The Hazards of Early Success

I just read about Harper Lee suing to have the copyright and royalties on “To Kill a Mockingbird” restored to her.  She’s 87, dwells in an assisted-living facility, can’t see or hear well, and admits to “memory problems”.  Since I don’t know Miz Lee and am not a lawyer, of course I can’t resist stubbornly trying to read between the lines of this news story.  That’s my specialty, in case you hadn’t noticed.  I’m probably better at reading between the lines than reading the lines themselves.  The story does hit many of my topical touchstones; fame, greed, the eternal struggle between art and commerce, learning to deal with physical and mental entropy, and how current news can be, ummm, misleading.

Lee’s original literary agent was a man named Eugene Winick.  He was her agent from the time the book was first published.  When he became ill in 2002, his son-in-law Samuel Pinkus took over representation of some of Winick’s clients, including Lee.  If all you read is the news stories or the complaint, you’ll readily believe Sam Pinkus is a con man out to steal from his own father-in-law and an old lady.  The complaint alleges Pinkus set out to dupe Lee into signing over her copyright, which apparently she did in 2007.  Lee says she has no recollection of having done it.  A 2010 case on this matter resulted in Lee regaining the copyright after discharging him, but the new complaint accuses Pinkus of still collecting royalties, and of not responding to enquiries about it.

Maybe he isn’t taking proper care that Lee gets her share of the eggs from the golden goose, but Pinkus is no unqualified outsider.  As an agent, he co-manages the literary estates of John Steinbeck, Sinclair Lewis, Sid Hoff (“Danny and the Dinosaur”), Robert McCloskey (“Make Way for Ducklings”) and Fred Gipson (“Old Yeller”), as well as having represented authors Mary Higgins Clark, Fred Dannen (“The Hit Men”), Gerald Posner (“Case Closed”) and Laura Childs (Tea Shop Mysteries).  That he is a legitimate agent doesn’t mean he would never act unethically, but it indicates he would have much more to lose than Lee’s royalties if his reputation is tarnished.

To Kill a Mockingbird is the kind of intellectual property people will fight to own a piece of, and maybe do underhanded things to acquire.  The spectacularly popular half-century old novel has had a positive influence on the lives of generations of readers.  It is not daring in style nor particularly challenging in themes and ideas.  It is an engaging narrative told in vivid, simple prose, with warmth and humor, about formative events in the life of a child in a small, southern town.  It’s fictionalized autobiography, and it was published in the right place at the right time.  The novel’s publication offered a portrait of racism at a point in our history when the country was more ready than usual to face it.  Winning the Pulitzer Prize, and the popularity of the 1962 film adaptation, helped increase sales exponentially.

From 1949 to 1956 Nelle Harper Lee lived in New York, working day jobs while struggling to write.  She got a Christmas present of a year’s wages from friends that allowed her to write full-time and complete a first draft of the book.  When she initially showed it to publishers, it was a series of unconnected stories about a specific time and place.  Two and ½ year’s worth of re-writing later, under the excellent guidance of Tay Hohoff at Lippincott, it became the unified novel published in 1960.  Lee’s publishers warned her to expect only a few thousand copies would be sold.  But it became an immediate hit, was licensed to Book of the Month club, and presented in edited form through Reader’s Digest.  The novel has now sold more than 30 million copies in 18 languages and, in addition to showings of the film version, is often performed as a play in high schools and colleges.  From time to time some ignorant martinet on a school board tries to have the book banned, a badge of honor for a work so beloved.

For all the pleasure it may give us to read a book so timely and satisfying, the enormity of its popularity killed the career of its author.  She had been in the process of writing a second novel, but when Mockingbird was published she shelved it, wrote a few magazine articles and stopped writing entirely within a few years.  Her only other significant contribution was assisting her friend Truman Capote prior to his publication of In Cold Blood, research and input done before Mockingbird was published.

Perhaps Lee didn’t have the interest, imagination or drive to keep trying to make up stories apart from that initial version of her own early experiences.  Maybe she was afraid of never again being able to measure up to that first book.  I don’t know.  She has spent the rest of her life living off the success of her only novel, and she refused to talk with journalists about it for 50 years.  Like J.D. Salinger, she found being famous an unpleasant experience.  Now she’s falling apart, and courts will have to determine if others have conspired to steal her income stream, or if this is a case of dementia-based fear.  I kind of hope the agent did it.


Filed under Ethics and Morality, Literature

12 responses to “The Hazards of Early Success

  1. Thanks. This was important information. And I like the notion of “reading between the lines” as a life occupation. I’ve always done that, always been rebellious, eventually refusing to read those “damn lines” that were out there before my eyes and the eyes of everyone else. Nice to meet a fellow rebel! Thanks again.

    • I was born with a kind of improper mental calibration. At this point if I tried to look at things straight on, nothing will make sense! You’re welcome, Lew, and thanks for your kind words.

  2. haha I kind of ‘hope the agent did it’ too. I’ve always had great respect for the fact that Lee never wrote another book. I really know nothing about her, but I thought it was quite noble because, had she written something else, after the success of Mockingbird, she would have been sure to sell it. She wrote a great book, she wasn’t in it for the money, and she left it there. Good on her.

