Wednesday 13 December 2017

Why literary heavyweight Harper Lee stayed silent for so many years

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in a scene from the film version of ‘To Kill A Mocking Bird’.
Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in a scene from the film version of ‘To Kill A Mocking Bird’.
Harper Lee

Philip Hensher

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 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.

The extraordinary career - or perhaps non-career - of Harper Lee bears witness to a quite different way of conducting a writing life. Up until yesterday's announcement we were aware that she had written just 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, 'The Long Goodbye', apparently came to an end on the day her agent, JP Lippincott, expressed an interest in her first. "Her pen froze," he said.

'To Kill a Mockingbird' is a great novel and was quickly made into a great film. 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 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 silence.

The novelist of social texture, of the quiet relationships between people, is perhaps one peculiarly vulnerable to the impact of fame. 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.

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.

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. (Daily Telegraph London)

Irish Independent

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