Today is the 88th birthday of Harper Lee. She wrote one of the greatest English language novels ever, To Kill a Mockingbird. Of all the Southern Gothic authors, she is the only one that doesn’t seem to hate the entire world. But had she ever published so much as another story, we might have found out that there were stores of misanthropy just waiting to explode on the page. Of course, she never did publish anything more.
Because she never published anything else, many people have speculated that Mockingbird was some kind of collaboration with Truman Capote—or at least that he “edited” the book. I’m deeply offended by this. First, given Capote’s personality, does anyone really think he would not have skimmed off more than his fair share of the credit for what is sadly better than anything he ever wrote? Second, Harper Lee has a rather different style. At the time she was writing it, Capote was writing Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Third, it isn’t as though the two were kids anymore; they were both in their thirties. The whole thing strikes me as pure sexism.
I think the reason that Harper Lee has published no fiction is that she’s paralyzed by the success of her novel. It isn’t as though she hasn’t tried to write other novels; she’s just been unhappy with them. Regardless of what she released, it would have been savaged. We’ve seen this again and again. Joseph Heller wrote his whole life under the shadow of Catch-22. Ken Kesey wrote under the shadow of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. And if I didn’t hate him so much, I would admit that the same fate awaited J D Salinger.
It reminds me of what Orson Welles said of his endless production of one of his great unfinished projects, “Don Quixote was a private exercise of mine, and it will be finished as an author would finish it—in my own good time, when I feel like it.” It would be far better if successful writers wrote less. I’ve long been a defender of Stephen King, who really is a talented writer. But for decades he’s been publishing books just because he can. A little quality control would go a long way. And it would allow more oxygen for other authors.
So Harper Lee shows a hero for her creative humility. And that is something writers are greatly in need of.
Happy birthday Harper Lee!