Listen to the Mockingbird

Nearly ten years ago I was captivated by Charles Shields unauthorized biography of Harper Lee, the legendary author of To Kill a Mockingbird. To write Mockingbird: A portrait of Harper Lee, Shields spoke to Lee’s friends and some friends of friends, piecing together a fascinating glimpse of a writer who had became all but a recluse. But here’s the thing. Shields gives us a Harper Lee who was anything but solitary. She entertained closed friends, went out to dinner with her sister Alice Lee, visited high school students, stopped at the casino–in short, she was a woman of a certain age going about life in a quiet Southern town.

Medal of Freedom recipient: 2007

What Lee did withdraw from was the literary life and all things Mockingbird. She never published another book (her second one was supposedly stolen in a burglary) and was disillusioned after Truman Capote snubbed her contribution to In Cold Blood.  Lee reportedly told a close friend, “I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again.”  Lee didn’t even participate in the 50th anniversary of her ground-breaking novel, nor did she condone the Disney-fication of her hometown Monroeville with its Radley Fountain grill, tote bags and tee shirts, and Calpurnia’s Cookbook. There was no Larry King or Oprah for this legend (although she did meet with Oprah once for lunch in a private suite at The Four Seasons). Some think Nelle Harper Lee eschewed the public eye because her novel was too frank, that she spilled too many family secrets and lived with that regret. Readers tend to take the novel’s young narrator, Scout, as Lee’s own voice–an irrepressible, sensitive tomboy bursting with enthusiasm for life. But she told Oprah during that lunch, “I’m really Boo”, the mysterious town lunatic (link).

Earlier this month The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee written by Marja Millsand supposedly authorized– was released to a kerfuffle. Lee’s sister Alice confirmed the book’s authenticity; her lawyer refuted that the sisters’ agreed to the interviews, insisting that when Mills moved next door to the Lees and befriended them, she did so under false pretenses. You can read the flurry of letters back-and-forth here (link). What most reviewers agree upon is that Mills’ Nelle Harper Lee is fairly close to Shield’s and we readers will probably read little that’s new. But despite the book’s controversial publicity (or perhaps because of it), The Mockingbird Next Door is sure to find its way to the top of bestseller lists just like its predecessor.

Writer Garrison Keillor said about Lee’s early aversion to public attention, “Here is a woman who knew when to get off the train” (link). Maybe we should respect that woman’s decision and let her walk away with dignity.

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