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Willa Cather’s Will Laid to Rest

This month Random House will publish a collection of Willa Cather’s letters, reports the NYT. Cather wished that her novels would be read and interpreted on their merits alone, and to that end, and for the simple sake of privacy, ruthlessly protected her personal material from publication. She fortified her position in her will, banning excerpts and even simple quotations from print. Her biographers have had to make do with paraphrase ever since, until now. The NYT reports,

Ms. Stout and Mr. Jewell [the scholar editors], in their preface, acknowledge that publication of the letters “flagrantly” violates Cather’s wishes, expressed in a will that partially expired in 2011 with the death of her nephew and second executor, Charles Cather. But publication, they argue, advances the deeper purpose of Cather’s restrictions: cementing her status as a major literary artist.

The death of the last living executor of her will, Charles Cather her nephew in 2011, removed the last mechanism she had built into the will to enforce her wishes. The Cather Trust, to whom the copyright belonged, quickly dropped the prohibition on publication, as well as a ban on film adaptation. The proceeds will go back to the Trust and the Willa Cather Foundation, which promotes Cather’s life and work.

Since under the terms of US copyright law, the letters had been scheduled to revert to the public domain in 2017 anyway (70 years after her death in 1947), it’s possible the Trust is trying to manage the process before it gets out of their hands completely.

The passing of Charles Cather illustrates the crucial role of family members and close friends in protecting a person’s interests after their death. Ms. Stout writes in her preface to the anthology that Cather “no longer belongs entirely to herself…She belongs to everyone.” Public-spirited admirers don’t care as much as family about a person’s desires., and they will justify actions that would have outraged the person they act in trust of. Will we grieve at her loss, reading her published letters? Probably not: the whole thing has passed into history.

The same thing holds true of the fate of the Barnes Foundation, recently relocated to Philadelphia, which was precisely the last thing that Barnes ever wanted for his collection. In his case, his wish that his paintings never be removed from the walls of his estate was adhered to perfectly until 1988, when Violette de Mazia, his trusted pupil, died (Barnes had no children). Just five years later, a collection of the best paintings were sent on a world tour. Will we feel a pang of conscience, walking through the reconstructed modernist building? Probably not. Time has swallowed up Barnes’ passion, and we are left with a tidy residue.

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