Harper Lee wrote To Kill A Mockingbird and then remained silent for 55 years, Philip Hensher examines the trouble with being a literary heavyweight
By Philip Hensher
3 February 2015
Gregory Peck with Harper Lee.
The professional lives of most novelists closely resemble each other. They write a novel; it is published; they embark on a round of publicity. They appear at literary festivals, where they garner a quarter of the audience of some television chef in the tent next door, and at signings in bookshops, with the aim of signing as much stock as possible.
Through it all, the novelist attempts to remain amusing, affable and patient. Three years later, he will publish another novel, and the whole experience repeats itself. As Samuel Beckett wrote in Worstward Ho: “All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
For some writers, however, the need to try again, to fail again, hardly arises. The extraordinary career – or perhaps non-career – of Harper Lee bears witness to a quite different way of conducting a writing life. She wrote one novel, an immediate classic and perhaps the best-selling novel of the 20th century, To Kill a Mockingbird. Since its publication in 1960, Lee has published no other book. A second novel, entitled The Long Goodbye, apparently came to an abrupt end on the day her agent, JP Lippincott, expressed an interest in her first. “Her pen froze,” he said.
Lee, who turned 85 in 2011, has not been entirely absent from the public record since, and her neighbours in Monroeville, Alabama, wouldn’t agree that she is a recluse, either. Politely refusing to talk to journalists since 1964 is not the same thing as withdrawing from society. Since that has been her policy, her agreeing to co-operate with a new literary biographer, Marja Mills, who claims to tell the true story behind her years of silence, is important and surprising news. Will this biography tell the whole truth? Can anyone ever really know why an author falls silent – even the author herself?
Lee came from one of the 20th century’s richest literary schools, the American South. Work by Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor examined the South’s flavour of intense, self-regarding decorum and passionately defended injustice and violence.
It is sometimes regarded as extraordinary that Nelle Harper Lee came from the same small town as another great Southern writer, Truman Capote – that, indeed, they were neighbours as children. Some have gone as far as to speculate wildly that To Kill a Mockingbird might actually have been a near-collaboration between the pair, as Capote’s documentary study In Cold Blood seems to have been.
The idea that a coincidence of implausible proportions would be needed to explain the emergence of two such gifted writers from a small place ignores how different their style is. It also ignores the way in which writers encourage, criticise, develop each other by proximity. That is true not just of Lee and Capote, but of Lee and the whole Southern school of novelists. She could hardly have predicted that she would quickly come to be seen as the epitome and climax of the grand Southern tradition.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a great novel and, unusually, was quickly made into a great film (Gregory Peck and his family subsequently became close friends with Lee). But then, everything stopped for Lee’s writing. She spoke in an early Sixties interview, the last she ever gave, of wanting “to leave some record of small-town, middle-class Southern life”, apparently thinking of the novels she wanted to write in the future.
What stays in the memory of To Kill a Mockingbird are the grand coups – Scout unknowingly deflecting a lynching, or the great moment when the Reverend Sykes, after the verdict, says to Scout: “Miss Jean Louise, stand up: your father’s passing.” But the rich texture of the novel comes from its loving delineation of the relationships and tensions in a small town. That is the direction she would have gone in, and what we have lost in her subsequent silence.
The novelist of social texture, of the quiet relationships between people, is perhaps one peculiarly vulnerable to the impact of fame. We have plenty of witnesses to Jane Austen’s personal modesty, the way in which she would hide her writing at anyone’s approach. A novelist who had become a celebrity would find it almost impossible to pursue their task of listening, of modest disappearance into the background, of observation. Some writers manage to tough it out; others find the weight of expectation impossible to manage.
Harper Lee GETTY IMAGES
The cynic would say that Harper Lee, with a novel which still sells millions every year, over half a century after its publication, hardly needed to go on writing anyway. Would she have wanted her career to work out like this? But writing is not like hedge-fund trading. The author who voluntarily retires from writing, after having made a pile, is a rare creature; it is the strangest of facts about Shakespeare that he stopped writing, apparently of his free will, at the height of his artistic powers afterThe Tempest, and retired to Stratford.
Much more common is the writer who is effectively destroyed by a single huge success. The burden of fame and acclaim weighs down particularly on the creative faculties. Ian McEwan has spoken of feeling, when he embarks on promotion of his books, like “an employee of his own former self”.
The task of balancing the awareness of past success with the necessary task of producing new work is not one that every writer can achieve. And, perhaps, these single huge successes are much harder to deal with when they come early on in a writer’s career, before they have learnt to, in Kipling’s words, “treat the two impostors” of triumph and disaster “just the same”. It’s striking that out of the four novelists, for instance, who have won the Booker Prize in the last 40 years with a first novel, none has so far managed to write a successful follow-up.
Lee has succeeded in protecting herself over the last half-century, and living a life which is of her choosing. In a rare statement recently, a letter to Oprah Winfrey’s magazine, she suggested how out-of-touch with modern life she has become: “In an abundant society where people have laptops, cellphones, iPods and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books.” That detachment is, clearly, necessary to her. It is the paradox of the novel that it could not have been written by someone in love with literary fame; that the fame it achieved and deserved killed off any prospect of a succeeding masterpiece.
This piece was originally published in 2011. On February 3 2015, Harper announced that Go Set a Watchman, a novel the Pulitzer Prize-winning author completed in the Fifties and put aside, will be released July 14. Rediscovered last autumn, Go Set a Watchman is essentially a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, although it was finished earlier. The 304-page book will be Lee's second, and the first new work in more than 50 years.