Monday, November 07, 2005

a brief and slightly exasperated statement on conjunctural evidence

Okay, I'm way behind today on work and trying to catch up. And, for that matter, I have no particular opinion on whether Truman Capote wrote some/much/most/all of To Kill A Mockingbird (see previous post), or whatever. I do know that Capote supposedly had repeatedly hinted as much to others, but I also know that Capote also supposedly claimed to be friends with celebrities that he had never, in fact, met. But, my having broached the topic in yesterday's blog post notwithstanding, I have no especial opinion on the matter or even any real interest, beyond just thinking the idea intriguing.

BUT, I do care about clear thinking about the evaluation of evidence. The reason I am intrigued by the idea of Capote's participation in To Kill A Mockingbird is co-existence of two separate facts that had earlier circulated independently in my head:

(1) that Capote and Lee were neighbors from the same small Alabama town. Start counting on your fingers: Capote, Lee, and other Alabama writers who have the same level of public recognition as Capote and Lee. Did you even get to your second hand? Now think of how remarkable it is that two of those fingers were neighbors growing up.

(2) Find a list of the top 100 American novels of the 20th century. If you were going to choose the one novel on that list for which there was the least independent evidence of the talent of the author outside that novel, you'd likely decide on Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird. I mean, if I'm wrong about this, please correct me: but doesn't the rest of her published oeuvre consist of like a handful of short and indistinguished magazine articles? Even if you look at people who wrote one great novel and killed themselves promptly thereafter (Confederacy of Dunces, Raintree County), you probably have a longer independent paper trail than Lee's.

Either of these facts, alone, wouldn't lead me to be especially intrigued by the Capote-TKAM theory. But, put them together, and the pair is greater than the sum of its parts. So, counterarguments like "Jason Williams and Randy Moss went to the same high school," even if it wasn't a bad argument-by-analogy for other reasons, not only misses the point but does so in a rather frustrating way. It's the combination of the almost-uniquely-weird lack of independent evidence of Lee's authorial gifts AND her having this close-friend-since-childhood who had indisputably forbidable authorial gifts, that makes the idea intriguing to me.

Again, the true answer about the authorship of To Kill A Mockingbird isn't very important to me. I'd much rather know if Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. But, please, try to understand that when the conjunction of facts A and B can be offered as evidence suggestive of a hypothesis, the counterargument that A isn't much evidence on its own for the hypothesis should not be regarded as very compelling.


DannyNoonan said...

Fair enough. I also find the question intriguing. My comment in you other post was not directed at the general question. it was directed at this statement in particular:

"Isn't it statistically remarkable to have such literary talent growing up as neighbors in some southern small town?"

To this, I think the Moss/Williams analogy holds true. Two great talents coming out of a small talent pool when there are many of these small talent pools is not statistically remarkable. it is statistically likely. That is all I am saying.

I admit that it is a bad analogy if you read it as addressing the general question of whether Capote wrote TKaM. It only addresses one factor and it was the only factor I meant for it to address.

jeremy said...

Okay, sure, you're right that the probability of some freaky coincidences happening is approximately 1 because the number of potential freaky coincidences is so large, even if the probabiliy of any of them is incredibly small.

Anonymous said...

what if Lee really wrote TKaM *and* some of Capote's stuff?

Anonymous said...

What I want to know is when are you, Jeremy, going to start writing a blog for me? The only thing I demand is that it is good enough to make it on a list of the top 100 American blogs of the 21st century.

brady said...

Yeah, but then again I know another southern author (knew - he's dead now) that was occasional buddies with Capote (whose nickname, at the time, was "Bulldog" - I used to know why they called him that, but I forget.) and he also published one really good book that won some national book award and then he never really did anything else except publish a bunch of cookbooks and poems about monkeys.

Maybe ol' Bulldog just gravitated towards talent. Or maybe there's just something in the (social and cultural) water down there that makes good writers without having to resort to overpriced MFA programs.

The writerly habitus, man. Somebody do a study.

Sally said...

two great writers out of one tiny place - stuff like that happens all the time (NO and Jazz, for example). It's all about the time and place and the energy that surrounds the situation.

I think you should investigate the writing styles of both Lee and Capote and make that another piece of evidence.

And I think you should give more weight to the fact that Capote was a serious self-promotionalist.

jeremy said...

Sally: I appreciate your comment, but you might want to read my post again, as it's pretty much intended to be all about your counterargument regarding coincidences.