FAMOUS BOOKS THAT WERE LITERARY ONE-HIT WONDERS
When Harper Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman debuted recently, it disqualified Lee – for the first time in decades – from inclusion in a short but fascinating list, that of writers who were one-hit wonders. Here are some of the authors who remain, who published one bestseller, usually to critical acclaim, then for whatever reason did not write again.
MARGARET MITCHELL: Gone With the Wind
When Atlanta society reporter Margaret Mitchell was confined to bed with a broken leg, she got so sick of reading stories that she decided to write one of her own. Gone with the Wind, published in 1936, was a wild bestseller and over seventy years later this Civil War page-turner still sells hundreds of thousands of copies a year and has sold more copies than any other book besides the Bible. It also won a Pulitzer Prize and inspired the iconic movie.
Ironically, there have been several dozen books written about this novel while Mitchell herself wrote only the one. She loathed the celebrity that came with international success. “If I had known being an author was like this I’d have thought several times before I let [the publisher] go off with my dog-eared manuscript. I’ve lost ten pounds in a week, leap when telephones ring and scurry like a rabbit at the sight of a familiar face on the street. Utter strangers collar me in public and ask the most remarkable questions and photographers pop out of the drains.” Instead of writing, she devoted most of her time to volunteer efforts during WWII before she died in 1949 after being run down by a drunk driver.
JOHN KENNEDY TOOLE: A Confederacy of Dunces
Novelist Walker Percy was not happy when he was cornered by an aggressive old woman who insisted that he read a badly smeared carbon copy of a novel written by her son, but Percy was a Southern gentleman of the school that did not allow refusing little old women, aggressive or otherwise. He told himself that all he had to do was read the first few pages and then he could honestly tell her it was hopeless, but there was a hitch: he couldn’t stop reading – or laughing. The story of Ignatius J. Reilly, philosophy student and self-absorbed layabout who wreaks havoc on 1960s New Orleans, was a comic masterpiece and Percy had no trouble getting it published.
It came out in 1980 to huge acclaim. It won the Pulitzer Prize, sold over 1.5 million copies, and was translated into eighteen languages. Unfortunately its author, John Kennedy Toole, was not around to enjoy any of it. In 1969, the thirty-two year old New Orleans native had been depressed over his literary failure, alcohol abuse, and troubling questions about his sexuality. Driving to a field in nearby Mississippi, he parked then ran a garden hose from his exhaust pipe through the car window. In the wake of the novel’s popularity, a short work written in Toole’s teens was dusted off and published, but it could not match his adult work.
RALPH ELLISON: The Invisible Man
In 1953, Ralph Ellison became the first African-American writer to win the National Book Award with his novel The Invisible Man. The title comes from Ellison’s narrator, a black man in the Midwest trying to discover what his life means and the fact that white people don’t “see” him. It was a big success: a story of one man’s search for identity clearly resonated with many in a country was still reinventing itself after World War II. His determination to refuse to be defined by others made the book something bigger than just a “race” story and it became an instant classic. Decades later it is regularly included in Top-100 lists of great works of literature.
Ellison began a long and successful career as a professor of creative writing and in 1955 started a hotly anticipated second novel. In 1963 he announced that it was nearly finished but aside from essays, reviews, and the occasional short story nothing emerged. When a house fire destroyed 350 pages of the manuscript, he was devastated and more or less abandoned the work. After his death in 1986, a friend found more than 2,000 pages written over 30 years in Ellison’s notes and edited them into a final 368-page work, Juneteenth, which was published to good reviews.
ROSS LOCKRIDGE: Raintree County
Seldom has a book been published to more frenzied anticipation then Raintree County, the story of an Indiana man reviewing his life during the course of a single day, July 4, 1892. The novel has been likened to the stream-of-consciousness works of James Joyce and Thomas Wolfe, and in particular to Walt Whitman in its celebration and exploration of the American myth. Even before it hit the stands in January 1948 it had already sold out its first printing of 50,000 copies, garnered stellar reviews, and won its first-time author a prize from M.G.M. for $150,000 – the equivalent of over a million dollars today. (It would be made into a film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift.)
Lockridge was pressured by his publishers and his own sense of competitiveness to try to win a place in The Book of the Month Club which at the time symbolized the pinnacle of the publishing world. In order to qualify for what he believed was a sure thing, he allowed himself to be coerced into making severe cuts in his manuscript for both length and content. This put him in a dangerous emotional state for an artist: the desire to have all the laurel leaves warring with his conviction that he was butchering a masterpiece and committing a kind of murderer. The day after the novel hit number one, thirty-three year-old Lockridge – happily married, loving father, and newly wealthy – killed himself. Over fifty years later, his book holds the redoubtable status of cult novel and until recently was out of print.
MALCOLM LOWRY: Under the Volcano
If ever a man lived in a hell of his own making it was Malcolm Lowry. He would drink anything from gin to formaldehyde and he was often so intoxicated he couldn’t tie his own shoes or hold a cigarette. In spite of this he somehow created Under the Volcano, a work The New York Times called “one of the towering novels of this century,” and reviewer Alfred Kazin said was “one of the last clear instances of a modern masterpiece.” Set in 1938, it is the account of an alcoholic English diplomat exiled to Mexico blundering to disaster on the Day of the Dead while his estranged wife tries to save him. The book’s relentlessly grim narrative is offset by shafts of brilliant humor, intriguing symbolism, and stellar storytelling.
