Seeking immortality

“Most books, like their authors, are born to die; of only a few books can it be said that death hath no dominion over them; they live, and their influence lives forever.”

~J. Swartz

Harper Lee: The literary one hit wonder. A woman who wrote what many consider the greatest novel of the 20th century and then never published another book.

Pose the question, “Why do you write?” to ten writers and I would venture a guess that eight of them would respond with, “because I can’t not write.”

But writing and having people read what you write isn’t the same thing, is it?

Perhaps the more honest answer to that question would be, “I write to be read. I want people to read what I write and tell me I’ve done it well.”

“I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected.”
~Harper Lee, 1964

Ever since the enormous success of To Kill a Mockingbird, millions of people have collectively wondered why Harper Lee never published another book. It’s fairly well documented that Lee was writing a second novel, The Long Goodbye, when according to her agent at the time, “her pen froze”.

I’ve never given much thought to why Harper Lee never published another novel. I suspect she’s written more stories but has chosen not to share them. I have the utmost respect for her disinterest in future publication. There are currently two Harper Lee biographies available on Amazon, neither of them written with the cooperation of Lee or authorized by her.

*In a 2011 interview with the Daily Telegraph, Lee’s close friend Rev. Dr. Thomas Lane Butts said that Lee is in an assisted-living facility, wheelchair bound, partially blind and deaf, and suffering from memory loss. Butts also said that Lee told him why she never wrote again:

“Two reasons: one, I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill A Mockingbird for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again.”

Ah, to show that kind of restraint in a world that is constantly telling us what we have attained is never enough. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of those rare books which has attained literary immortality. Its author’s recognition of this fact and her acknowledgment of that being enough puts her in the same category.

There is a skill and giftedness involved in saying what needs to be said in just the right way.

But perhaps what’s too often overlooked is the ability to know when you’ve said enough.

Why do you write?

*Source: Wikipedia.

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8 Responses to “Seeking immortality”

  1. Simply Darlene February 6, 2012 at 8:23 am #

    Thanks for the literary behind-the-scenes lesson and for sharing the honesty behind the author.


  2. jake February 6, 2012 at 8:32 am #

    It’s one of those books that someone can read multiple times and still enjoy it at every reread. It really is too bad she didn’t publish more though, she was a great story-teller!

  3. Joseph Baran February 6, 2012 at 8:42 am #

    Sometimes when the very first work turns out to be an unexpected success of staggering magnitude, regardless if it’s a book, film or any other work of art, it is impossible to follow it with anything else that would be remotely good in the shadow of the first piece. The first work becomes a measuring stick for its creator and any other work that follows will always be compared to it. No body wants to be in that position. Then the silence on the part of the writer or artist, as the case may be, only secures the immortality of their first and only work.

    But for the rest of us, we keep on talking until our faces turn blue or we run out of ink, as the case may be.

  4. Maureen February 6, 2012 at 9:49 am #

    I write because it’s what I do best, and, yes, because I can’t imagine a day when I don’t write.

    I write poetry because doing so helps me make sense of my experience of the world. Writing has saved me more than once.

    I’ve often wondered what Lee’s publishing experience would be today. Her book was so much of its time and yet managed to address something universal that still speaks to contemporary readers.

    Thank you for a thoughtful and interesting post.

  5. Alex Washoe February 6, 2012 at 10:03 am #

    Its interesting that everyone talks about the case of Harper Lee and no one mentions the equally interesting, more complex case of her friend Truman Capote. Capote started working on “In Cold Blood” during the same time period when Lee was writing and publishing “To Kill a Mockingbird” but it took him longer to finish. Something about the process was so traumatic to him that he never finished another novel again. Although he published stories, essays, fragments and so on, he never finished another novel. As writers, I think we should all be curious why.

    • katdish February 6, 2012 at 10:12 am #

      Alex –

      In researching this post, I learned that not only were Lee and Capote childhood friends, but that Capote was the inspiration for Dill Harris (according to him). I also read that Harper Lee did considerable research for “In Cold Blood”. They were reportedly lifelong friends. There’s much more to this story than most will ever know. Which I think is exactly the way Ms. Lee prefers.

  6. karenzach February 8, 2012 at 12:48 am #

    I love this post. Love. It.

  7. Megan Willome February 11, 2012 at 6:49 am #

    Well said, Kathy.

    And doesn’t that final photo make her look like an old Scout?

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