    • I’m sure it’s because I used to care for dementia patients, and heard a thousand “they stole all my money” fantasies from patients, but I have this awful feeling the agent paid her for the rights six years ago and she’s just forgotten about it. I totally hope I’m wrong! I respect the accomplishment of the book itself, but I’m less impressed with writers who become upset and quit when success exceeds their expectations. If you don’t want to deal with the downside of fame and fortune, publish your work anonymously, for free. If it’s good, people will still read it.

  3. If you think you are enough of a natural “writer” that your friends are willing to fund an entire year’s worth of writing time, then surely you should be still “writer enough” to want to continue with the stories in your head that were still be told?
    I have a blog but don’t consider myself to be a “writer”: a mark of that is that (even if I could) I wouldn’t give my day job for it… I *would* to draw all day if I could, but not to write. Yes, writing gives me pleasure but it’s not the same creative *fix” that drawing is.
    Say for instance I then posted something I’d written that became a runaway hit… it would be pure accident and ok, nice but would I feel any obligation to follow it up with more writing? or give my my day job? No.
    But Harper Lee took a whole year off work to write: she didn’t fund this year herself, why? did she not want to be a professional writer? it would seem so. Did she not have any expectations of selling any books? if not, why bother and why spend all that time and waste all your friends money?

    So for me it does seem very strange indeed that she stopped writing after Mockingbird. No one would have blamed her if a second book turned out to not be as good as the first, they would have been pleased she had tried, and who knows, maybe the second book could have been as good as the first.
    This is as much as repaying other people’s faith in her and reaching the potential they clearly saw in her (enough to invest a serious amount of money) as it is about what she wanted. Other people put a lot on the line for her and she “repaid” them by not trying very hard (or at all) once success arrived. I find that a complete shame and a potential waste of a gift and talent.
    If I has been one of her friends I think I would have felt let down.
    As for the copyright, who knows, my own experience with a sociopath twin sister is that she is able to tell the world that black is white very convincingly even if a large group of witnesses saw differently. I assume dementia is similar: what she very honestly *believes* (or wants to believe) may not be what is actually true so let justice reign for whoever can prove their case fair and square in a court of law.
    (surely a transfer of copyright should have an accompanying paper trail and somewhere in history, bank transfers of funds).

    • Whatever happened to Harper Lee, is one of the biggest mysteries in American Literature. J.D. Salinger also wrote a single novel (Catcher in the Rye), but additionally an incredible short story collection, and an autobigraphical novella. He then gave up publishing his work out of an intense desire to continue having a quiet, private life, which his own great fame and success was preventing. However, he didn’t stop writing. He just stashed it away in big trunks around the house.

      According to what I’ve read, Nelle Lee reacted to fame as if someone had hit her over the head with a blackjack. She apparently had never entertained the possibility that the public would want to know about her personally. She did a little publicity before the movie came out and posed for some photos, but once she felt secure the film was faithful in spirit to the book, she retired from public life.

      To be fair, she had been trying to be a professional writer for seven years, and was a ticket agent for an airline when she got the gift of a year’s wages. She was the editor of her college’s literary magazine, a similar experience to mine. (I wrote regularly for my college’s weekly newspaper. Literary magazines were outdated by then.) She had been educated toward being a writer. Perhaps no one ever warned her about fame, or thought she had a chance of being successful. Her editor at Lippincott worked with her purely, to produce as good and readable a book as possible.

      No one can predict when what you write will be “in the zone” culturally, which helps make a hit. This was a child’s story of racism, from a child’s point of view (sort of – Scout uses the vocabulary and sentence structure of an educated adult woman. Lee isn’t Twain.) The book and movie came out just as the Civil Rights movement was picking up momentum, becoming the main social justice cause in this country. That was a big stroke of luck.

      It’s possible that the happy accident of Harper Lee’s “gift” was that she was able to remember her own childhood in greater detail than most people, and that she was helped to fictionalize it just enough to make the experience of reading about it universally meaningful. Everyone has a story, after all. Maybe she had little imagination, and no abiding interest in the invention of plots and characters she had not known in life.

      But I’m only guessing. She won’t say, and her advancing infirmaties will lock the truth away permanently. Thanks for being here, KD. Your contributions are so valuable.

  4. What a way to have her publicity turn.Either way, it’s a shame- a sordid public end to a semi-private life.

    • I suspect she would have not wanted it, but people do lose their reserve when in the process of physical dissolve. And agents misbehave too. I can’t guess what the truth is.

  5. Cat

    Harper Lee fascinates me. Such an interesting case. What I wouldn’t do to have a chance to talk to her for an hour or two, though. (Well, I don’t know; she’s kind of decrepit now and it may not be so fun, but you get what I mean.) (Also, I’ve been pretty internet invisible for a while, sorry about that, but here I am.)

  6. IM:

    People interested in why Harper Lee did not write a second novel should read Charles W. Shields’ biography Mockingbird, A Portrait of Harper Lee (2006), which I just happened to finish. The book gives an excellent insight into the makeup of a complex woman who may have spent part of each year in New York City (less so over time) but who never really left her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama (the basis for Maycomb, Alabama in To Kill a Mockingbird).


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