The silence of the mockingbird

April 28, 2015

HARPER LEE/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty/Donald Uhrbrock

HARPER LEE/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty/Donald Uhrbrock

Today is the 89th birthday of Harper Lee and for a person who has shied away from public attention for the past 55 years, she has gotten plenty. The mail last week included a flyer from Barnes & Noble promoting the novel Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, which is due to be published in July and is already on track to be a best seller. This is an unexpected development inasmuch as part of Harper Lee’s mystique has been the unanswered question as to why she never published anything after her Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960. Amid the instant and far-reaching success of that book and the film based on it, Nelle Harper Lee–her full name–played the role of the public person as demanded by the circumstances. But when she had had enough of that, she decided to become a private person again, avoiding attention and especially attention from the press.

HARPER LEE

HARPER LEE

Being only a casual observer of this phenomenon, I got the idea that she was a recluse. However, I recently was disabused of that idea by reading Marja Mills’ book, The Mockingbird Next Door, published last year. Marja Mills was assigned by the Chicago Tribune to travel to Monroeville, Alabama, which is Harper Lee’s hometown and the basis for the fictional Maycomb in which the novel is set. Mills was to write about the town in connection with the choice of To Kill a Mockingbird for the “One Book, One Chicago” program in which everyone in the city is encouraged to read and discuss the same book at the same time. Mills interviewed Monroeville residents, including some who knew Harper Lee and her sister, Alice; the writer also took in the character and rhythms of the town. Although she had written to the Lees to explain the purpose of her reporting, she despaired of speaking to Harper Lee and waited to the end of her stay in Monroeville to knock on the sisters’ door. She was greeted by Alice, a practicing attorney although then nearly 90, and was invited into the house. Mills inferred that the reason she wasn’t summarily turned away was that the Lee sisters approved of the book-reading program and the Tribune’s desire to give it context. Mills befriended the two sisters and some of their acquaintances and, partly because of health problems of her own, eventually rented a house next door to the Lees for a protracted period.

ALICE LEE

ALICE LEE/AL.com photo

I learned from Mills’ book that Harper Lee was not a recluse and that, although she dodged most forms of public attention, she was out and about both in New York City, where she maintained an apartment for many years, and in Monroeville and its environs. Mills dealt gingerly with Harper and Alice Lee, realizing that if she over reached with her questions she could be cut off. The result, as one might expect, is a rather superficial work that doesn’t support its idealization of Harper Lee and doesn’t answer the perennial question as to why she never published anything else — until now. In fact, if Harper Lee is the uninteresting woman Mills described–a woman whose idea of a good time was to drive down to the lake and count the ducks–the most salient question might be how she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird in the first place. By the time Marja Mills’ book was published, Harper Lee had suffered a stroke and had moved to an assisted-living facility. There was a flurry of news stories to the effect that she claimed that Mills’ book was published without her permission, but it seems unlikely that Mills contrived the relationship she describes. More recently, there has been a lot written about a dispute over whether Harper Lee approved publication of Go Set a Watchman, something that was authorized by Tonja Carter, an attorney who now handles Harper Lee’s affairs. Alice Lee, who had looked after Harper Lee’s interests, died last year at the age of 103.

HARPER LEE with MARY BADHAM who played

HARPER LEE with MARY BADHAM who played “Scout” Finch in the 1962 film.

The “new” book, if it can be called that, is based on the idea that the adult Jean Marie “Scout” Finch, said to be modeled on Harper Lee herself, returns to Maycomb to visit her father, Atticus, said to be modeled on Lee’s own father, who practiced civil law in Monroeville. This novel was written before To Kill a Mockingbird, but the publisher Harper Lee submitted it to suggested that she tell the story of racial prejudice, injustice, and small-town mores, through the eyes of the young Scout. There have been conflicting reports as to whether Harper Lee, who could have published this book any time in the past five or six decades, would knowingly approve of its publication now. There are contradictory reports as to whether the author is capable of giving willful consent. The State of Alabama went so far as to investigate Harper Lee’s circumstances to assure that she was not being abused or used in any way and concluded that there was no reason to intervene in her affairs.

HARPER LEE with President GEORGE W. BUSH when he presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

HARPER LEE with President GEORGE W. BUSH when he presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

If the atmosphere weren’t murky enough, the Monroe County Historical Museum, in the Lees’ home town, announced last week that it had lost the license to present a stage version of To Kill a Mockingbird, as it has for the past 26 years on Fridays and Saturdays in April and May. Neither the company that handles the licensing nor the owner of the rights to the stage version would explain that decision, although there is a history of legal dispute between Harper Lee and the museum. The decision would have had a significant economic effect on the town of about 6300 people; the president of the museum estimates that by drawing visitors to the town the play contributes as much as a million dollars a year to the economy. But on Saturday, it was reported that Harper Lee herself–the one who may or may not be competent to make such decisions–had established a non-profit organization that will have permission to produce the play. As much as I would like to read what Harper Lee wrote before her iconic novel, I have an uncomfortable feeling about all this. And given the writer’s track record for privacy and the state of her health, I don’t expect her to say anything to ease my mind.

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2 Responses to “The silence of the mockingbird”

  1. Louis Caruso Says:

    Paolino excellent blog, very interesting about this famous author. She is part of American history.

  2. shoreacres Says:

    My favorite Harper Lee story still is the one in which she threw the manuscript of “To Kill a Mockingbird” out the window of her NYC apartment. Then, she called her agent at the time, and was ordered into the street to pick it up.

    Her set-to with Samuel Pinkus and the years-long battle over royalties that preceded all this does give pause. Beyond that, it’s always mentioned that Lee’s sister has watched over her affairs. Knowing what I do about families, even that may not be wholly positive.

    In any event, this article adds a little texture. This may be one of those situations where the final judgment may have to be “wholly accurate, but false.”

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