By Emily Langer,
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view,” Atticus Finch tells his daughter, Scout, in one of the most memorable passages of the classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” — “until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Few people in the world could claim to really understand Harper Lee, the novel’s elusive author, who died Feb. 19 at 89 in Monroeville, Ala.
She withdrew from public life shortly after her book was published in 1960, only to reappear in old age with the controversial release of “Go Set a Watchman,” a manuscript identified as a long-lost early draft of the book that decades earlier had vaulted her to literary renown and, decades later, remained at the center of the discussion of race in America.
“To Kill a Mockingbird,” a coming-of-age story set in the Depression-era South where Ms. Lee grew up, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961 and sold more than 40 million copies, becoming one of the most cherished novels in modern American literature. One oft-cited survey asked respondents to name the book that most profoundly affected their lives. Ms. Lee’s novel ranked near the top, not far behind the Bible.
The novel arrived amid the growing movement for civil rights and drew much of its resonance from its hero, Atticus, a lawyer who nobly and futilely defends a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman in their segregated town. For many, Atticus was embodied by actor Gregory Peck, who received an Academy Award for his performance in the 1962 movie based on Ms. Lee’s book.
[How a manuscript’s discovery became Harper Lee’s ‘new’ novel]
“What that one story did, more powerfully than one hundred speeches possibly could, was change the way we saw each other, and then the way we saw ourselves,” President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama said in a joint statement. “Through the uncorrupted eyes of a child, she showed us the beautiful complexity of our common humanity, and the importance of striving for justice in our own lives, our communities, and our country.
“Ms. Lee changed America for the better.”
It was widely understood that Ms. Lee modeled Atticus on her father, Amasa Coleman “A.C.” Lee, a lawyer who, like his daughter’s fictional character, served in the state legislature and favored pocket watches. Scout, the book’s narrator, was believed to have been, more or less, Ms. Lee.
In the 55 years between the publication of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the release in July 2015 of “Go Set a Watchman,” few Americans came of age without meeting Atticus; his doomed client, Tom Robinson; Scout and her brother, Jem; their peculiar friend, Dill; and Boo Radley — the mysterious neighborhood shut-in whom the children try to coax from the shadows.
Atticus, in particular, was beloved as the ideal father, even the ideal man in a society that was profoundly flawed, but, through wisdom such as his, perhaps redeemable.
The reverence surrounding Ms. Lee’s book compounded the shock, edging on disbelief, when readers learned the contents of “Go Set a Watchman,” a literary juggernaut pre-ordered online in numbers topped only by J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series.
“Watchman” was presented as not strictly a sequel to “Mockingbird,” but rather an early iteration of the book set in the 1950s. Jem is dead. Scout — properly Jean Louise Finch — is living in New York but is home for a visit. Atticus, the white man for whom a courtroom’s entire “colored gallery” had risen in respect in “Mockingbird,” is an arthritic segregationist.
In “Watchman,” Jean Louise watches her beloved father preside over a White Citizens’ Council meeting where a speaker spews an invective about blacks who threaten to “mongrelize” the white race.
Atticus asks his daughter: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?” And Jean Louise, who loves her father but cannot abide his ideology, tells him at one point, “I despise you and everything you stand for.”
Gradually, astonishment surrounding the book gave way to interpretations that perhaps generations of readers of “To Kill a Mockingbird” had asked too much of Atticus by expecting him, beyond the scope of that book, to be a saint. The man Ms. Lee presented in “Mockingbird” had represented an innocent defendant with conviction. But that Atticus knew only the American South of the 1930s and before, when neither society’s racist structure nor his moral rectitude had yet been challenged by the civil rights movement.
The older Atticus of “Watchman,” like many white Southerners of his era, appeared to be reeling in the changes brought about by integration. He had gravitated to an ideology made even more abhorrent for many modern readers when he, Atticus, of all men, espoused it.
[I lived next door to Harper Lee. This is the woman I knew.]
Questions swirled about the book and its meaning — and about the competency of Ms. Lee, who by then was reported to be largely deaf and blind. How could the Atticus of “Mockingbird” be reconciled with the bigot of “Watchman,” or should any such reconciliation be attempted? Had Ms. Lee been manipulated into releasing an abandoned manuscript that might irrevocably alter her legacy — or, with questions of race still raw in American society, did she once again have some message to impart?
Few people held out hope for complete answers. With her near-total retreat into private life in the mid-1960s, Ms. Lee had become, along with J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon, one of the great literary enigmas of the 20th century. Often, she was called a recluse, a description that was intriguing but inaccurate. Ms. Lee — Nelle Harper or just Nelle to friends — simply rejected celebrity.
For years, she divided her time between New York City and Monroeville, where she shared a house with her sister Alice Finch Lee, a lawyer who managed Nelle’s affairs and acted as a gatekeeper, usually keeping the gate closed to would-be interviewers. Harper Lee had guarded her anonymity so vigilantly, it was said, that she could roam Manhattan without being recognized.
