In 1957, when he was 69 years old, T. S. Eliot married 32-year-old Valerie Fletcher. When he died in 1965 she took charge of his literary estate and has controlled it ever since, with — from the scholar’s point of view — uneven results. When Peter Ackroyd was writing his biography of Eliot — which eventually appeared in 1984 — Mrs. Eliot first gave him free access to Eliot’s letters and papers, but then denied him permission to quote from them. He had to re-write his biography to remove the quotations. In 1988 she published the first volume of his collected letters, which covered the period through 1922 — after the publication of The Waste Land but before his conversion to Christianity — and promised that the second volume would come out the following year. Two decades later, we’re still waiting. A story published last March claimed that the long-awaited letters would appear this November, and, you know, it just might happen. But I’m not holding my breath.
But in terms of making life difficult for scholars, Valerie Eliot can’t hold a candle to Stephen Joyce, who controls the estate of his grandfather James Joyce. Mrs. Eliot has been content merely to resist, but Mr. Joyce goes as far as active legal persecution. He thinks that people who simply recite passages of his grandfather’s work aloud are violating his copyright, and has claimed that he will not grant anyone permission to quote from Joyce’s works for any reason. He made life absolutely miserable for Carol Loeb Shloss during and after the writing of her biography of Joyce’s talented but troubled daughter Lucia, fighting in every possible legal venue to prevent her from quoting family letters — and for a time succeeding.
But eventually she not only got the book published with its original research included, she got legal assistance from the Fair Use Project of Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society — the brainchild, more or less, of Larry Lessig — and now Stephen Joyce is going to have to pay Shloss’s legal fees.
This is great news for scholars and students and for the general reader as well. The law can’t compel executors of literary estates to be generous, but it can, it seems, restrain them from vindictiveness.