Harper Lee (1926-2016): between classic and controversy

Even though Harper Lee rarely attended events in her honor, she did accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by President George W. Bush, in November 2007. (Eric Draper/WHITE HOUSE)

By Frances Van de Vel

While she seldom spoke in public, her printed words have left a lasting impact. With the passing of Harper Lee on Feb. 19, American literary history has lost one of its 20th century pioneers and the author of the timeless classic “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Nelle Harper Lee was born in Monroeville, Alabama in 1926. She started writing during her studies at Huntingdon College in Montgomery (1944-45) and at the University of Alabama (1945-49), where she contributed to various campus literary magazines. Even though she did not graduate, she left college with a portfolio of short stories and other works on racial inequality and injustice issues.

In 1950, Lee moved to New York City to work as a clerk for British Overseas Airways Corporation. For seven years, she worked on a collection of essays and short stories about her hometown, before she finally submitted her work to a literary agent in 1957.

Her first manuscript, titled “Go Set a Watchman,” was bought by publishing house J.B. Lippincott. One of its editors, Tay Hohoff, advised Lee to quit her job and focus on her writing for one year to polish her text. Sustained by friends’ donations, Lee refined her debut novel over the course of two-and-a-half years.

On July 11, 1960, her endlessly rewritten book was published as “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Loosely based on events that happened in Monroeville during her childhood, the novel features the adventures of 6-year-old Jean Louise “Scout” Finch and her older brother Jem, who live with their widowed father, Atticus, in the fictional Alabama town of Maycomb.

Despite prominent themes of rape, racism and racial injustice, Scout’s first-person narrative contains warmth and humor. The novel’s moral center, lawyer Atticus Finch, who defends a black man accused of having raped a white woman, was believed to be modeled on Lee’s own father, a lawyer and member of Alabama’s House of Representatives. The unforgettable character and his remarkable integrity have been a source of inspiration for many law practitioners.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” was an instant success. A reprint followed immediately, and the novel has never been out of print. One year after its publication, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, to Lee’s great astonishment. In 1962, the book became an Oscar-winning film, with Atticus Finch played by Gregory Peck, who won an Academy Award for his memorable performance.

In one of her last interviews, in 1964, Lee said that the overwhelming success of “To Kill a Mockingbird” frightened her. “I never expected any sort of success with ‘Mockingbird,’” she said. “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.”

The numbers were frightening indeed: “To Kill a Mockingbird” has sold more than 30 million copies and has been translated into 40 languages. Since 1990, Monroeville has staged theater performances of the book every year.

However, the novel has also sparked controversy, especially as a perennial high-school reading assignment. Citing its allegedly “immoral” race-themed content, many questioned the appropriateness of “To Kill a Mockingbird” as a classroom topic for young students.

Although she wrote a letter to a school in Hanover, Virginia, in 1966, concerning the town’s debate about removing “Mockingbird” from the curriculum, Lee herself did not really try to interpret her novel for her audience. From 1964 onward, she gradually started turning down interviews and withdrew from public life. Apart from writing some short essays and helping her friend Truman Capote research his novel “In Cold Blood” (1966), Lee vowed never to write and publish a novel again. Her sister Alice shielded her from external pressure.

In later years, Lee rarely attended events in her honor, although she visited the University of Alabama and accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007. She frequently refused to speak at those events, but she did write a letter to Oprah Winfrey in 2006 to detail her love of literature.

Naturally, the literary world was taken by storm when her associates announced a “sequel” to “To Kill a Mockingbird” in 2015. “Go Set a Watchman,” completed in 1957, had reportedly been found in a safe deposit box in Monroeville and covered events that happened 20 years after the timeline of “Mockingbird.” It meant the return of an adult Scout Finch to Maycomb and her confrontation with the residents’ racist attitudes.

Controversy erupted when the manuscript turned out to be the first draft of Lee’s debut novel. Many critics questioned whether a work in progress should be published at all, and some of Lee’s friends wondered if she had been competent enough to give her approval. Her sister and protector had died just two months before the announcement, and the writer herself was nearly blind and deaf and residing in an assisted living facility.

Tonja Carter, Lee’s attorney, was widely suspected of having taken advantage of her client. Yet when an investigative reporter from Alabama repeatedly tried to contact Lee herself, who was said to be “humbled and amazed” at the publication of her second novel, he received his own letter in response, wrinkled and with “Go Away! Harper Lee” scrawled at the bottom.

Still, “Go Set a Watchman” was the most anticipated novel of 2015 and the most pre-ordered book since the release of the last Harry Potter book, J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” (2007).

Critical response, though, was almost unanimously negative, mostly arguing that “Go Set a Watchman” was essentially a rough draft, desperately in need of edits, one that never should have been published.

What Lee thought about the controversy and scathing reviews surrounding her second novel is unknown. She died at age 89, leaving both many unanswered questions and a solid “Mockingbird” legacy behind, which even a strongly criticized first draft will never be able to destroy.

Photo at top: Even though Harper Lee rarely attended events in her honor, she did accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by President George W. Bush, in November 2007. (Eric Draper/WHITE HOUSE)