Curious onlookers were left with little more than conjecture about her life. Much meaning was found in her resemblance to Scout, their shared summertime diversions with a clever boy from out of town and their common adoration of their fathers. But once, Ms. Lee offered another clue.
“You know the character Boo Radley? Well, if you know Boo, then you understand why I wouldn’t be doing an interview because I am really Boo,” Ms. Lee privately told Oprah Winfrey when Winfrey invited her to participate in a “Mockingbird” documentary, according to an account the talk-show host provided to the Los Angeles Times.
‘One of the most beloved men’
Nelle Harper Lee — the youngest of four children, the granddaughter of a Confederate soldier and the descendant of slaveholders — was born April 28, 1926, in Monroeville. The town served as a model for the fictional hamlet of Maycomb that was the locus of both “Mockingbird” and “Watchman.”
“Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it,” says Scout in “Mockingbird.” “In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. . . . A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with.”
“Watchman” would cast the town in a more complex light. After witnessing her father at the White Citizens’ Council meeting, Jean Louise wanders the streets in shock, nauseated and shaking. “Go away, the old buildings said. There is no place for you here. You are not wanted. We have secrets.”
If the events of “To Kill a Mockingbird” seemed so vivid as to have been real, it was, to a degree, because they were.
[We never really learned the lesson of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’]
Ms. Lee had few toys; Jem and Scout’s most prized possessions are the trinkets mysteriously left for them in the knot of a tree.
A young Truman Capote provided the inspiration for Dill, the impish boy who is sent to stay with relatives in Maycomb. Capote came to Monroeville under similar circumstances as a child, embarking with Ms. Lee on a long, at times tumultuous, friendship that began with the two future writers typing stories on an Underwood typewriter, a gift from A.C. Lee.
From a young age, Capote once remarked, they shared an “apartness,” she with her tomboyish ways at a time when girls were expected to be feminine and he, an effeminate, itinerant boy who felt that he had “fifty perceptions a minute to everyone else’s five.” Their relationship figured prominently in the 2005 film “Capote,” starring Philip Seymour Hoffman in the Oscar-winning title role and Catherine Keener as Ms. Lee.
Unlike Atticus, A.C. Lee did not raise his children as a widower, although his wife, the former Frances Cunningham Finch, suffered from what was described as a nervous disorder, possibly bipolar disorder, before her death in 1951.
In “Mockingbird,” a book-length account of Ms. Lee’s life, biographer Charles J. Shields described A.C. Lee as a loving father, pulling Ms. Lee up on his knee much as Atticus did with Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Scout learns from Atticus why she must go to school, why she must not fight and how to compromise. Jem learns that while he may shoot all the blue jays he wants, “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” because it does nothing but sing. Both children learn that mockingbirds come in many forms and that Boo, the specter of the shuttered Radley place, is, in fact, one of them. A neighbor of the Lee family’s resembled the fictional shut-in and agitated about suing after the publication of “Mockingbird.”
[Mourning readers celebrate the book on Instagram]
Ms. Lee’s father specialized in tax law but took on one criminal case: the defense of two black men, father and son, who were accused of murdering a white storekeeper. They were hanged, their bodies mutilated.
In a separate case that had electrified Monroeville, a black man, apparently innocent, was convicted of raping a white woman. He was scheduled for execution, according to Shields’s book — a sentence that was commuted to life in prison, where the man suffered a mental breakdown before dying of tuberculosis.
In the statehouse, A.C. Lee was a centrist Democrat and occupied himself with legislation related mainly to budget matters and morality. Outside the legislature, he was part-owner and editorialist of the Monroe Journal newspaper.
He “only gradually rose to the moral standards of Atticus,” Shields wrote in the biography. A.C. Lee was “more enlightened than most” but “no saint, no prophet crying in the wilderness with regard to racial matters. . . . Like most of his generation, he believed that the current social order, segregation, was natural and created harmony between the races.”
At church, A.C. Lee pressured the local Methodist minister to keep secular matters, including social justice, out of sermons. But according to Shields, he also confronted Ku Klux Klansmen on at least two occasions, including one time when they barged in on a Halloween party for young people because of a rumor that blacks had been invited.
He “is one of the few men I’ve known who has genuine humility, and it lends him a natural dignity,” Ms. Lee told an interviewer in 1961. “He has absolutely no ego drive, and so he is one of the most beloved men in this part of the state.”
Just as Scout called her father Atticus, Ms. Lee was said to have addressed her father as A.C.
‘Chance for a new life’
Ms. Lee ambivalently attended Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Ala., before studying law at the University of Alabama.
At the university, she penned a column, Caustic Comment, in the student newspaper and edited the humor magazine, called Rammer Jammer. According to Shields, she wrote for the magazine a short play mocking a racist amendment proposed for the state constitution.
She dropped out because she wanted to write and moved to New York, where Capote was already drawing notice. Just as Ms. Lee had captured him in Dill, he captured her in at least two tomboyish characters from his fiction, Idabel Thompkins in the 1948 novel “Other Voices, Other Rooms” and Ann “Jumbo” Finchburg in his 1967 short story “The Thanksgiving Visitor.”
