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Why Do Great Writers Stop Writing?

The tragic epilogue of Harper Lee

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

WHY ARE THERE WRITERS who stop writing? Writers of remarkable ability who claim depletion of talent, or desertion by the muse, or even—incredibly—that they would just like to try something else? Their refusal or inability to follow up on their successes provokes forsaken readers into demanding explanations, the more fantastic the better. Failing for decades to publish a novel after Call It Sleep, Henry Roth came up with a variety of excuses, including sore elbow, anti-Semitism, and laziness. Nothing satisfied until he offered an explanation so hideous it had to be true: he was essentially an autobiographical writer, and, unable to write about the sexual abuse he had inflicted on his sister, he could not write at all. The professor in Paul Auster’s novel The Book of Illusions is the author of a “meditation on silence,” a book on Rimbaud, Dashiell Hammett, Laura Riding, and J.D. Salinger, “poets and novelists of uncommon brilliance who, for one reason or another, had stopped.” Their silence is simultaneously maddening and appealing. Having created hits, they would not publish worse. To some of their readers, their silence only makes them more powerful, gods refusing to show their faces, too good for the world.

In their company must surely reside Harper Lee. That she wrote only one book, nearly universally beloved, is perhaps the best-known biographical fact about her; for some of her readers, it is the only fact. Charles J. Shields has now produced the first biography of the novelist, who, unsurprisingly, refused to approve of the project, or avail herself for any interviews, or sanction Shields to quote from her writing. Yet Shields is unstinting in his admiration for Lee—the biography oozes love—and his justification for writing an unauthorized life is persuasive: “I believe it is important to record Lee’s story while there are still a few people alive who were part of it and can remember.”

Nearly all biographies contain invasions of privacy, and though Shields’s book is hardly a shocker, no biography of Lee could avoid accusations of betrayal and paradox. Lee is intensely private, and of the many lessons promoted in the exceedingly didactic To Kill a Mockingbird, the final and most deeply felt is of the moral importance of leaving shy people alone. In the closing moments of the novel, Atticus Finch and the Maycomb County sheriff prepare to lie about the death of Bob Ewell so that Boo Radley, the good man who killed him, can be spared: “draggin’ him with his shy ways into the limelight—to me, that’s a sin.”

So there is something perverse about lovers of the novel flocking to read an unauthorized biography of its reclusive author. But unlike Boo Radley, Harper Lee is not a private citizen. The fame of her one novel ensured that she would never stop being a famous writer, giving her a role that she could never abdicate, indelible to forty-six years of not publishing another book. This summer, a New York Times headline announced that “Harper Lee Writes Again.” She had written, for the July issue of O: The Oprah Magazine, a short and entirely unrevealing letter about the joys of childhood reading. (“Dear Oprah, Do you remember when you learned to read, or like me, can you not even remember a time when you didn’t know how?”) So little had we come to expect from Lee, now eighty, that news of this letter was sufficient to make the papers. The Associated Press announced that by publishing it Oprah had achieved “something of a literary coup.”

But Lee had once promised to do more. For years following the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960, she assured interviewers that she was hard at work. “I would like to leave some record of the kind of life that existed in a very small world. I hope to do this in several novels—to chronicle something that seems to be very quickly going down the drain.” She wanted, she said, to become “the Jane Austen of south Alabama.” But then, Austen published anonymously. And she never dealt with Hollywood.

JUST AS AUSTEN WAS CONVINCED that “three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on,” Lee once told an interviewer that the country “naturally produces more writers than, say, an environment like 82nd Street in New York. In small town life and in rural life you know your neighbors.” The Alabama town of Maycomb in To Kill a Mockingbird is a proxy for Monroeville, whereLee was raised and where she currently resides. Her father’s family had lived in the American South from the late seventeenth century; and, though not descended from Robert E. Lee, as is sometimes reported, her paternal grandfather was a Confederate veteran of twenty-two battles, including Gettysburg. Her maternal grandparents—whose last name was Finch—had owned a tremendous Alabama cotton plantation. Nelle Harper and her siblings knew that they were—as Atticus tells his children—”not from run-of-the-mill people,” but the “product of several generations’ gentle breeding.”

Lee always maintained that Atticus was modeled on her father—so much so that in order to prepare for the film adaptation of the novel, Gregory Peck went to Monroeville to study him. Although Amasa Coleman Lee, called A.C., did not always behave like Atticus—he insisted that the progressive Methodist minister Ray Whatley, who would later work with Martin Luther King Jr., “get off the ‘social justice’ and get back on the gospel”—it was his experience of hopelessly defending black men unable to get a fair trial that his daughter would partly appropriate in her fiction. He did it only once, in 1919, when he was court-appointed to defend two men on murder charges. His clients were found guilty and hanged; their bodies were mutilated and their body parts packaged and mailed to the family of their alleged victim, proof that justice had been done. Whether A.C. Lee’s attitude was like Atticus’s—resolute, telling his daughter that “simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win”—Lee’s biographer cannot tell us.

