Stephen Joyce, who died last Thursday, was James Joyce’s grandson and an implacable enemy of anyone who wanted to study the legendary Irish writer for almost any reason. Just nine when his grandfather died, Stephen Joyce assumed control of the Joyce estate after his father died in the ’70s. Though his ability to thwart scholars and Bloomsday fans diminished after 2012, when the copyright on most of Joyce’s work lapsed, Stephen Joyce still had the dubious distinction of being the most well-known of a funny list of characters: extremely obstinate literary executors.
Executors of literary estates become famous for only one reason: being difficult. The late Paul Zukofsky, son of the late poet Louis Zukofsky, used to host on his website an open letter to anyone hoping to study his father’s work which warned: “I urge you to not work on Louis Zukofsky, and prefer that you do not.… You will be far more appreciated working on some author whose copyright holder(s) will actually cherish you, and/or your work. I do not.”
But even in the world of protective literary executors, Stephen Joyce’s behavior was extreme. Sure, Sylvia Plath’s husband, the poet Ted Hughes, burned two of her last two diaries, but he was personally involved with their contents. Stephen Joyce had no role in James Joyce’s life. In a 2006 article for the New Yorker, the journalist D.T. Max chronicled some of his actions in defense of his family’s privacy: denying “nearly every request to quote from unpublished letters”; suing scholars attempting to publish new editions of Ulysses; suing the Irish government for staging Bloomsday readings; and threatening one performance artist with a lawsuit for having “‘already infringed’ on the estate’s copyright,” presumably by having memorized a passage from Finnegans Wake.
Perhaps most notoriously, in 1988 Stephen Joyce announced he had destroyed “all his letters from his Aunt Lucia, the writer’s daughter,” in response to a biography of James Joyce’s wife, Nora. Brenda Maddox, Nora’s biographer, had devoted an epilogue to Lucia, which Stephen Joyce succeeded in having removed. But his larger issue seems to have had more to do with Maddox’s decision to quote from erotic letters his grandparents had written to each other and which had been published by biographer Richard Ellmann in the ’70s. In her 1988 article for the New York Times, Caryn James wrote that “the letters are clearly the lightning rod for Mr. Joyce’s feeling that critics have gone far beyond fairness”:
“Do you have children?” he suddenly asked while discussing those letters during his telephone interview. When the response was no, the 56-year-old Mr. Joyce shot back: “Well, thank God I don’t either! Can you imagine trying to explain certain things to them? That would be a nice job, if their whole family’s private life was exposed!”
I won’t quote the letters here; they are extremely intimate (to put it mildly). I have read them, because I’m precisely the kind of reader of biographies that I think Stephen Joyce despised, but the truth is I sympathize more with him than I do with his detractors — at least where things like private letters are concerned. What characterizes him and all other obstinate literary executors is an insistence that their relatives are people who are entitled to privacy and consideration, not public property.
I like James Joyce’s letters to Nora — indeed, I find them sweet — but they were not written by my grandparents. I don’t think it’s wrong to go snooping around in a dead writer’s diaries and letters, but most of them would be horrified to know their private thoughts and correspondence were published and went out of their way to try to prevent such things from surviving their death. That their families take this desire seriously does not seem, at least to me, a reasonable thing anyone can resent them for. James Joyce’s work might be public property, but when it comes to letters, at least as far as this voyeur is concerned, you can hardly get mad at someone for closing the blinds.
But, in an odd way, Stephen Joyce is probably one of the last of his kind we’ll see. D.T. Max, the journalist who profiled him, also happens to be David Foster Wallace’s biographer, and in the notes to his biography he writes that “David may have been the last great letter writer in American literature (with the advent of email his correspondence grows terser, less ambitious).” This is a claim that will probably be plausibly made about other writers in that generation or just before. But anyone whose career really began after the iPhone is likely to have archives that will present wholly different problems.
Whatever these literary estates of the future may look like, the issues will come down less to preventing scholars from rooting through stacks of private correspondence than facing the possibility of multiple correspondences held on multiple platforms. This correspondence may be all but unusable even if the deceased has anticipated their death long enough to leave behind a comprehensive set of passwords: if you’ve ever tried to find something in your Twitter DMs, you will have discovered very quickly that they are a poor archive. Add to this the further consideration that you are assuming all of these platforms will have data that is at least retrievable, and readable, in the future. And if you do have a working digital archive, you are also faced with its containing so much information that it’s hard to know what to do with it.
In her book The Silent Woman, largely about the problems of writing about Sylvia Plath with the estate in the way, Janet Malcolm quotes Ted Hughes as saying, “I hope each of us owns the facts of her or his own life.” Malcolm dryly comments that, of course, none of us do. She is thinking of gossip, but I wonder if this may become more literally true. A future Stephen Joyce may be faced with his grandparents’ sexy exchanges being held not by literary snoops, but by Google.