After months of struggle, The Little Essay That Could finally started its engines, cut loose the string of cars that had been carrying the freight of an idea that didn’t belong and began chugging its way up the hill toward publication. It had been left on a siding, bereft and forlorn, condemned to idleness by my own obstinancy, my stubborn insistence that two thematic strands should remain entwined in a single essay. Only after I pulled them apart, discarding one, was the storyline able to get going and pick up a little steam.
Ironically, just as I began working again on my simplified piece, sighing and moaning to myself that things ought to be progressing more quickly, I came across news of Harper Lee and her former literary agent, Samuel Pinkus. Lee recently filed suit in Manhattan federal court seeking to recover royalties from from the sale of her novel, To Kill A Mockingbird. According to Associated Press reports, Lee was contending that Pinkus had tricked her into signing over the copyright to her novel while she was recovering from a stroke.
The suit further alleges that “Pinkus failed to properly protect the copyright of the book after his father-in-law, Eugene Winick — who had represented Lee as a literary agent — became ill a decade ago”. The 87-year-old author regained the rights in 2012, but says Pinkus still has been collecting royalties. Writing in The Washington Post, Mary C. Curtis adds that,
“In the lawsuit, Lee, who is 87 and lives in Monroeville, Alabama, says Pinkus took advantage of her failing health to get her to assign the book’s copyright to him and a company he controlled. In words that hark back to a courtly code, the lawsuit says: ‘The transfer of ownership of an author’s copyright to her agent is incompatible with her agent’s duty of loyalty; it is a gross example of self-dealing.’ Pinkus has so far not commented.”
Mr. Pinkus might do well to remind himself that Harper Lee may be eighty-seven, but she knows something about persevering. Prior to the 1960 publication of To Kill A Mockingbird, she moved to New York, took menial jobs to support herself and did in fact work on her manuscript for about eight years. After putting it into the hands of an editor, she re-wrote for an additional two years. That’s ten years of writing and re-writing, surely enough struggle to frustrate anyone.
One of the most well-known stories about Ms. Lee and her book comes from the early days of the editing process. One winter night in 1958, as she sat in her New York apartment surrounded by drifts of paper which mostly were drafts of the same material, it seems she’d suddenly had enough. Marching across the room and flinging open a window, she tossed her manuscript out into the wind, watching years of work tumble down into the snow-filled streets. Despite some diligent searching, I haven’t found any report of Harper Lee’s words as she flung her life’s work out that window. I suspect they were neither well-crafted nor particularly literary. A phrase like “There, dammit!” comes to mind.
Whether Lee intended to destroy To Kill a Mockingbird we’ll never know. Fortunately, she made an immediate call to her editor at Lippincott, and Tay Hohoff sent her outside to gather up the pages. The cold air and exercise probably did her good, and the gathered pages, which came together quite nicely in the end, have done all of us some good through the ensuing years.
Reading the latest chapter in Harper Lee’s life story, I couldn’t help recalling some wonderful passages from Flannery O’Connor’s letters. Collected and edited by Sally Fitzgerald and published under the title The Habit of Being, they bring into focus an extraordinarily self-possessed, determined and eccentric writer.
In a letter written to author Cecil Dawkins in April of 1959, Flannery not only remarks on the electric typewriter she is using, she has a comment or two about the news that Cecil has been paid $1,000 for a story. Noting that the most she ever has been paid is $425, Flannery goes on to say,
“Your sale to the Post ought to impress your mother greatly. It sure has impressed my mother, who brought the post card home. The other day she asked me why I didn’t try to write something that people liked instead of the kind of thing I do write. Do you think, she said, that you are really using the talent God gave you when you don’t write something that a lot, A LOT of people like? This always leaves me shaking and speechless, raises my blood pressure 140 degrees, etc. All I can ever say is, if you have to ask, you’ll never know.”
Very few authors were questioned more than Flannery O’Connor, and not only by her mother. She repeatedly was asked about her unusual vision of the world, her “Southern gothic” characters, her style of writing. When she wasn’t being queried about her view of the world or her art, she was being ignored by agents, publishers, Grant Committees and Boards of Directors who clearly had no idea what to do with her.
Despite it all, her vision of her work and her commitment to that vision were unwavering. As early as 1949, she wrote to potential editor John Selby, “In short, I am amenable to criticism, but only within the sphere of what I am trying to do; I will not be persuaded to do otherwise.” In a subsequent letter to Paul Engle, she reflects further on her experience with Selby and Rinehart.
“To develop at all as a writer I have to develop in my own way… I will not be hurried or directed by Rinehart… Now I am sure that no one will understand my need to work this novel out in my own way better than you; although you may feel that I should work faster. Believe me, I work ALL the time, but I cannot work fast. No one can convince me I shouldn’t re-write as much as I do.”
Eventually, the novel was finished and given the title Wise Blood. O’Connor’s accompanying letter to Sally Fitzgerald contains these classic lines.
“Enclosed is Opus Nauseous No. 1. I had to read it over after it came from the typist’s and that was like spending the day eating a horse blanket. It seems mighty sorry to me but better than it was before.”
Later, there were references to Opus Nauseous No. 2, her novel entitled The Violent Bear It Away. In a letter to Cecil Dawkins dated July 17, 1959, she celebrates the occasion in her typically understated way.
“Well, my novel is finished and on its way courtesy the US Postal Service to the publisher. Catharine Carver’s final verdict was that it is the best thing I’ve done. The most I am willing to say is that it has taken more doing than anything else I’ve done.”
In a followup letter to Maryat Lee she adds,
“Been working on that book for seven years with time off occasionally to write a story. The relief of finishing it was extreme, but I haven’t spit up or anything…”
It’s often said that the opposite of love isn’t hatred but apathy. It just as easily could be said that the opposite of perseverance isn’t laziness but exhaustion and ennui, the sort of bone-wearying, spirit-sapping lassitude that leads straight to a nice rocking chair. After eight years of work, Harper Lee just as easily could have kept her windows shut and allowed her manuscript to disappear beneath the detritus of daily life – drifts of junk mail, bills, old National Geographics and cheap paperbacks. Flannery O’Connor could have said, “Well, I believe I’ve messed about with this one more than enough. We’ll just call it done and stick it in the mail.”
But both authors seem to have been bound to their vision of the truth and the integrity of their work by varying degrees of love, disdain, revulsion and amazement. If they were given to dramatic gestures and sardonic humor from time to time – well, so be it. In the end, their gritty, practical and completely unsentimental view of their life’s work allowed them to persevere and to achieve.
And thank goodness they did. At two a.m., when the coffee’s boiled down and the process of putting words to page is akin to nothing so much as pulling my angry, resistant cat out from under the bed, I want nothing to do with bland, insipid paragraphs about the dignity of the writer’s vocation. I’d far rather contemplate Flannery O’Connor eating a horseblanket, or Nelle Harper Lee scuttling around on all fours in the snow, grabbing up those sodden manuscript pages.
That kind of persistence could inspire.