Harper Lee Update: Did She or Didn't She?
Harper Lee, the one-hit literary wonder whose 1960 masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird, recently turned 50, is perhaps the most reclusive, elusive living giant in American arts and letters. The 85-year-old Alabama native's aversion to publicity is so extreme that she makes even the famously low-profile novelist Thomas Pynchon seem like an extrovert.
Lee has only surfaced on brief occasions, and even then usually says little. She did speak briefly with a New York Times reporter who covered a 2006 appearance at the University of Alabama, where she met with student winners of an annual contest for essays on her famous book, which has sold more than 10 million copies since it was published. In 2007, when she made a rare public foray to be inducted into the Alabama Academy of Honor alongside baseball great Hank Aaron, she declined to speak to the audience, except to say that "it's better to be silent than to be a fool." That same year, she visited the White House (shown above) to accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but remained quiet.
That's why it was so startling to see this Associated Press article reporting that Lee had cooperated with author Marja Mills, whose book, The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee, has been purchased by Penguin Press. News reports speculated that Mills' book would finally solve one of the most perplexing literary mysteries ever: why Lee, who reportedly had dreamed of becoming "the Jane Austen of South Alabama," never published another novel.
Or not. Not long after the news about the new book broke, Lee released a statement through a law firm in her hometown of Monroeville, denying that she had cooperated with Mills.
As this Associated Press follow-up details, Penguin responded with a March 20, 2011, release signed by the author's sister, Alice Lee, which states that "you and Nelle (Harper Lee) cooperated with me and, I would add, were invaluable guides in the effort to learn about your remarkable lives."
The release also says that Mills, who moved into the house next door to Alice Lee and lived there while researching the book, did so "only after I had the blessing of both of you."
Penguin Press did not respond to an e-mail request for further comment. Mills, who now lives in Chicago, could not be reached.
Here's a 2010 article from the Tuscaloosa News about how To Kill a Mockingbird influenced various Alabamans. One of them is a man whom some would see as a real-life version of the book's fictional ahead-of-his-time civil rights lawyer Atticus Finch -- Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Here is a SecondAct blog post on Lee and other one-hit literary wonders.
BTW, Lee also is the subject of a documentary by filmmaker Mary McDonagh Murphy, Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird, which opened this month.
"I can't name another novel that has these kinds of indelible characters, a social statement without being preachy, and good prose," McDonagh Murphy tells the Los Angeles Times. "It's a book that many people can relate to in many different ways."
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