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The Challenge of Maintaining a Legacy

Following the deaths of Christopher Tolkien and Stephen Joyce, both former literary executors of their famous relatives' estates, the nature of this role and what the future of both legacies might hold must be considered.

January 2020 has brought with it the deaths of both Christopher Tolkien, son of J. R. R. Tolkien, and Stephen Joyce, grandson of James Joyce. The coincidence of their deaths calls to attention their remarkably different ways of handling the literary legacies left to them. The role of a literary executor is an unusual one, and for Tolkien and Joyce it became a full-time job. It’s hard to know whether it would feel like a blessing or a curse to have your career determined by the responsibility of caring for your father or grandfather’s reputation. For Tolkien Jr, the weight of this responsibility could be felt literally in the form of the 70 boxes of papers left to him after his father’s death.

Managing a literary estate involves maintaining copyrights and dealing with unpublished work, letters and diaries according to the deceased author’s wishes. The decisions made by literary executors can easily become a source of controversy and outrage among fans and academics, as was the case – in very different ways – for Christopher Tolkien and James Joyce. 

Christopher Tolkien was the editor of his father’s posthumously published works, including The Silmarillion in 1977, a colossal work describing the history and mythology of Middle Earth. However, many lovers of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were suspicious about how much of the work was truly J. R. R. Tolkien’s. Christopher dispelled these worries with The History of Middle-Earth, a 12-volume series published between 1983 and 1996, revealing the source material for The Silmarillion including original drafts, fragments, notes and other unpublished material. It also showed that practically everything Christopher Tolkien had published came directly from his father. In the statement released by the Tolkien Society on the 16th January confirming Christopher Tolkien’s death, Tolkien scholar Dr Dimitra Fimi said ‘He revealed his father’s grand vision of a rich and complex mythology. He gave us a window into Tolkien’s creative process, and he provided scholarly commentary that enriched our understanding of Middle-earth.’ Christopher Tolkien traded in his job as a lecturer in Old and Middle English at Oxford to become the first and greatest scholar of his father’s work and was still publishing in 2018 at the age of 93. 

It’s hard to imagine someone better qualified for the job than the man whose childhood bedtime stories formed the imaginative world of Middle Earth, and who went on to become its cartographer, drawing many of the original maps for his father’s The Lord of the Rings. This is also a reminder of how personal the work can be, and it’s not surprising that family members are often extremely protective of the author’s legacy. 

This is the case with Stephen Joyce, who was well-known for keeping strict control over his grandfather James Joyce’s legacy. In 2006 he told The New Yorker’s D. T. Max that he was ‘protecting and preserving the purity’ of his grandfather’s work and ‘what remains of the much abused privacy of the Joyce family.’ His opinions on academics couldn’t be further from those of the late Christopher Tolkien. He saw academics as ‘people who want to brand this great work with their mark. I don’t accept that.’ He called them ‘rats and lice – they should be exterminated!’ He consistently refused scholars the right to quote from Joyce’s works or reproduce manuscript pages. 

Stephen’s war against Joyce critics included appearing at academic conferences, sometimes unexpectedly, and declaiming the irrelevance of their work. He destroyed family members’ letters and threatened to destroy James Joyce’s letters. He often claimed ‘I am a Joyce, not a Joycean’ and insisted on being addressed by his full name, Stephen James Joyce, as a reminder that he, not the academics he so despised, was the authority on James Joyce. Stephen’s opposition to the way his grandfather’s reputation was handled went beyond his hostility towards Joyce scholars. Every year on the 16th of June ‘Bloomsday’ is celebrated, commemorating the day on which the events in Ulysses occur. This is marked by festivals in many cities around the world and usually involves public readings. However, in 2004 Stephen Joyce threatened the Irish government with a lawsuit to prevent public readings. In order for the celebrations to go ahead, the Irish Parliament had to create an emergency legislation called the Copyright and Related Rights (Amendment) Act 2004, modifying the country’s copyright law.

Stephen’s opposition to the celebrations may have had something to do with his belief that Leopold Bloom was not the main character of Ulysses: he claimed the 16th of June should be called ‘Ulysses Day’ and questioned why scholars write so much about Bloom rather than Stephen Dedalus. It’s immediately clear why he may feel a closer affinity to Stephen. It can be seen in the nostalgia of his claim that ‘Stephen Dedalus is, in a very important sense, Nonno’s character.’ His affectionate Italian name for his grandfather reveals how personal the matter of James Joyce’s legacy is for him. It also hints at the rejection of Ireland that comes along with this. He was resentful of what he called Ireland’s ‘shitty treatment’ of his grandparents and never forgot the rejection his family felt when the Irish government did not allow Joyce to be buried in his country of origin. It’s understandable that Stephen did not like Ireland claiming his Nonno as their own. 

This brings to light the problem of privacy in matters of an author’s legacy. While Joyce himself occasionally made fun of scholars, he never felt the same animosity his grandson did. He even said of Ulysses, ‘I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of ensuring one’s immortality.’ Some may view Stephen’s overprotectiveness as an abuse of power, but it’s hard to blame him when his relationship to his grandfather’s work was tied up with feelings of loyalty and love for his family. 

Changes in copyright law and the dwindling distinction between public and private mean the literary landscape looks very different now than it did for Tolkien and Joyce. Descendants of writers who never had to worry about the internet and an increasingly commercialised publishing industry are facing the challenges they pose. Is it best to preserve the author’s privacy or put their diaries online for all to access? Is this a betrayal or a public service?

The same questions were raised in 2015 with the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman. An early draft which Harper Lee never intended to publish was being promoted as a sequel to her only novel To Kill A Mockingbird. The release of the book contradicted the ageing Harper Lee’s statements that she would never release another novel and suspiciously followed the death of her sister who acted as her literary executor. Before Stephen became the executor of Joyce’s estate, other family members published Joyce’s early draft, Stephen Hero, and a series of notes as a poem called Giacomo Joyce. There’s often a sense of guilt surrounding these overpublicised but underdeveloped early drafts and they’re often mysteriously described as ‘literary events,’ putting the emphasis on the publication rather than the content. Every review carefully avoids evaluating the writing and describes the characters, trying to keep up the pretence that the posthumously published draft is a sequel. They also avoid describing the uncomfortable sensation that you are reading something unfinished or something that violates the illusion the author tried to create in their lifetime.

The start of this year saw the death of a man who managed to continue the illusion of the world his father created. It also saw the death of a man who spent his life struggling to find ways to possess and protect the literary work of his grandfather. With the end of their lives comes the question of whether we should consider posthumously published work within the corpus of the original author at all. Although originally written by the elder Tolkien and Joyce, the influence of Christopher Tolkien and Stephen Joyce will be felt by all who read the works. 

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