Perhaps more than any other American author, Harper Lee proved that it isn’t the quantity of your output that will make you a legend in readers’ eyes. It is the content–the very life-changing depth–of a work that will transcend you into being deemed one of the authors of that elusive term, the great American novel. Like J.D. Salinger, Lee proved to be an enigma in her later years, particularly after the controversial release of Go Set A Watchman, an original version of her seminal and only novel, To Kill A Mockingbird.
It is possibly the onslaught of instantaneous celebrity and praise that prevented Lee from writing another novel, as the pressure to do so proved too great in the wake of the book’s immediate bestseller status upon release in 1960, as well as winning a Pulitzer PrizeI in 1961. As Lee stated, “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.”
The “frightening” element of it all was, of course, the fear of not being able to surpass the talent she presented in her debut, as well as the sight of her childhood friend and fellow writer, Truman Capote, steadily transforming into a grotesque party monster driven solely by the ego of being a member of New York’s insular literary society. But then again, Lee was born with a humbleness Capote never possessed, which is inevitably what drew her away from the callousness of New York and back to her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, where she died on February 19th in the most modest of ways: while sleeping. Her decision to recoil from the public eye is what made her so special, for few authors of milestone literary works are able to resist the trappings that come with it. And those who have not (e.g. David Foster Wallace) have suffered tremendously as a result; fame always taints the original meaning of one’s literature.
Toward the end of her life, Lee made vague contact with the public, as in 2006 when she wrote an open letter to O Magazine detailing her continued zeal for reading, even in a society where, “people have…minds like empty rooms.” And while saying this in Oprah’s magazine is somewhat ironic, she had a point. This oversimplification of modern humanity, too, may have been a contributing factor in her refusal to put out another novel. Why bother when the audience is unappreciative and prefers the proverbial glow of the parlor walls? It is somewhat paradoxical that the very country she fought for by candidly exposing the absurdity of its racial prejudices in a way that no one has before or since (not even Beyoncé in the video for “Formation”) is the one that would prompt her to abstain from the responsibility of continuing to open up the eyes of the world to blatant injustice. Whatever the conglomerate of reasons behind Lee’s canon of one book (let’s assume Go Set A Watchman counts as supplemental material), she left an indelible imprint on literature and American culture in a way that authors with tenfold the amount of her work have not. She was truly a rare breed of writer–the kind that comes almost but once a century, and an overall beacon of goodness.