As for Lee’s mother, Shields argues that the absence of Scout’s mother in To Kill a Mockingbird is revealing—that Lee wrote her out of the novel because of her conflicted feelings for a woman who seems to have suffered from severe mental illness, rarely leaving the house and causing scenes when she did. Truman Capote, one of Lee’s closest childhood friends (and the model for the novel’s Dill), told his biographer Gerald Clarke that Lee’s mother had twice tried to drown her daughter in the bathtub: “When they talk about Southern grotesque, they’re not kidding!”

But the terrifying, crazed mother has no place in the kind of novel that Lee was constructing. A Charles Saxon cartoon from 1961 depicts two women in a bookshop, one holding a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird and telling the other, “It’s about the South, but it’s not—you know—Southern.” In many ways, To Kill a Mockingbird is a criticism of the southern novel as much as it is a criticism of southern society. Boo Radley, thought to be some kind of Gothic monstrosity, is just a shy man. Tom Robinson’s deformity—his crippled left side and small shriveled hand—results merely from a boyhood accident with a cotton gin. And instead of making him a freak, Tom’s withered arm proves—to us, if not to the all-white jurymen—that he was incapable of raping Mayella Ewell, as she claimed.

Lee left Alabama in 1949, when at twenty-three she dropped out of law school to move to New York and try for a writer’s life, despite having written little more than squibs for the University of Alabama’s student humor magazine. She worked as an airline ticketing agent until friends lent her enough money so that, by living frugally, she could work only at her writing for a year. By the end of 1957, on the basis of preliminary chapters for a novel then titled “Atticus,” she was offered a publishing contract with Lippincott. According to Shields, Lee provided her editor, the talented Tay Hohoff, with the shape of a narrative and fragmentary anecdotes about her hometown, and over the next two years Hohoff helped her to transform them into a coherent work.

THOSE WHO TURN TO To Kill a Mockingbird after some years away are usually surprised by how long it takes for Tom Robinson’s trial to begin. It is still the novel’s great subject, but the first hundred pages are dedicated to Lee’s depiction of life in Maycomb—sleepy and poor, but charming, where for church fund-raisers the Methodists challenge the Baptists to touch football, and all the fathers play. This fascination with small-town life seems to have been what sent her to Holcomb, Kansas, during the months between finishing To Kill a Mockingbird and awaiting its publication, when she left New York to assist Capote in researching what they thought would be an article on a small town’s response to the murder of a farmer and his family. Both Shields and Capote’s biographer agree that while Holcomb residents initially kept Capote at a distance (some suspecting that a man so unusual-looking, preternaturally tiny with a disconcertingly babyish voice, might well be the one who had killed the Clutters), they trusted Lee—what the case’s lead detective later called her “down-home style,” her “knack for saying the right things. Once the ice was broken, I was told, Capote could get people to talking.” Although Capote’s refusal to give Lee more credit for In Cold Blood eventually caused a rift in their friendship, Capote once admitted that he “could never have done the job” of the book “without her deep probing of the people of that little town.”

In Maycomb, all the great virtues are to be found in miniature. A terminally ill woman who decides to break her morphine addiction so that she can die “beholden to nothing and nobody” is described as “the bravest person I ever knew.” Atticus is a Christian out of a morality play, who when Bob Ewell spits tobacco juice in his face tells his children that he’s grateful for it: “I destroyed his last shred of credibility at that trial, if he had any to begin with. The man had to have some kind of comeback, his kind always does. So if spitting in my face and threatening me saved Mayella Ewell one extra beating, that’s something I’ll gladly take.” There is nothing subtle about him. His goodness is as unbesmirched as Bob Ewell’s evil, but that is the source of his appeal.

In the American Film Institute’s list of the greatest movie heroes, Atticus was ranked first, followed by other impossible men: Indiana Jones, Superman, Zorro. In adapting the book for film, the director Robert Mulligan knew that there was no need to make Atticus more complicated: he is a “fantasy figure—the father we would all have liked to have had.” And his goodness is what readers cling to. To claim that he lacks nuance would be to deny the potential greatness of men, particularly white men. The moment after the jury renders its verdict, dramatized in the film, when all the black spectators in the courthouse rise to their feet in homage to Atticus—”Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’”—was the shot that Peck told friends had won him an Academy Award.

Much of Lee’s novel is moral pap: “Naw, Jem, I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.” Or: “Jem, how can you hate Hitler so bad an’ then turn around and be ugly about folks right at home.” Or: “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view ... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” The conclusion to the novel’s most dramatic moment—when Scout shames a lynch mob into disbanding—leads Atticus to the irresistible induction that “maybe we need a police force of children.” One desperately wants to believe this world, where all it takes at a lynching is the presence “of an eight-year-old child to bring ‘em to their senses.”

