One-Hit Literary Wonders
Veronique de Turenne's article on the 50th anniversary of one of the great 20th century American novels, To Kill a Mockingbird, started me thinking once again about some perplexing questions. Why did Harper Lee abandon the much-anticipated second novel that she started in the late 1960s? More importantly, if Lee had finished the book--which may or may not have existed on paper, as Charles Leerhsen details in this Smithsonian piece--would it have been even more masterful than Mockingbird? Or would it have been the literary equivalent of The Two Jakes, the painfully underwhelming 1990 sequel to one the greatest films of the 1970s, Chinatown?
We'll never know the answers to those questions. Maybe they don't really matter. The underlying assumption behind them is that to qualify as a true literary great, an author should produce a body of work that progressively becomes better as his or her talent matures. We've become accustomed to the notion that authors should churn out books. And some certainly have done that. French author Emile Zola's Les Rougon-Macquart, which follows a family through the rise and fall of the Second Empire, is an astonishing 20 books long. And that represents only a portion of his literary output. Elmore Leonard, one of the deans of the American crime novel, has published 44 novels so far, and he's not done yet.
But it's a mistake to confuse prolific output with virtuosity. Mystery thriller manufacturer James Patterson--who these days maximizes his output by employing other writers to flesh out his ideas on paper--is popular but it's unlikely people will remember his work another decade from now. (Patterson's approach first was perfected by Edward Stratemeyer, the late 19th-early 20th century creator of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew.)
No, Harper Lee may have been right to quit while she was ahead. (As she once reportedly told her cousin Dickie Williams, "When you're at the top, there is only one way to go.") It may well be that some authors only have one great book in them, and maybe we should be grateful for the lone masterpiece, rather than bemoaning the lack of sequels. I can think of these excellent examples of one-hit literary wonders:
1. John Kennedy Toole, who wrote the comic masterpiece A Confederacy of Dunces and then took his life in 1969 after he was unable to get it published. Fortunately, his mother convinced Walker Percy to take a look at it, and it was posthumously published in 1980. Otherwise, the world never would have experienced the perverse legend-in-his-own-mind Ignatius Reilly, one of the most hysterical characters ever to grace the page.
2.Margaret Mitchell, who took a decade to complete her 1936 Reconstruction epic, Gone with the Wind, as Orson Welles used to remind us in those wine commercials. She stepped in front of a speeding driver on the way to see a movie in 1949, precluding the possibility that she would ever produce another book.
3. Ralph Ellison, whose 1953 masterpiece of magic realism, Invisible Man, is an insightful book on the peculiarities of American race relations. Ellison wrote plenty of worthy essays about jazz music and other subjects, but his uncompleted second novel reportedly perished in a 1967 fire, and he never attempted another.
4. Ross Lockridge, Jr., author of another expansive Southern epic, 1948's Raintree County. Suffering from depression, he committed suicide shortly after its publication.
7. Boris Pasternak, a Russian poet and literary translator whose disillusionment with Soviet authoritarianism--and his own attempts to conform to it--led to the immense achievement of Doctor Zhivago. The book was published in the West in 1957, to the infuriation of Soviet authorities. Pasternak became the only one-hit winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature two years before his death from lung cancer in 1960.
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