Thanks to the bequest of a Maryland woman who died four years ago, a couple of hundred thousand dollars may be spent to finance the publication of what gives every evidence of being a thoroughly unnecessary book.
Ordinarily this would be assigned to the bad-news department, inasmuch as the stores are already quite adequately stocked with bad books. But this is an unusual case.
The story begins in 1950, when an 8-year-old girl named Linda Wasserman died of cancer. She was the only child of Earl and Eleanor Wasserman, residents of Baltimore County. Her mother, in her grief, subsequently did what many others have in times of stress and loss; she began to write a book. She claimed to be having religious visions in which her daughter spoke to her; these visions she described in the book, which she called "Linda." In its introduction she wrote: "I was impelled to tell [Linda's story], for I could not hold it within me. I wanted to help others believe as I had been shown how to believe, particularly parents."
Linda's father died in 1973, her mother in 1978. In her will, Eleanor Wasserman left keepsakes to various relatives, but the greatest part of her estate -- estimated at more than $200,000 -- she ordered used to have her book "widely published." Her will specified that should she die before completing "Linda," the trustees should employ "some Christian writers to complete the work." She named three trustees, one of whom declined the assignment and one of whom could not be located; therefore the responsibility for carrying out her wishes fell to the remaining trustee, a Baltimore attorney named Thomas E. Rosser.
After reading the will, Eleanor Wasserman's heirs went to court to argue that it established an invalid "charitable trust." They asserted that the manuscript was without "literary merit," a claim supported by an English teacher and literary agent. The lawyer who wrote the will and who was her executor (he has since died) told a Baltimore County Circuit Court that, had he read the manuscript, he would have urged his client not to order her money spent on having this "ungodly bad" book published. "It was unreadable," he said. "Things a little baby said. Some of them had the . . . wisdom of a grandmother, the things she'd put into the child's mouth. It was very uninteresting." He asked, not unreasonably: "Who would buy it? Who would take it? What would you do with it?"
The court agreed with the executor and the relatives, but the case was taken to the Court of Special Appeals by Thomas Rosser. In a decision handed down on Sept. 3, that court ruled the will was valid. It said that the book was "not silly or frivolous," and offered this observation: "While the book 'Linda' received a failing grade from the English professor and a rejection notice from the publishing agent, we need not review it as might a critic for The New York Times Book Review. Mrs. Wasserman's book details her search for mental solace and spiritual peace in a rational, if nor editorially elegant, manner." The court said that Eleanor Wasserman's money was her own and that she was entitled to do with it as she wished.
The case is not necessarily resolved, but at the moment it appears that one of these days "Linda" will find its way between covers and, perhaps, into the bookstores -- though if its publisher turns out to be a vanity press, as in the circumstances is logical to expect, its chances of finding a place in the stores' shelves will be just about nil. No matter how heavily the manuscript may be revised and edited before publication, it's a virtual certainty that the world's supply of bad books will be enlarged by it. There's only so much that a rewrite artist can do with prose such as this: "'Come back, Linda, come back!' I heard Mommy cry out. You see, I was leaving here and we both knew it, all of a sudden. Soon afterwards, I knew why, because God showed me and I wanted to help Mommy see why. She didn't have anybody to talk to about God, the way we did together, after I left, and she was all lost and sad."
No, there's not much "literary merit" to that; the agent and the teacher had reason to find fault with Eleanor Wasserman's prose. But that is not the point. Nor is it the point that, the appeals court notwithstanding, she wanted "to help bereaved parents by providing her 'answer to the enigma of human existence,' through the story of her daughter and her own spiritual passage from Judaism to Christianity." It is irrelevant that the book is awful or, for that matter, that its sentiments are high-minded. What matters is simply that Eleanor Wasserman wanted to use her estate for the publication of her book and that she so stated in her will.
We often forget this: the central purpose of a last will and testament is to safeguard the desires of the testator. In the succinct definition provided by one law dictionary, a will is "a document in which a person tells how his or her property should be handed out after death." Eleanor Wasserman's wishes can be objected to on just about any grounds you want, depending on your point of view, but the salient fact is that they are her wishes; inasmuch as there is no surviving spouse or child to be injured or deprived by them, it is difficult to see how they can be denied.
Eleanor Wasserman's desire to see her book posthumously published stands in poignant contrast to the wishes of many rather more noted writers. Willa Cather's letters and papers, for example, cannot be published by dictate of her will; H.L. Mencken's diaries, papers and letters are being released on a 35-year schedule schemed up by Mencken before his death -- a schedule that has been scrupulously respected by the Baltimore library charged with carrying it out. Surely Eleanor Wasserman's wishes, however silly they may seem to many of us, deserve the same treatment that is accorded to these writers of larger reputation.