Harper Lee’s Creative Humility

Harper LeeToday 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!

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Harper Lee’s Creative Humility

  1. @Aster – Nothing much. I was never keen on how he stopped publishing, although I now understand that he was writing the whole time. But mostly, I don’t like how he would go out in public enough to troll for young coeds. I also think he’s anywhere from somewhat to extremely overrated.

  2. I haven’t liked him much either. From what I could gather, I would say he is far from succinct, overtly egotistic, and, might I say it, bile-natured at the crux of it all. But I don’t think the word "overrated" is appropriate here; my guess would be that people find it fashionable to carry an unclean, brutish and ill-mannered disposition, and are proud of doing it too. In this way, his outlandish writing seems to resonate well with the masses, because of which I would rather use the word "commonplace" to label him.

    That would also separate him from the true literary-giants of the past.

  3. @Aster – I still think "overrated" is true. He and Ayn Rand are very much alike in that they are both writers who are often very important to teenagers. And that’s great! But I think if they would go back and read these authors with fresh eyes, they would see that they aren’t as great as they once seemed. Of course, I’m not comparing Rand to Salinger. Even apart from the politics, I find Rand a very tedious writer.

    What you are talking about regarding the brutish basis of Salinger is what I think most appeals to teens. There is no doubt that he captured very much what it is like to be a disaffected youth. Personally, I like something more edifying. There’s the reason I still read Steinbeck but have completely stopped reading Hemingway, even though I still greatly admire his work. I can have a very cynical view of humanity, but I don’t [i]want[/i] to. And in the end, I think people are more decent than they are awful. Which, by the standards of most of my friends, makes me Pollyanna!

  4. I read The Catcher… when I was 18. I found it sordid then. Now I am 22, and a living proof that age does not carry with it wisdom, for I picked it up yesterday, hoping to get a second opinion, but was left only with a bad taste in my mouth after only few pages in.

    You hit the nail in one sentence. Why would one want to be cynical, or, no less, read something essentially cynical, when one has the ability to be something the entire opposite of it? I give that Salinger captured a brat teenager’s profile, but for doing that he chose a very lazy route. Resultingly, the book was little more than a teenager’s diary.

    Was it not Twain who said Man is but a chameleon,capable only of acting on external stimuli? I dread that I live in a day when people have no qualms about generating such stimuli as that which on observing can absolutely lead to nothing good.

    Speaking of cynicism and Twain, well, I better not. His,I think, is a discussion that will require a more encompassing medium than the Internet.

  5. @Aster – You’re only 22! Don’t you know you have to be at least 40 to read this blog?!

    I think I am more sympathetic than you are toward this kind of art. It [i]does[/i] help us to be able to see things from others’ perspectives. Consider two Jim Thompson novels. [i]The Killer Inside Me[/i] doesn’t do that much more me because I don’t really believe the title character. (Although for the genre you would have to say that it’s great.) But the main character in [i]Grifters[/i] I think is [i]very[/i] true to certain kinds of people–in fact, more people than we would probably feel comfortable admitting. He isn’t evil; in fact, he has noble instincts. But he’s very much afraid that he’s going to be a mark, so he treats the whole world as a mark. Also: every time he tries to do something good, it backfires. But I think that’s just a growing pain. Being good is a process, not an individual act.

    But I hear you: I really don’t like Holden Caulfield. But I should revisit the book. And I’m keen to see what happened to Salinger’s characters as they (and he) got older.

  6. Yes, what can I say? I am a precocious little monkey.

    But you’ve got it wrong on one point– I am all game for Machiavellian, and, even, outrightly evil portrayals. I love especially the internal struggle between good and evil, as is witnessed by my frequent, perhaps unhealthy, revisiting of Stevenson’ works. What I don’t care for is the pervasive glorification of petty and mediocre fallacies of men (or teenagers, in this case).

  7. @Aster – Ah! So your problem is with the glorification of mediocre villainy? That’s an interesting thought. I don’t disagree with it, but that isn’t my main problem. I’ve come to think that I don’t have a good reason for disliking [i]Catcher in the Rye[/i]. It certainly isn’t that Salinger is a bad writer. But for whatever reason, it just doesn’t work for me or speak to me.

    It is so much easier to explain why we love a book than to describe why we hate it. I have one very close friend who loves literature but who just can’t stand Faulkner and O’Connor. But she can never really explain why. I think it is deep. The characters really are (with relatively few exceptions) vile. For me, the beauty of the prose trumps that, but I share her distaste.

    But now you are making me think I should read it again. I know I have a copy floating around here. But I probably won’t. There are too many books I love that I could reread.

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