The Long Goodbye Of Harper Lee

As a 9th grader, I had to read To Kill A Mockingbird, as is the case for many readers. Throughout high school, it seemed that my teachers had a particular fondness for focusing on literary “one-hit wonders” within the space provided in our IB curriculum. There was Kate Chopin, whose notorious novella The Awakening prompted a public wave of hostility because of its portrayal of adultery in Cajun society. There was Sylvia Plath, a somewhat overly sensitive poetess who committed suicide after being betrayed by her unfaithful husband, a famous poet himself, whose poetry from The Bell Jar became part of one year’s class. There was the experience reading and interpreting Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo, in translation of course, the only novel he wrote. To that list we must add Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, especially because of the controversy that her second novel, which was really an early draft of her first novel, caused when it was released as the author was in a well-advanced state of decrepitude [1]. We may count Go Set A Watchman as an alternate take on To Kill A Mockingbird, and not a different novel in its own right.

What was it that made Harper Lee so well-known for her only novel, and why did she not publish anything else? The same question can be asked of other novelists, and there are a variety of answers. Sylvia Plath’s early death prevented her from writing anything more, and Kate Chopin died young, presumably at least in part because of the savage reception her only novel received. Harper Lee’s long goodbye is more like Juan Rulfo’s, in that it was as much as possible out of the public eye, and that they were constantly dogged by rumors of another novel in the works, with false starts and frustrations and teases but with ultimately their debut novels standing as solitary masterpieces rather than as part of a much larger body of work, as is the case with most writers. It is worthwhile to ponder what it is that led Lee to write in the first place, and what it is that stopped the fountain of creativity that she was obviously blessed with to write such a touching novel.

Part of what led her to write is context. Lee was a rather shy and sensitive person; the same can be said of many writers, for although the business of writing is an intensely public matter, many writers are driven by their own personal demons and are quite socially awkward and uncomfortable with the attention that comes to them as a result of their God-given gifts of expression [2]. Harper’s childhood friend and neighbor, and fellow author, Truman Capote, commented that much of To Kill A Mockingbird was deeply autobiographical, a subject about which Lee kept predictably mum about. The process of writing To Kill A Mockingbird involved a lot of close collaboration between writer and editor, a process that was likely very stressful for the author [3], and given that Lee expected her work to be obscure and forgotten, the fact that her work became recognized as a masterpiece for its concerns with innocence and justice among the bigotry of Jim Crow Southern society, a society that Lee knew very well. A Pulitzer Prize followed, and Lee was never able to enjoy total anonymity ever again, something she found to be deeply distressing.

What led Harper Lee to write was likely a combination of factors. For one, she had a certain native writing ability, she had a certain degree of hostility to the mindset of her bigoted social context, and she had a great deal of care for her attorney father as well as her effeminate but creative best friend, no mean author in his own right, as well as an editor who was active in molding and shaping the work in a process of collaboration. This combination of factors did not last, for once the novel reached popularity and made its point about racism and injustice, the author had said what she needed to say, and could not motivate herself to finish a work that would lead to more unwanted scrutiny and publicity. The well of creativity failed, and Lee was left to spend the rest of her life dealing as gracefully as possible with the repercussions of having written such a well-regarded work in the public eye, knowing that there was nothing else she wanted to say to the world that had not already been said. And so let us honor Harper Lee, whose long decline is over, who has found peace from whatever trouble and torment was caused by her sudden and unexpected publicity as a writer whose work served as part of the conscience of a nation. May she be at rest, and be troubled no more.

[1] See, for example:

Nocera, Joe (2015-07-24). “The Harper Lee ‘Go Set A Watchman’ Fraud”. The New York Times.

[2] See, for example:

[3] See, for example:

Mahler, Jonathan (2015-07-12). “The Invisible Hand Behind Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill A Mockingbird'”. The New York Times.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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3 Responses to The Long Goodbye Of Harper Lee

  1. Pingback: Book Review: The Heroine’s Bookshelf | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Understanding To Kill A Mockingbird | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: An Introduction To The On Creativity Project | Edge Induced Cohesion

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