Our image-conscious, hurry-up culture celebrates people with broad appeal and shallow character. Just look at the proliferation of reality shows featuring people who are famous for being famous.
Our image-conscious, hurry-up culture celebrates people with broad appeal and shallow character. Just look at the proliferation of reality shows featuring people who are famous for being famous. They do nothing, contribute nothing, stand for nothing,
and accomplish nothing, yet television and tabloids can’t get enough of them. This is nothing new, of course. Every generation raises a bumper crop of superficial image builders. Standing in their midst, however, like oaks among scrub bushes,
men and women of strength and dignity rise above their peers. They reject superficiality in favor of depth. They shrug off broad appeal and choose instead to be transparent and authentic. Rather than cut a wide, yet shallow, swath through life, they
focus on what they deem important for the sake of deep, lasting impact. They waste no time polishing their image; their interest lies in deepening their character.
Compare, for example, the careers of two American writers—best friends, schoolmates, and neighbors as children—Harper Lee and Truman Capote.
Truman was a lonely, eccentric child with a natural gift for writing. After his parents’ divorce at age four, he lived with relatives in Monroeville, Alabama. While other children played, he pursued his obsession with words, grammar, narrative,
and stories. The notoriously foppish boy and the tomboyish Harper became fast friends, sharing a great love of writing and literature.
By the age of twelve, Truman returned to New York to live with his mother and stepfather. While in high school, he worked as a copyboy in the art department of the New Yorker and continued to hone his craft. Not long after graduation, he completed
several award-winning short stories and published his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms. While the book spent nine weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, it was his controversial portrait on the dust jacket that catapulted
him to fame and earned him the public fascination he had always craved. He relished the attention he received from New York society, but he still could not gain access to the rarified company of the “jet set” elite he so envied.
In 1959, he enlisted the help of childhood friend Harper Lee to help him with the research for his “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood. A few years earlier, Harper had moved to New York to become a writer. She supported herself as an
airline ticket clerk until friends gave her a priceless gift. On Christmas, she opened a note that read, “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.” They supported her financially throughout 1958,
allowing her to complete the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. Over the next year, she honed and perfected the manuscript, completing it in 1959. As her manuscript went to press, she helped her friend research his book.
In 1960, Harper’s novel debuted and became an instant classic, winning virtually every literary honor in existence, including the Pulitzer Prize. More importantly, however, her book became the most influential literary work in the black civil-rights
movement since Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But rather than seek glory for herself, she retreated from public view and gave her last interview in 1964. When asked about writing another novel, she declared, “I
have said what I wanted to say, and I will not say it again.”
Capote, on the other hand, rode In Cold Blood into the stratosphere of fame. He finally achieved his goal, which was not to create a definitive literary work as much as to become celebrated and enshrined as a great author. In the seventies and
early eighties, virtually everyone in America not only knew the name Truman Capote but also recognized the flamboyant image of an author who hadn’t written anything noteworthy since 1966. Meanwhile, alcohol, drugs, and celebrity consumed
the man Norman Mailer once called “the most perfect writer of my generation.”
1 In the end, however, Gore Vidal, Capote’s lifelong rival, called the author’s death “a good career move.”
Two uncommonly gifted writers, two completely different approaches to writing. Lee wrote one world-changing story for its own sake and then chose to avoid public praise. Capote wrote for the sake of fame. Interestingly, To Kill a Mockingbird is still required reading in most schools.