Who owns…?

In a review of Milk in the New York Review of Books (yes, it’s from March, and yes, I’m a little behind in my reading), Hilton Als asks the following question:

One may find oneself powerfully moved by the images of candles flickering on that cold November night in San Francisco, and the close-ups of various stunned faces. But the question remains: Who owns Harvey Milk, and the rights to his hard-won, unequivocally “out” gayness?

But the question remains: When will we stop fighting about who “owns” public figures and historical events? I distinctly remember when I first took a dislike to Cynthia Ozick, the novelist and critic: it was when she wrote a 1997 essay in the New Yorker called “Who Owns Anne Frank?” I’m reluctant to summarize it because I haven’t read it in years, and I no longer own Quarrel & Quandary, the collection in which it was reprinted, and the essay doesn’t seem to be available for free online. But when I read “Who Owns Anne Frank,” I had the impression that Ozick was really asking, “Who Owns the Holocaust,” and that her own preferred answer was, “I, Cynthia Ozick, own the Holocaust.”

Perhaps I’m being terribly unfair to Ozick, and with my lousy memory, I probably shouldn’t criticize something I read so long ago, but my negative reaction to that essay pretty much soured me on Ozick forever. That’s a shame, since I agree with her about so much (we’re both fans of the late W. G. Sebald, for example; heck, I even agree with her distaste for the sentimentalized, redemptive depictions of the Holocaust that seem to predominate these days).

In any case, I look forward to the day when our most esteemed periodicals no longer feel the need to ask who owns historical figures and their legacies.

5 Responses to “Who owns…?”

  1. Carol says:

    A variation on your theme:

    Plunging into the ridiculous, there was an article in the Chronicle this morning reporting that Farrah Fawcett was suing UCLA for allowing data about her medical condition to be taken by an employee and sold to the Inquirer (I think that was the rag). Apparently it took a considerable effort for her to obtain information about the info seller as UCLA cited the need to protect its employee. Less concern about protecting their patient.

  2. dc says:

    I’m a lot more sympathetic to the proprietary rights of the living than the proprietary rights of the dead. I wouldn’t be very upset if, for example, copyrights expired upon the death of the holder, and if estates were sold at public auction upon people’s deaths, with the proceeds being redistributed to the poor. Practical or realistic? Maybe not, but the current copyright and inheritance laws seem designed to perpetuate the wealth of large corporations and dynastic families, to the detriment of the public at large.

  3. ruth gutmann says:

    I too stopped enjoying Cynthia Ozick’s stuff. And one reason was that essay of hers in the New Yorker. Ozick was upset when she learned that Otto Frank had edited Anne’s diary to soften and/or even delete comments Anne had made about her mother. Ozick’s conclusion: she would have preferred that Otto Frank had BURNED his daughter’s diary instead of publishing it in that damaged form! (Talk about owning it..)
    Ozick evidently could not imagine how Otto Frank, the only survivor of their family, must have felt thinking that he was obliged to make these decisions on their behalf. Anne and her mother were both dead, and might well have chosen to keep their disagreements out of the public’s eye. Nor did Ozick realize that we, like the Europeans of that time, would have understood his desire to preserve their privacy.

    Cynthia Ozick also wrote a probably autobiographical short story about a 1939 summer’s day when she was hearing, or reading, the news of what was happening to German Jewry at that very moment. The problem with that story which dealt with historical facts was that it had everything wrong by a year.

  4. dc says:

    Ruth: I was curious about what your take on that Ozick essay was, so I’m glad that you left the comment—and glad, too, that your reaction was similar to mine! The whole tone of the piece seemed to imply that Ozick considers herself the final authority on what may and may not be written or said about the Holocaust. I’d have to go back and re-read the essay to explain precisely what gave me that impression, but it really turned me off.

  5. wordnerd says:

    Didn’t the 13th amendment make owning other people unconstittutional? Or is necrophiliac slavery exempted?

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