After its publication in 1947, Lowry continued to write – and drink – every day of his life until his suicide at age forty-nine. Private terrors and his staggering intake of booze guaranteed there were no further finished or published work in his lifetime. Aside from two unimpressive volumes written in his youth, Volcano was Malcolm Lowry’s only completed novel. After his death, his widow edited his rambling manuscripts and published them in several very unimpressive works.
WILLIAM ALEXANDER PERCY: Lanterns on the Levee
In the early 20th century, William Alexander Percy’s family was Southern aristocracy. His father was a fire-eating, bigger than life legend in their home state of Mississippi who could never understand why his son wanted to write poetry all the time. Although Percy’s verses were put into a few slim volumes, it was only after his father’s death that he wrote Lanterns on the Levee, the book for which he is best known. It is a classic American memoir of the last days of the dying Old South with the disastrous 1927 flooding of the Mississippi River as its centerpiece. It is both a masterwork of historical document and eloquent storytelling that won a Pulitzer Prize and has been in print ever since.
While very well off, the Percy family had its share of skeletons. Will himself was a discreetly closeted homosexual. It was also the case that suicide ran through an alarming number of near relatives. When a beloved cousin shot himself, Percy found himself the unlikely but deeply devoted guardian to three orphaned children. One would become one of America’s writers, the novelist Walker Percy, who played an essential role in the publication of A Confederacy of Dunces (see above).
GRACE METALIOUS: Peyton Place
Grace Metalious was raised in a tenement on the wrong side of tracks by an often-absentee mother away with an endless series of “uncles.” Her attempt to escape led to a teenage marriage and motherhood and subsequent years of squalor. Desperate and with nothing to lose, she decided to try her hand at writing a novel that would stand 1950s America on its ear. She succeeded far beyond her wildest dreams. Peyton Place, published in 1956, was one of the most scandalous books of its time, exposing all of the dirty little secrets of a small town: child abuse, rape, abortion, illegitimacy, suicide, drunkenness, and lots of steamy sex.
Cover of Biography of Grace Metalious
The country couldn’t get enough of her book, although its readers often disguised it with a plain, brown cover. Even before its publication Metalious found herself an overnight success, celebrity, and national scandal but in many ways she was never really forgiven for her gleeful exposure of small-town hypocrisy. While the book made her rich and infamous, her drinking was so out of control that the sequel was actually ghost-written for her. Like a character from her own story she slid downhill and when she died at age thirty-nine, she was penniless and alone.
FREDERICK EXLEY: A Fan’s Notes
Frederick Exley was a fabulously grotesque, self-absorbed loser but when he made up his mind to write about it he did so with brilliance, insight, and hilarity. In A Fan’s Notes he captures alcoholism, mental illness, and being a creep with nuance and self-perception, and letter-perfect self-deprecation. When it was published in 1968 it was an instant hit and the object of great reviews that Exley, with trademark haplessness, neglected to translate into financial security or subsequent literary success.
He pretty much phoned in two further novels which never achieved anything more than murky obscurity during Exley’s lifetime, but this did not stop readers from being obsessively devoted to his first book, circulating one reader at a time, passed almost religiously from hand to hand with an insistent “just read it.” They were just as devoted to Exley himself, who lived the rest of his life among his readers and on them, scrounging money, bumming rooms, all the while acting like royalty among subjects with a famously inhuman sense of entitlement. Today, A Fan’s Notes remains the single testament to Exley’s bizarre and unexpected talent.
EMILY BRONTE: Wuthering Heights
Emily Bronte was a parson’s daughter who lived near the rough and desolate Yorkshire moors. Her childhood was bleak and full of hardship, but she had a close relationship with her brother and two sisters and together they created and wrote about a fantasy world that grew more real to her than her day-to-day life. While her siblings left their imagined kingdom (in varying degrees) as they grew, Emily hung on fiercely, until she wrote two of her characters – one a wild, grasping girl, the other a cruel and brooding boy into Cathy and Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights.
The book was not the runaway bestseller that her sister Charlotte’s Jane Eyre had been and it was roundly denounced as evil, but it sold well enough to bring unwanted attention to Emily, threatening her ability to live in her secret place. Her mental state was further undermined by the death of her brother Branwell, and after his funeral she stopped eating: eight weeks later she was dead of tuberculosis aggravated by starvation, age thirty. There is considerable evidence that she had been writing another work, but it is presumed that Charlotte, for reasons of her own, destroyed whatever there was before it could be seen.
GUISEPPE de LAMPEDUSA: The Leopard
Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa was a man of the world: the former World War I army officer and prisoner of war was also a duke and prince in one of Italy’s noble families. When he attempted to reject his family’s expectations that he live the leisurely life of an aristocratic playboy by becoming a writer, he incurred their wrath; his mother especially forbade his attempts at publication. Unhappy in an entitled but empty life, he secretly began to take his revenge by creating a novel about his aristocratic family and their inevitable, fascinating decline.
Remains of the Lampedusa Manor
After his mother’s death, he submitted his novel The Leopard to a publisher anonymously. It was enthusiastically accepted but de Lampedusa died before he could see his book’s success. On its release in 1957 it became an international hit and the basis for a classic film directed by Luchino Visconti. Its attention to colorful detail to a way of life as well as descriptions of that life during wartime have caused it to often be compared with Gone With the Wind.