April 28, 2011

Happy birthday, Harper Lee


Harper Lee with the young actress Mary Badham, who played her alter-ego, Scout, in To Kill a Mockingbird

REPORTER: Do you find your second novel coming slow?

MISS LEE: Well, I hope to live to see it published.

(From the transcript of press conference published in Rogue magazine December 1963)

What everyone knows about Harper Lee, born on this day, April 28th in 1926, is that she wrote only one book, To Kill a Mockingbird, and that, although still living in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, she has declined to speak about it for the past forty-five years.

At the suggestion that she design a form-letter to reply to requests for interviews, Miss Lee joked that what it would say “is hell, no.”

Reticence this obdurate breeds curiosity, of a kind only partly satisfied by the 2007 biography, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, by Charles Shields. The mystery of Miss Lee’s silence is unsolved.

Published in 1961, To Kill a Mockingbird spent more than eighty weeks on the bestseller list and the won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The following year the film adaptation won Oscars for best actor, Gregory Peck, and screenwriter Horton Foote, both of whom became friends of the author. The book has sold more thirty million copies in eighteen languages.

Its popularity has drawn detractors. Flannery O’Connor observed with her typical vinegar that “It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they’re reading a child’s book.” According to Thomas Mallon, the National Council of Teachers of English claimed in 1988 that Mockingbird “was taught in 74 percent of the nation’s public schools.” (It is also listed by the American Library Association as among the most frequently banned and challenged books.)

For many of us who were assigned the book as children, Mockingbird was an introduction to an adult world; if, as captious critics have insisted, the world of the book is of insufficient moral ambiguity, its power, created of words, overwhelmed our sixth-grade critical faculties and demonstrated another, implicit, lesson.  Contra Francine Prose‘s notorious indictment, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Can’t Read,” through Mockingbird we were also introduced to what makes books worth reading.

It was widely reported on Tuesday that Miss Lee had reversed a lifetime of refusals and had “cooperated” in the production of a new biography, The Mockingbird Next Door, written by Marja Mills, a former Chicago Tribune reporter. Penguin announced the acquisition with a cagily worded press release that promised that the book would reveal “all the Lee sisters have to say”— which could well be nothing— and that it has been “written with direct access to Harper and Alice Lee…”

Within 24 hours Harper Lee responded through her lawyers in Monroeville: “Contrary to recent news reports, I have not willingly participated in any book written or to be written by Marja Mills. Neither have I authorized such a book. Any claims otherwise are false.”

Hell, no.

Dan O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Melville House.