Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Death of Posthumous Fame

Elizabeth Zelvin

I suspect that more and more libraries will refuse donations of papers, especially if the writer isn't unassailably famous. My guess is that thanks to the information explosion in the Internet age (not to mention the fact that more and more documents are electronic rather than actual paper), it will become uncreasingly unlikely for even the most talented and successful writer's reputation to outlive him or her. Margaret Mitchell died in 1949 (63 years), Hemingway in 1961 (50 years), Steinbeck in 1968 (44 years), Truman Capote in 1984 (27 years). What author under 50, if any, do you think will still be a household word, at least among the educated, that long after his or her death?

How much even of these memorable authors’ lasting fame is due not to their books, but to the movies made of their work? I know Gone with the Wind was based on Margaret Mitchell’s book and The Wizard of Oz on L. Frank Baum’s, To Kill A Mockingbird from Harper Lee’s, and The Help from Kathryn Stockett’s. How many movie adaptations of novels have you seen in the last twenty years for which you can name the novelist? How many of these will you be able to name twenty years from now? How many do your children know?

The first voluminous volume (760 pages) of Mark Twain’s autobiography came out in 2010. An author whose reputation has proven extremely durable, he deliberately stipulated that it would not be published until a hundred years after his death. so that he would be free to write whatever he wanted without fear of reproach or litigation. Having a sneaky taste for gossip served up cold, I went out and bought the book, making it a birthday present for my husband as a good excuse. Although the prose and some of the anecdotes were delightful, the hundred-years-cold tittle-tattle had gone tepid and congealed.

It’s not that Samuel Clemens did not have an interesting life. According to, “When he was 9 years old he saw a local man murder a cattle rancher, and at 10 he watched a slave die after a white overseer struck him with a piece of iron.” He worked as a printer, a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi, and a prospector for gold and silver, the latter endeavor leaving him flat broke. So he became a writer—some things never change! He was a celebrated public speaker and humorist as well as an author for much of his career.

Twain chose to avoid the tedium of a chronological record (“Chapter One: I was born...”) and jumped in wherever his fancy took him. His style, both literate and anecdotal, is so good that I was moved to read some delicious passages out loud. But what even an iconoclast like Twain found shocking a hundred years ago produces no more than a yawn from today’s reader. It’s not a matter of sex or obscenity, with which it’s getting harder and harder to shock the 21st-century reader. It’s not even overt atheism. (You can find some lively debate by googling, “Was Mark Twain an atheist?”) Most of the so-called scandal consisted of his exercising his satiric wit on various popular preachers of the day whose names are otherwise long forgotten.

My prediction: In 2112, no one will remember a single writer who’s alive today. Will people still read? It’s anybody’s guess. Americans will be lucky if reality TV has not driven life to imitate the art of The Hunger Games and if entertainment doesn’t consist of teenagers fighting to the death on the 22nd-century equivalent of public television.


Sheila Connolly said...

As someone who worked as a fundraiser at a historical library (one of the largest in the country), I was often called upon to plead the case for saving evidence of our past, both old and recent. Once that material is lost, it is gone forever. I'm always saddened when a family's or organization's entire history ends up in a dumpster somewhere.

But having said that, I know that there are few repositories for documents and memorabilia, and those are short of space, understaffed and underfunded. I fear it's a losing battle. Even though the Internet makes public access easier, you still need people and money to get information onto the Internet.

Presidents get entire libraries devoted to their records. Writers, not so much. Tells you something about what our culture values.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

On top of that, Sheila, fewer people today write physical letters of the kind that told us so much about history in the past. I doubt anybody is archiving emails. And I bet if Samuel Pepys were alive today, he'd be blogging.

lil Gluckstern said...

The thing is that people are reading. What they are reading is a different story. I don't know about 2112, but I think certain authors will endure, just because they are that "good"- satiric, or controversial, or just plain fun to read with a universal message. My sense is quality will win out, and there will also be bad books being read, just as today. Meanwhile, I read, and buy, and request books that are quality. I suspect that that still counts for something. There are other people like me out there.

Anonymous said...

I am having an optimistic day I guess as I think some writers of today will last 100 years. Rebecca Cantrell for her WWII novels -- just one example from the genre we so often discuss. (She reminds me of Remarque.)

One never knows what will blow away in a hurricane or tornado but I am archiving some e-mails, just not all that I should.

I won't name the book selected in case the honoree reads your blog but to buy a special book for a high school graduation present required a special order and I don't live in a small town either. It wasn't the bookstore manager's fault either -- she stocked what she was allowed to do, had some great stuff but nothing in the particular range needed except paperbacks.

Re what Sheila said -- about what we preserve showing what we value -- if only we had gotten George McGovern as a president in 1972 we'd have had one who had a Ph.D. in History and has written books but he lost by a landslide which says it all to me.


Chester Campbell said...

One thing's for certain, Liz. I won't remember any current authors in 2112. I'll be lucky to be around to remember some by 2022. What reading and writing will be like in 2112 is anybody's guess. This time next year will be the 70th anniversary of my graduation from high school. Back then I'd never have predicted that I would have published one book, much less eight, by now.

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