Archivists' changing rolein a 'tell all' age

Literary executors or executioners? When private papers are released to the world.

Tell almost the whole story," Anne Sexton once advised poetic disciples.

Archivists, biographers, and academic archaeologists now routinely delete "almost." Intimate journals, supposedly sacrosanct therapy sessions, and prurient gossip are all grist for today's literary mill.

Critics of the "publish everything" school call that "pathography." They argue that even famous writers don't always intend their most private thoughts - their first, struggling drafts - to be seen. Advocates of full disclosure reply that every diatribe, every misspelling, sheds scholarly light on the mysterious act of creativity.

Alive, literary figures have extensive rights to their work. J.D. Salinger has successfully sued a biographer for invasion of privacy and copyright infringement. A federal appeals court ruled that quoting or paraphrasing large portions of his early letters exceeds the boundaries of "fair use."

But the deceased must depend on their executors. Whose life is it: the relatives' or the world's?

Is an executor's primary duty to shield family members and friends from pain, or to let the world probe every creative cranny?

Nine years ago, Sexton's daughter and literary executor triggered a literary sensation by authorizing the release of 300 hours of her mother's therapy tapes. She maintained that the noted "confessional" poet would have wanted her secrets bared.

"I never bought that," says Lois Ames, a psychotherapist, Smith classmate of Sylvia Plath and close friend of Sexton. "Who knows what someone 'would have wanted'?" Ames says, "The therapist has an absolute duty to guard the confidentiality of the patient, and I don't think that ceases with death. We have to protect patients' belief that they'll be protected forever down through the centuries. Biographers have the duty to be truthful, to get as much material as possible, to check every fact, to assume nothing - and the additional burden of weighing how this affects other peoples' lives. It's a matter of personal integrity and ethics."

Karen V. Kukil, the Smith College archivist who edited the newly published 732-page Plath journals, (reviewed in the Monitor Oct. 26) has had her ethics questioned for presenting the poet's daily jottings.

Her view is simple. After Plath's children authorized the publication of hitherto-censored details, she "didn't want to delete any information. I wanted to preserve the journals exactly how she wrote them, so you can see her evolution as a writer."

Ms. Kukil recognizes that "it's hard for a family to have private information" about a loved one in circulation. I understand their reluctance. I honor the agreement we make with heirs" to withhold materials.

In Plath's case, her husband, Ted Hughes, authorized Smith to unseal two journals. After his death, their children approved Kukil's suggestion to publish the 933 pages precisely as Plath banged them out on her Royal manual typewriter or jotted them down in her neat, cursive hand. In her best-known work, the "Aeriel" poems, Plath revised her life. Now, Kukil wants to let the world see the unrevised version. "My obligation is to get information out - not what I, her mother, or Ted Hughes wanted her to have written. I'm really for full disclosure. The more ... you know, the better you understand someone's writing," she says.

Sitting in the quiet third floor of Smith's Neilson Library, with 4,000 pages of Plath documents, Kukil contends that the expanded journals give a more nuanced picture of the poet - as much happier than her traditional portrayal as a tragic victim.

"Two currents run through her life," Kukil says, "happy and sad," and "we haven't until now seen the happy, joyous, the very strong light side. She had an absolute love of life." Kukil says Plath's accounts of her therapy sessions shed important light on her work. "She was subjected to barbaric therapy, including low dosages of electroshock, which produces the sensation of being electrocuted. Electrocution imagery runs throughout her poetry." Even Plath's omissions are revealing, Kukil says. She points out that the poet's voluminous records detail neither her and Hughes's wedding nor their cross-country drive through America.

US privacy laws dictated the deletion of 12 lines from the British edition, Kukil notes, and a few living people are identified only by their initials. "These are blanks to be filled in" when they die, she says.

Written six days before she killed herself, Plath's last poem, "Edge," begins: "The woman is perfected. /Her dead Body wears the smile of accomplishment."

Perfected or not, today's literary sleuths doggedly try to fill in all the biographical blanks.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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