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Harper Lee's life was as surprising as any work of fiction

Updated Friday, 19 February 2016
Harper Lee, who has died at the age of 89, had a life that was as curious as any plot from a novel. Writing in 2015, before the publication of Go Set A Watchman, Professor Richard Gray shared some of the story.

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Every now and then, the writer Josephine Humphreys has suggested, our lives veer from their day-to-day course and become for a short while “the kind of life that can be told as a story – that is, one in which events appear to have meaning”. As the astounding news breaks that she is to publish a second novel, Harper Lee must be feeling like her life has become a story – a story which the meaning of remains just a little hidden and mysterious.

Harper Lee and George W Bush

The background to this story seems simple and straightforward enough. Harper Lee was born Nelle Lee in the small town of Monroe, Alabama in 1926. Her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, was a lawyer who, among other things, defended two African Americans accused of murdering a white storekeeper. Given the racist attitudes prevalent in the South at that time, it must have come as no surprise to anyone when the two men were found guilty, despite serious doubts over the evidence, and hanged.

Lee was a tomboy as a child. (Yes, To Kill a Mockingbird is deeply autobiographical). She then developed an interest in English literature as a school and college student. Moving to New York in 1949, she worked in various jobs and spent her spare time writing several long short stories, none of which were published.

The turning point in her early life came when Lee developed what had begun as a string of short stories into a novel that was eventually published in 1960 as To Kill a Mockingbird. It was an immediate success, winning several awards including a Pulitzer Prize and went on to sell more than 30 million copies worldwide. In 1999 it was voted “Best Novel of the Century” in a poll by the Library Journal.

And the popular acclaim hardly stops there. In 1991, a survey of 5,000 Americans conducted by the Library of Congress to find out which book had made the greatest difference in readers’ lives listed To Kill a Mockingbird second only to the Bible. Bill Clinton claimed that reading the novel inspired him to become a lawyer. And, ironically, during President Clinton’s impeachment proceedings, the special prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, tried to co-opt the novel’s hero, Atticus Finch, for the prosecution. The response of Clinton’s attorney, David E Kendall, was to write a piece for the New York Times titled: “To Distort a Mockingbird”, interpreting the moral values of the novel in defence of the president.

Turning murky

So far, so straightforward: but this is where the story begins slowly to turn strange. The central consciousness in To Kill a Mockingbird, a tomboyish young girl called Scout is clearly based on the author herself. Autobiographical it may be, but Lee was and remains a deeply private person; a symptom of this is that she identified herself as “Harper” not “Nelle” when the book was published. After publication, Lee seemed almost mortified by its success: “I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird,” she said in 1964:

I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected.

Perhaps it was this, being frightened by her own success and the subsequent invasion of her privacy, that persuaded Lee to become a virtual recluse. She has granted almost no requests for interviews or public appearances. At one of the few public ceremonies she agreed to attend, in 2007, she reacted to an invitation to address the audience by declaring: “Well, it’s better to be silent than a fool.” And, apart from a few short essays, she has published nothing more. Until recently, she appeared likely to join the ranks of those many American authors whose first completed and published novel is also their last.

A final twist

Now comes the strangest part of the story. Lee is now very frail. According to her late sister Alice, writing in 2011, she “can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence”. Presumably, she has confidence in her lawyer who, according to Lee, discovered the manuscript of this second novel, Go Set a Watchman.

The novel describes an adult Scout returning to Maycomb County, visiting her father and recalling her childhood. A sequel, in a way, to Mockingbird, it was evidently written prior to it; after reading the story, Lee’s editor asked her to rewrite it from the viewpoint of Scout as a child. “I was a first-time writer”, Lee has said, “so I did what I was told” – and the rest is literary history.

“I hadn’t realised it had survived”, Lee has said of the discovery of Go Set a Watchman:

So I was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it. After much thought and hesitation I shared it with a handful of people I trust and was pleased that they considered it worthy of publication. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.

Exactly what part, if any, Lee has played in the preparation of the manuscript for press is unclear. What is clear is that the initial print run is for two million copies. Also unclear, to me at least, is the precise relationship of Go Set a Watchman to Mockingbird: do the two stories, for instance, overlap at all, given that the 1960 novel evolved out of this earlier manuscript? Precisely what the status is of Go Set a Watchman as a story – and a story worth reading – also remains open to debate.

Less open to debate is the strange, compelling character of the story of its origins. An ageing author, with just one novel to her credit, the surprise discovery of a manuscript that she thought had been lost, the mystery surrounding the condition of the author… all this is the stuff of fiction.

A belief of Emily Dickinson comes particularly to mind:

Publication – is the Auction
Of the Mind of Man

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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