Getting Permission

Getting Permission

The manuscript is done—it just needs copy editing and proofing, and then it will be a book. But it seems there is one more major hurdle I hadn’t counted on.

After spending the last five years writing this book, everything now hangs upon getting permission to quote from the letters of the figures I’m writing about. Chief among them are, of course, Constance Fenimore Woolson and Henry James. And it seems there are living descendants whose permission I need.

All along I had been thinking about Woolson and James as long-dead people, whose memory I certainly intended to honor but who no longer had any say about what I or anyone else wanted to write about them. That all changed the other day when I sent letters to their descendants asking if I could quote from their letters and other writings. So much hinges on these two people, I suddenly realized. What if they said no? Or simply didn’t respond?

I had first contacted Woolson’s closest living relative, a descendant of her nephew, a couple of years ago to ask about material still in her possession. It wasn’t much. She had given nearly everything to archives or other scholars before me. She lives in Europe, so getting material proved to be difficult. But we worked it out and she seemed supportive of the biography. I hadn’t communicated with her for well over a year, however. What if her email no longer worked? What if she had evaporated into thin air?

Woolson’s niece, Clare Benedict, had felt an intense duty to preserve her aunt’s legacy and to honor the memory of her friendship with James. So she told James’s biographer, Leon Edel, with whom she decided to cooperate. He buttered her up with statements about how much he respected Woolson as a writer. Then he turned around and wrote a withering portrait of Woolson, attacking her as a third-rate writer whose friendship with the “Master” mystified him. By then, Woolson’s niece was no longer alive, but she must have been turning in her grave.

The relationship between biographer and the subject’s descendants can be tricky. At the Biographer’s International Conference last year, there was a whole panel devoted to how to deal with the subject’s family. I didn’t go. The issues of trying to convince family members to cooperate weren’t the ones that I felt I had to deal with. I thought my biggest problem was how to get to the truth of a person’s life when the archival evidence isn’t complete. I guess I was wrong, because no matter how well I did writing the life, I could still be stopped from portraying the story as accurately as possible—with the actual words of my subjects.

Yesterday I received the kindest email I could have imagined. Not only did Woolson’s descendant say she was willing to grant me permission, but she also gave me her blessing, so to speak. She was glad to have Woolson’s memory kept alive, and she wanted to have her story more correctly and fully told than it has hitherto been. She had initially been wary of sharing letters with earlier scholars because Constance was such a private person. But she had felt, as I had when I considered whether or not Constance would want me to write this book about her, that she would have appreciated being more fully understood.

I’m still waiting to hear from the James Family descendant. In that case, there is a formal estate and executor whose permission is absolutely required. From all that I hear, these things can take a while. I won’t breathe easy until the ink has dried.

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