by Kaulie Lewis
February is the shortest month, and often the dreariest. This February had a few bright spots, however, and one of the most surprising, and most controversial, was the announcement that Harper Lee will be publishing a second book later this year. This unexpected novel, Go Set a Watchman, is a long-hoped-for sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, which was first released in 1960, when Lee was 34. No, Lee’s not a Bloomer, but the publication of her second novel at age 89 marks one of the longer publishing gaps in a living author’s career—55 years. Considering Lee’s decades-long opposition to being in the public eye and her deteriorating health, questions have been raised about her awareness of and consent to the upcoming publication. Though there are no clear answers and little possibility of gaining them, the situation illustrates some of the difficulties and confusions that come with publishing “discovered” work by elderly or deceased authors. Even so, it’s impossible not to be excited about this sequel to one of American literature’s best-known classics, and we already have our calendars marked for July.
Another one of literature’s great recluses, and a writer whose biography continues to raise questions about the processes and choices inherent in publication, is Bloomer Emily Dickinson, who published fewer than half a dozen of her 1,800 poems during her life and whose work was heavily edited for years following her death. In a vaguely Valentine’s-themed essay for the Kenyon Review blog, Meg Shevenock combines a close reading of Dickinson’s poetic self-portrait, sent to her “friend and literary advisor” Thomas Wentworth Higginson, with a look back at the love notes we all used to send in elementary school, along the straightforward lines of “Do you like me? Check one: Yes or No.”
Another online piece from a prominent literary magazine that may be of interest to Bloomers is Megan Mayhew Bergman’s essay for Ploughshares about learning to “give [her]self permission to enjoy more of [her] life through writing” and achieving this, in part, by surrounding herself with domestic objects that reflected her new aesthetic. On reflection, she concludes that “I do not find it unusual that many writers I know acquire vintage clothes, buy old homes, and rescue animals. For one, we don’t have Wall Street salaries, and secondly, we’re suckers for backstory, particularly that which is left to the imagination. Our job, after all, is to make up lives, engage in epic games of pretend.”
Sometimes it’s easier to embark on those “epic games of pretend” after gaining some life experience and the perspective that comes with it. Bergman explains that she “became a writer because I was so broken down by early motherhood that I stopped fearing criticism long enough to throw my work out into the world,” an experience many Bloomers are likely to share. Among them may well be Alice Munro, the 2013 Nobel Laureate in Literature and a near-Bloomer who published her first story collection at 37, while raising three daughters. In a review for the New York Review of Books, Hermione Lee, who recently published a biography of Bloomer Penelope Fitzgerald, takes a look at Munro’s latest collection, Family Furnishings, and the ways in which Munro visits and revisits her own past. Lee characterizes this as loyalty, explaining that Munro “is loyal to place and the past, faithfully and perpetually reconstructing it, so that no one, having read her, would ever again say, ‘What’s so interesting about small-town rural Canada?’” Of course, Munro does exactly the same thing for the life of the late-blooming writer of seemingly limited experience—no one, having read her, would ever again say, “What could she possibly have to say?”
The same goes for the work of Bloomer Edith Pearlman, who we’ve mentioned before. This month James Wood reviews her latest collection, Honeydew, for the New Yorker, and admires the way her “fiction brings together, with uncanny wisdom, short views and long views: the hours of our lives and the length of our lives. She is tender and distant at once.” Wood also reflects on the power of an author within a well-controlled short story: “It is the writer who sees everything, hears everything, and reserves the right to fiddle with the aperture.”
A Bloomer whose work truly does involve fiddling with apertures is Ang Lee, whose first English language film was released when the director was 41. His latest project? A film adaptation of fellow Bloomer Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a novel that overlays the fighting in Iraq with a Dallas Cowboys game.
The connection between literature and war is, of course, as old as literature itself (The Iliad, anyone?) In an essay for The American Scholar, Andrea Barrett, an author who first gained widespread attention for her writing at age 41, explains how anecdotes from a forgotten, undeclared war between the U.S. and Russia after the end of World War I helped give shape to her novel Archangel. She also explores the struggles in writing historical fiction while trying to avoid the “dense layers of representation, commentary on the representation, and re-representation” that can accumulate with research, however necessary it may be.
A war novel that lacks those “dense layers” to the point that many might not even consider it a war novel is Lord of the Flies, published when William Golding was 43. As part of the “100 Greatest Novels” series at The Guardian, Robert McCrum argues that the novel “owes much of its dark power and impetus to the second world war” as it “presents a view of humanity unimaginable before the horrors of Nazi Europe.”
That Lord of the Flies was not Golding’s first book (though it was his debut piece of fiction, earning him honorary Bloomer status) gives Golding and Joshua Corey something in common: both published collections of poetry before releasing debut novels in their early 40s. Our sister site The Millions interviewed Corey about his “novel that reads like a film,” Beautiful Soul, and about the formal possibilities of fiction. For Corey and, perhaps, for all the other Bloomers here, it ultimately comes down to questions of voice and of finding the best way to express it, regardless of time, experience, age, or genre. After all, as Andrea Barrett points out, “another writer up to her elbows in the same material would have felt different imperatives, resulting in an utterly different story: which is one of the reasons historical fiction is so different from history” and one of the many reasons why we all benefit from a multitude of stories and perspectives.