Does the name Ross Lockridge Jr. ring a bell? No?
In 1948, he published Raintree County, a novel that became the number one bestseller in the U.S. (If you’re a film buff, you may have seen the 1957 movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift.) Herman Wouk declared Lockridge’s book the genuine Great American Novel that so many have aspired to produce. It should have been the start of a brilliant career. But Lockridge never wrote another book. Deeply depressed, he committed suicide in March of 1948, as his book reached the height of its popularity. At the age of 33, Lockridge joined the ranks of one-book authors, most of whom have faded into obscurity while a handful have achieved lasting acclaim for their single, and singular, works of fiction.
John Kennedy Toole also committed suicide, not after his book was published but because he was crushed by his failure to get A Confederacy of Dunces into print. Following his death in 1960, his mother embarked on a mission to fulfill her son’s dream. After seven years of frustrated efforts, she persuaded novelist Walker Percy to read the manuscript, and he in turn found a home for the book at Louisiana State University Press. It was published in 1980 to wide acclaim, and it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for literature. Dunces has never since been out of print.
Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee also produced novels of such merit and appeal that they have remained in print and continued to sell steadily since publication. Both their novels won the Pulitzer Prize. Mitchell apparently enjoyed the success of Gone with the Wind (1936), but she suffered – and I believe “suffered” is the right word – an invasive degree of fame that even Janet Evanovich and Stephen King couldn’t imagine. Fans gathered outside her home and peeked in the windows. They swarmed her when she emerged. She lived another 13 years, dying in 1949 after she was struck by a taxi, but she never wrote another book. Perhaps she was paralyzed by the twin fears of re-igniting the obsession of readers and producing a book the world would declare an unworthy successor to GWTW.
Harper Lee’s only book, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), is widely considered the most outstanding American novel ever written, and high school and university teachers all over the country use it as a teaching text. Ms. Lee is still alive, and she travels to accept awards and other honors, but she prefers to remain out of the limelight. She did, however, give a newspaper interview last year when she was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Bush, and in that interview she confirmed her desire for a simple, quiet life filled with reading, not writing.
Toole, Mitchell, and Lee and their books wouldn’t fade from memory in any case, but the internet is keeping alive the reputations and work of more obscure one-book writers. Ross Lockridge and his book are celebrated on a website. Mark Moskovitz, a director of political commercials, made a documentary about his search for Dow Mossman after he discovered the writer’s only published novel, The Stones of Summer. Because of the film, Barnes & Noble has republished the book. Moskovitz created a website called The Lost Books Club to bring attention to other books he feels shouldn’t be forgotten.
These days, many publishers push writers to produce a minimum of one book per year. Is it possible now for anyone to write a masterpiece, given the pressures of the marketplace? We can all name writers we think should have quit after one good book, but that would be a nasty way to treat people who are just trying to stay published and make a living. Instead, can you think of any living writer who could have created a lasting legacy with a single glorious book?
If you had to fill a time capsule with great contemporary novels and could choose only one from your favorite writer, which would it be?