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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.