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To Burn or Not to Burn: The Heir's Ultimate Dilemma

Plath & Sexton<<< Nothing, but nothing, causes more posthumous difficulties for a writer’s heirs and friends than a request to burn a manuscript after death. It is a crystalline case of being damned if you do and damned if you don’t. The interested public wants one thing, and the departed loved one has demanded another. Adding to the complexity of the question is the hard-to-dispel thought that if the writer had, in the deepest recesses of her being, wanted to burn the manuscript, she would have done it herself. So the choice is between different kinds of betrayal, of the writer’s wishes or of the readers who are, now, that writer’s last chance of life. To burn the manuscript is to help the writer to die. But is that what she wanted…?

Kafka Aspern PapersThis profoundly unenviable dilemma has been faced by the friends and family of Franz Kafka, Philip Larkin, T.S. Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and, perhaps apocryphally, Virgil. When an heir succumbs to the temptation to burn something—as Ted Hughes did with some of Sylvia Plath’s papers, on the not unreasonable grounds that there were things there he did not want her children to read—the burner is inevitably excoriated. It is a subject that gets people, and the literary imagination, going, from Henry James in The Aspern Papers to Hermann Broch in The Death of Virgil (a strong candidate for least readable alleged masterpiece in the European canon). >>>

from "Flashes of Flora" by John Lanchester, New York Review of Books, December 17, 2009.


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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark


from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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