Literary One-Hit Wonders

By Library Clerk, David Winn
We all know the name Harper Lee. Whether it was from reading her luminary novel To Kill a Mockingbird or from watching the fantastic film adaptation starring Gregory Peck from 1962, the characters Harper Lee created based on her own experience growing up in racially discordant Monroeville, Alabama have struck a chord with many personally and in the American consciousness. When it was announced earlier this year that Go Set a Watchman, Lee’s second novel was to be released, many were no doubt surprised to learn that Lee was still alive despite having not published anything in the previous five decades, due in no small part to her cherished reclusiveness. Funnily enough, this “new” novel is not so new at all—Lee wrote this story, set chronologically after To Kill a Mockingbird, before her masterpiece was even started. Her editor urged her to table the text for time being and try writing something from young Scout’s perspective, a decision which inadvertently spurred on the creation of a treasured classic. Early reactions from those who have read the manuscript indicate that Lee has another brilliant work to her credit now, but there is no shame in living as a literary one-hit wonder. She certainly is not the first, and as history goes to show, sometimes all you need is one powerful work to guarantee you will never be forgotten.

Emily Brontë published Wuthering Heights in 1847 before passing from consumption within a year’s time. This gothic tale of unrequited love and madness set on the windswept fields of northern England has been a staple of Victorian literature, and later an example of classic romance in somewhat more straightforward film adaptations. People tend to refer to the Brontë sisters as a collective, but each of the women’s work contain characteristics all their own, which makes it all the more disappointing that Emily wasn’t able to complete a second major work.

Ralph Ellison’s only released one novel, Invisible Man in 1952. There was no tragic death to cut short Ellison’s career as a novelist; he was a prolific writer, as exhibited in several collections of essays that were published in his fifty-year career. In some ways, Invisible Man distills everything Ellison critiqued about the African American experience, inspired by the prejudices he faced as a black man in America, imagined through the eyes of a man who had been driven underground (literally) and made invisible by a society that refused to acknowledge him. While his essays gave him a shorter, more direct form to level social critique, he nevertheless tried to draft a second novel. After a catastrophic house fire consumed the manuscript he had started in 1967, he tried for the remainder of his career to craft a second novel he felt was up to snuff. He left over 2,000 pages after his death which have been edited and released in different forms, but never with the singular, complete power of Invisible Man.

While a bulk of his work is comprised of short stories and novellas, J.D. Salinger is another author whose name stands out because of the popularity of his single novel, A Catcher in the Rye. This seminal work of teenage alienation has become as widely read as it is challenged, still being one of the books most targeted by concerned parents for banning in schools. Salinger continued to write after the novel’s publication in 1951, but he soon grew fond of a life of reclusion, and ceased publishing anything after a final novella in 1965. It may surprise you then, that Salinger passed away in 2010 at age 91, having not given any interviews for three decades.

Which bring us back to Harper Lee, or Nell as she was known to close friends, such as true crime author Truman Capote. While making rare appearances to receive accolades and the occasional written letter that garnered press, Lee has certainly maintained privacy despite her novel’s success. She also abandoned her only attempt at writing a novel in the years after To Kill a Mockingbird, going so far as to declare that we would never see another from her. Hopefully with the release of Go Set a Watchman, everyone will get what they want. For the readers, another story from this brilliant writer featuring characters we already love, and for Harper Lee, the peace of mind that comes with taking care of unfinished business.

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