To support herself, Ms. Lee worked as an airline reservations clerk. Then, for Christmas in 1956, she received a gift from Michael and Joy Brown, friends she met through Capote, whom she described as “in periodically well-to-do circumstances.” It was an envelope containing a note with the promise of a large financial gift: “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.”
[How Harper Lee lost control of her legacy]
Ms. Lee used her time to set out the story that became her first novel. Her protagonist’s name was inspired by a learned Roman from antiquity, Titus Pomponius Atticus.
Ms. Lee’s agent, Maurice Crain, and her editor at the Lippincott publishing house, Tay Hohoff, were credited with helping the young writer shape the manuscript from a series of vignettes into the fully formed “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The extent of her revisions, as well as Hohoff’s role as editor, received renewed interest after the release of “Watchman” and its divergent portrayal of Atticus.
Some critics, despite the immediate runaway commercial success of “Mockingbird,” found the book naive and its narration flawed, with Scout moving implausibly between childhood innocence and grown-up understanding. “It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they’re reading a child’s book,” the Southern author Flannery O’Connor wrote in a letter shortly after the book’s publication.
But most readers over the years found the novel poignant and beautiful, a remarkable debut by a writer who had not yet turned 35.
Ms. Lee declined to write the movie’s screenplay, a task later given to the playwright and screenwriter Horton Foote, who received an Oscar for his script.
A.C. Lee died in 1962, having never seen the movie version of his daughter’s book. When Peck accepted his Academy Award, he was carrying A.C.’s pocket watch.
After writing “Mockingbird,” Ms. Lee published a handful of essays. She traveled with Capote to Kansas to help research “In Cold Blood,” his acclaimed “nonfiction novel” that recounted the 1959 murder of a farm family.
At one point, a reporter hinted that Ms. Lee might publish a murder story of her own. But she produced no such book, nor any other. In time, her agent died and her editor retired. Capote died in 1984.
By then, Ms. Lee had assumed her status as a recluse, or something resembling one. According to one theory, Ms. Lee feared that no work could live up to her first. There were rumors, never satisfactorily substantiated, that Capote had contributed heavily to “Mockingbird.” Another common explanation for her silence was that she simply had nothing further to say.
Then, in February 2015, came the announcement from Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins.
‘I did as I was told’
In a statement released by the publishing house, Ms. Lee explained that in the mid-1950s, she had completed a novel featuring Scout as a grown-up. Her editor, she said, liked the flashbacks to Scout’s youth and persuaded Ms. Lee to recast the book focusing on that earlier period, the result being “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“I was a first-time writer,” said Ms. Lee, “so I did as I was told.”
Ms. Lee went on in the statement to explain that she thought the original manuscript had been lost and that it had been discovered by her “dear friend and lawyer,” Tonja Carter. Later news reports presented contradictory accounts of how and when the manuscript was found. Alabama authorities investigated possible elder abuse stemming from the book deal but closed an investigation having found no wrongdoing.
Some readers commented that they would not open “Watchman,” that it was too painful to see Atticus’s heroic figure dismantled. A number of critics found that the book did not stand up to “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Others, however, found that Ms. Lee had enriched Atticus’s character by allowing Scout to see her father not as a god, but rather as an imperfect man.
Randall Kennedy, a Harvard law professor, wrote in the New York Times that the book “demands that its readers abandon the immature sentimentality ingrained by middle school lessons about the nobility of the white savior and the mesmerizing performance of Gregory Peck.”
Ms. Lee’s reticence did little to diminish, and perhaps increased, the fascination surrounding her, both before and after “Watchman.” Besides Shields’s book, she was the subject of the documentary film “Hey, Boo” (2010), by director Mary McDonagh Murphy, the memoir “The Mockingbird Next Door” (2014) by former Chicago Tribune journalist Marja Mills, and an uncounted number of book reports by schoolchildren. Some teachers and parents wondered how book reports about Ms. Lee would change post-“Watchman.”
She made occasional appearances over the years to meet with students or accept awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, bestowed on her by President George W. Bush. President Obama awarded her the National Medal of Arts.
Ms. Lee reportedly had a stroke in 2007. Her death was confirmed by her publisher, HarperCollins. No other details were immediately available. Alice Lee, Ms. Lee’s last surviving immediate relative, died in 2014.
Beyond her novels, Ms. Lee left only a few scattered clues for those who wished to understand her or what she had set out to do. In 1964, in one of her last known major interviews, she remarked that she aspired to be the “Jane Austen of south Alabama.”
“I would like . . . to do one thing, and I’ve never spoken much about it because it’s such a personal thing. I would like to leave some record of the kind of life that existed in a very small world. I hope to do this in several novels,” she said. There was “something universal in this little world,” she continued, “something decent to be said for it, and something to lament in its passing.”
Joe Holley contributed to this report.
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