Having learned of the death of Harper Lee yesterday at the age of 89, I felt compelled to read further about her life and her work.
In 1960, this first-time writer published her one and only novel: To Kill a Mockingbird. (Yes, a “sequel,” Go Set a Watchman, came out last year, but it didn’t seem to pass the sniff test at the time, a suspicion which was later confirmed.)
Fifty-six years later, the book continues to be a bestseller. It resulted in an Oscar-winning movie, and garnered Harper Lee the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of Arts, and numerous other honorary degrees and accolades. In 1999 the Library Journal named To Kill a Mockingbird the Best Novel of the Century.
And yet, no other novels — really, very little published writing at all — after this monumental success. I suppose that’s not so strange — we refer to “one-hit wonders” in the music biz, and there have been a number of actors who have won an Oscar and then seemingly vanished into oblivion. Sometimes it’s deliberate, and sometimes it just happens.
What I find funny, though, is from the biographical information I’ve seen, Harper Lee seemed to be passionate about her writing. So much so, in fact, that in December of 1956, she received a gift of a year’s wages from friends with a note: “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.” The next spring she delivered the first draft of what would become To Kill a Mockingbird to her agent and the rest is history.
I, too, was delivered in spring of 1957. That means I’ll be 89 in 2046. Should I make it to that age, I wonder what my obituary will say about my writing. I have (hopefully) 30 years to work that all out.
In the meantime, if any of my friends want to give me a year’s wages so I can write whatever I please, I’m all good with that. I promise you one helluva dedication!