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How Corporations Have Destroyed Our 20th Century Literary Heritage

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The outlines of this story are fairly well known, but given the recent publication of Zora Neale Hurston’s supposedly lost Barracoon, the horrible impact of Disney and other corporations our copyright law is worth revisiting.

This worked out great for Disney — which, not coincidentally, was founded in 1923 — but less so for the reputations of authors who produced important work between the 1920s and 1950s. Because copyright law became such a tangle, many of these works have truly languished. Here, Hurston is the rule rather than the exception. I have a file that I’ve kept over the years of significant unpublished works by well-known writers from the era: William Faulkner, Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, Sherwood Anderson and Weldon Kees, among others. The works aren’t really “lost,” of course, but they are tied up in a legal limbo. Because of the literary reputations of those writers, their unpublished works will eventually see the light of day — whenever their heirs decide that the royalties are spreading a little too thin and there’s money to be made from new works. But other important writers who are little-known or unknown will remain so because they don’t have easily identifiable heirs — or, worse, because self-interested, or even uninterested executors, control their estates.

Take, for example, the case of Lola Ridge. In 2011, former poet laureate of the United States Robert Pinsky, in a column for Slate, called Ridge “a terrific poet,” and more than that “an early Modernist, radical in her politics, and an ardent feminist.” She was, by his estimation, a link between William Blake and Crane, but Ridge’s poems had mostly been out of print for nearly 70 years, in part because her body of work straddled the 1923 divide between public domain works and works controlled by copyright — and, for 40 years, the executor of Ridge’s estate claimed to be working on a volume of collected poems as well as a biography, so she was unwilling to let any other scholars lay claim to the work. In 2007, Daniel Tobin published a slim volume of Ridge’s public domain poems. Nearly a decade later, enough time had passed that Ridge had been dead for 70 years, making it possible for Terese Svoboda to publish Ridge’s correspondence as part of her magisterial biography. Now, Tobin has released an expanded edition of Ridge’s poems, including those from a volume published in 1927 (which were renewed but are now public domain), along with unpublished juvenilia. But the last two books published during Ridge’s lifetime, “Firehead” (1929) and “Dance of Fire” (1935), remain tied up. The net effect is a slow-drip rediscovery, which has largely hampered efforts to restore Ridge to her rightful place in the canon.

The point is: Copyright laws rewritten by major corporations to preserve income from nearly century-old creations have all but erased a generation of less famous writers and unknown works by well-known writers. It is an effect that extends the life span of biases that have long silenced female writers, minority writers and working-class writers. “Barracoon,” to return to the original example, was rejected for publication in 1931, because it was deemed too vernacular by Hurston’s editor. Current copyright law unintentionally conspired to unnaturally extend the duration of that wrongheaded judgment for decades. That is why I bridle at the description of works like “Barracoon” as “lost.” They are not lost — they have always been here — but they have repeatedly encountered power structures that block their publication. It’s time for that to change.

I would point out the great resource of the Gutenberg Project as an example. That nearly endless supply of pre-1923 books (and a few after) is incredibly valuable to historians and other scholars, or just the curious. If I want to find an 18th century travel writing of the Caribbean or the American South, it’s probably there. If I want bad novels of the post-Civil War era, I can find them. But after 1923, forget about it. If I want to explore some minor writing of the Depression Era, nope. If I want literary materials from the 1950s, I have to find somewhere else to get them. There is likely no money to ever be made on 99.99% of this material. But thanks to Disney, it’s simply not available to you.

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