But who can believe it? This is escapist literature, spectacularly sentimental, and all the more seductive for coming in the guise of the realistic novel, conveyed by a narration that is sharp and often very funny, illustrated by characters so skillfully drawn that they are nearly convincing even when they act impossibly. Even the jury’s guilty verdict is given a positive gloss at the end. A sympathetic neighbor tells Scout that “I was sittin’ there on the porch last night, waiting. I waited and waited to see you all come down the sidewalk, and as I waited I thought, Atticus Finch won’t win, he can’t win, but he’s the only man in these parts who can keep a jury out so long in a case like that. And I thought to myself, well, we’re making a step—it’s just a baby step, but it’s a step.” This is propaganda, but for the right side. Lee is brilliant at this sort of thing; but when propaganda is brilliant, even for the right side, it is demagoguery.

WHEN LEE BECAME FAMOUS—when her book was chosen by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Literary Guild, when it made the best-seller lists and was translated into forty languages, when she won the Pulitzer Prize and started speaking at university commencements—she became less the writer of To Kill a Mockingbird than its spokeswoman. Her few published writings after it are all extensions of the brand—essays extolling the virtues of childhood, the importance of loving one’s neighbor and one’s country. In “When Children Discover America,” published in McCall’s in 1965, on the rewards of childhood travel, she writes of how “In the Far West, I would show children San Francisco. The Chinese people there are such wonderful Americans.... Younger children may not respond in words, but they will drink everything in with their eyes, and fill their minds with awareness and wonder. It’s an experience they will enjoy and remember all their lives.” Would this have been published if she weren’t “Harper Lee”? Or “Love—in Other Words” in Vogue: “There is only one kind of love—love. But the different manifestations of love are uncountable: At an unfamiliar night noise a mother will spring from bed.... What is love? Many things are like love.... Every creation of man’s mind that has withstood the buffeting of time was born of love.” This is the work of a writer who is unable to stop overhearing herself, who is consumed by thoughts of how she will sound to the thousands of impressionable people who send her fan mail. Her sentences—”The Chinese people there are such wonderful Americans”—are no longer the language of a novelist.

Shields suggests that Hohoff’s retirement from Lippincott in the early 1970s stymied Lee from finishing her second novel, which is certainly plausible, but Shields’s knowledge of Hohoff and Lee’s relationship is too poorly sourced to be of much use. The looseness of Shields’s research reveals itself in the awkwardness of his diction, the forced connections Shields makes to connect the few facts he does know: “No doubt a fleeting thought of Miss Watson crossed Nelle’s mind as she entered the epicenter of English intellectual life,” he writes (Miss Watson, Shields thrillingly discovers, was the name of her high school English teacher). And he is probably not trying to be coy when he tells us that “I cannot say if she is homosexual (she was friends with Capote and other openly gay people).” Biographers must make do with what they can get, but Shields has brought so little to this project—no general knowledge of Monroeville’s culture, nothing on 1950s publishing—that the book often reads like little more than an assemblage of other people’s newspaper articles. (In the book’s introduction, Shields boasts that through “an online database at the University of Virginia, I located perhaps one hundred articles from national newspapers about To Kill a Mockingbird and e-mailed them to myself.”) Shields’s chapter on the novel’s film adaptation will seem awfully familiar to anyone who has encountered his main sources, the director’s and producer’s commentaries on the DVD.

Shields mentions allegations that Capote, who read the novel in manuscript and made editing suggestions, was its true author, and denies them by relating that Hohoff’s son-in-law “said that such a deception wouldn’t have occurred to Nelle” and by the argument that “given Truman’s inability to keep anybody’s secrets, it’s highly unlikely that he wouldn’t have claimed right of authorship after the novel became famous.” Shields might have marshaled more cogent evidence, but something about giving the credit to Capote would probably still appeal. He spent his childhood summers in Monroeville, where he would set his novel The Grass Harp; and if you squint the right way, the courtroom in To Kill a Mockingbird resembles the Kansas courtroom of In Cold Blood.

But what spurs this rumor has little to do with similarities in content or outlook or idiom (few, on all counts). It is rather that Capote seems a born storyteller, who channeled his childhood grief and adult ostracism into a series of books, and whose career ended by drugs and alcohol, not a quiet stepping away. He, and not Lee, is what an artist is supposed to look like; a pity his work is of questionable merit. A biographer needs to shape the stories of a life into a narrative that makes sense. Shields’s biography is noteworthy only because it is the first. That a better one will emerge is inevitable so long as To Kill a Mockingbird remains compulsory reading for every twelve-year-old in America.

Deborah Friedell is a former assistant literary editor of The New Republic.