Introvert? Extrovert? In truth, social skills don’t so much matter when you’re one of the foremost literary talents of your generation, deftly able to one-up society with the merest flick of a quill or touch of a typewriter key.
And yet it can’t be sheer coincidence that many of the most accomplished authors in the world have been enigmatic to the point of vanishing into thin air, their aura only benefiting from this furtive nature which, in some cases, bordered as much on anger to fame as anxiety.
So with the upcoming tell-all memoir The Mockingbird Next Door currently generating headlines because of its subject Harper Lee, we’ve gone and listed the most reclusive literary talents of the last few centuries.
A life so mysterious it might as well have been devised by J. J. Abrams, commissioned by ABC and set on a far-flung island. After studying at Cornell University in the early fifties, young Thomas Pynchon left to join in the Navy, soon returning to class where he was taught by the great Vladimir Nabokov. From there, he went on to publish extraordinarily complex and universally commended works such as V and Gravity’s Rainbow, shunning all interviews and seemingly disappearing into the ether, popping up only to release the odd new book and fuel futher outlandish theories - one being that J.D Salinger used Pynchon as a pseudonym. The fact that very few photographs remain have only served to add to his legend. Oh, and he’s also voiced himself on two 2004 episodes of The Simpsons, wearing a paper bag on his head for both appearances, naturally.
Before J.D. Salinger struck it big with The Catcher In The Rye, the author served as a counter intelligence officer in World War Two, writing much of his seminal book during the conflict - the same conflict which would eventually see him hospitalised for combat stress reaction (“You never really quite get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose entirely, no matter how long you live,” he was later said to have told his daughter). You’d have to have a heart of stone to begrudge the man any sort of self-inflicted solace due to this mental trauma - except this wasn’t why he withdrew so dramatically from the public eye in 1965 - requesting all future editions cancelled, removing his photograph from the sleeve and allegedly waving a shotgun at anyone who stepped onto his property. He'd simply grew annoyed of the limelight, which was at odds with his private life where he was believed to have been quite the man-about-town in his pomp.
“I don’t think it’s good for your head – if you spend a lot of time writing about a book, you probably shouldn’t be talking about it, you should be doing it.” Cormac McCarthy would know. For one, he’s one of the greatest living American authors. For another, he used these words as his opening gambit during a chat on Oprah in 2007 - his first ever televised interview after a career spanning nearly four decades. Incredible. The pair met at the Santa Fe institute, an independent science, research and educational facility where the author devotes much of his spare time. The author has turned down thousands of interviews, giving the last few of them when he was still a young man in Knoxville, the basis for his breakthrough novel Sutree.
Much like the furtive southern widow at the heart of his 1930 short story A Rose For Emily, William Faulkner guarded his private life fiercely, spending much of his life behind his ‘Rowanoak’ mansion in Oxford, Mississippi treating his celebrity tag with disdain. He apparently wasn’t a fan of speeches, either, reportedly showing up to special cinema screenings of adaptations of his work loathe to give a talk before the film. The great shame here being that Faulkner was a brilliant public speaker. The words he uttered upon receiving 1949’s Nobel Prize In Literature will echo through the ages. You can hear those very words here.
Edgar Allan Poe
It’s hard to decipher where the fictional madness and social seclusion begin and end for both the work and life of Edgar Allan Poe, one of history’s most compelling horror writers who, it’s believed, was wracked with his own demons. According to many, including biographer Arthur Quinn, Poe was “shy and restrained with strangers”. The brand of melancholy and paranoid prose in his writing might be the only real clues as to why he held this outsider streak, with few conveying it quite like his 1829 poem Alone, long seen as an autobiographical expression of the scribe’s inner torment and isolation.
Gallingly, ‘Nelle’ Harper Lee only ever published one book, and it happened to be To Kill A Mockingbird, one of the single most important works ever fired from the collective US literary canon. No sooner was the ink dry, Lee set off on a journey to Kansas where she would help long-time friend Truman Capote research his true crime epic In Cold Blood. Upon returning home to taste her own success, however, it’s believed the pressures and anxiety caused by such high success ensured that the closest we came to another Harper Lee book was The Long Goodbye, since shelved, sadly. While the last few years have seen Lee reluctantly drawn into the public eye for copyright court cases and this recent tell-all memoir, the authoress did emerge for a few special occasions between 2005 and 2007 , receiving the Presidential Medal Of Freedom from George Bush for services to literature, and being inducted to the Alabama Academy Of Honour, where she wryly told the audience, “Well, it’s better to be silent than to be a fool.” Quite.
There’s shyness and then there’s straight up agoraphobia. Take a wild stab in the dark as to which of these best summed up Marcel Proust. Arguably the finest talent ever to put words on paper, the Frenchman never quite got over a sickly childhood, suffering from bad asthmatic problems throughout his life. In the end there was a bitter irony that the man who embarrassed his generation with the supreme Search of Lost Time would have too much of it, holing himself up in a cork-lined bedroom (the cork kept out noise from the Parisian cityscape) for the final three years of his life where he would sleep during the day, write during the night eating just one meal a day and keep Howard Hughes-like levels of cleanliness. It was enough to lead his writer Leon-Paul Fargue recalled Proust as looking “like a man who no longer lives outdoors or by day, a hermit who hasn't emerged from his oak tree for a long time.”
Unorthodox, untaught and largely unappreciated until years following her death, the poetry of Emily Dickinson is truly an astonishing collection of work, even today. Her ability to gracefully convey the wild and grandiose emotions that rattled in her head, along with physical, tangible scenery so vividly captured in text might just go some way to explaining her struggle to translate her real-world emotions: for almost two decades she hardly left her family home, talking to visitors through the door, lowering baskets from windows for packages, listening to her father’s funeral in the garden via an open bedroom door. While we may never know the reason for this behaviour, Dickinson’s work speaks for itself.
Hunter S. Thompson
Hold on. Before you go and tell us that Hunter S Thompson was a bigger extrovert than introvert, we don’t disagree – over a varied career the gonzo journo spent a good deal of his time getting pally (and then severely un-pally) with everyone from The Hells Angels to the Republican alike, treating those two imposters just the same in his pursuit of the bizarre American dream. Bearing this in mind, it made it all the more tragic when the great man’s output dwindled from the mid-‘80s, as he became more and more withdrawn at his Woody Creek country abode where he’d eventually take his own life, refusing assignments by the dozen in favour of impromptu sessions of clay pigeon shooting and countless glasses of Wild Turkey. We can’t say we blame him for those last two.
[Images: Wiki Commons, Faulkner Estate, Rex]