, and her marriage better. Frankly, I think the right of privacy shouldn’t end with a person’s death–and that goes to show that I would never make a literary scholar.
Fortunately, the letters won’t become wholly public yet because there’s a legal dispute over who owns them that may take a while to resolve. But the story in the Guardian gives everyone the gist of what, in my opinion, the public has no right to know.
I’ll stipulate that literary scholars and critics have always tried to more deeply understand authors’ influences, motivations, and output by looking at their lives through a microscope. This looking almost always includes studying and publicizing diaries, letters to friends and family, correspondence with agents and publishers, and other details that (when created) were considered to be private.
While the literary world sees the publication and analysis of such materials as scholarship, I see it as voyeurism that’s no higher in purpose than the scandal-oriented publications on display next to cash registers at grocery stores and gas station convenience stores. Sure, the analysis is usually better researched and better written, but it displays information that was never meant to be displayed.
Money often seems to drive such efforts. Person A, who was a close friend of Famous Person B, has a box filled with the letters they received from that well-known author, actor, or artist. They see that they can make a lot of money by offering them to the public through an auction house. A scholar, museum or library archive buys them, Person A (who is now rich) believes without guilt that s/he has done nothing wrong, and the content of those letters is now open to everyone.
Unless Famous Person B tells Person A that it’s okay for the letters to be shown to biographers or donated to institutions engaged in scholarship, I believe such letters should be destroyed. They were never intended for public consumption and the death of Famous Person B doesn’t change that fact. Prying into an author’s private life may, indeed, shed additional light on his/her works, but the end does not justify the tawdry means.