Harper Lee - unlocking Scout's secrets

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The reclusive author of To Kill a Mockingbird had a thing about fame

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Statues of children reading 'To Kill A Mockingbird' outside the Monroe County Heritage Museum in Monroeville, Alabama, USA.

Nelle Harper Lee was born in Monroeville on April 28, 1926, the youngest of four children of Frances Finch and Amasa Coleman Lee. She was a gifted child who read better than most of her classmates. And she was, like the fictional Scout, a tomboy who, according to biographer Shields, "rebelled at everything her mother valued."

Truman Capote would use Lee as the model for the wild Idabel Thompkins in his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, published in 1948.

 7 things you never knew about To Kill a Mockingbird and Harper Lee

Despite resounding commercial success, it received mixed notices from critics. Atlantic Monthly found the story "frankly and completely impossible, being told in the first person by a 6-year-old girl with the prose style of a well-educated adult."

 But Time magazine wrote that Lee "cuts through cant, and she teaches the reader an astonishing number of useful truths about little girls and about Southern life."

The first half of the novel offers a nostalgic vision of small-town Southern life, focusing on the preoccupations and misadventures of Scout, Jem and Dill. They are obsessed with drawing out Boo Radley, the recluse neighbour rumored to eat raw squirrels and stalk the streets at night.

The second half explores the effect on the children of the case of Tom Robinson, a black tenant farmer accused of rape by one of the town’s poor whites. Much to the outrage of Atticus' neighbours in racially divided Maycomb, the lawyer presents a solid, if doomed, defense of Robinson.

The trial in the book is often compared to the famous Scottsboro case, which took place in Alabama in the 1930s when Lee was about Scout's age. The case, which involved nine African-American defendants wrongly accused of rape, twice went up to the US Supreme Court and stood as an example of a jury system weighted against blacks.

A copy of To Kill a Mockingbird sits in the courtroom in the Monroe County Heritage Museum in Monroeville, Alabama, USA.
Photo: EPA

When asked soon after Mockingbird was published what message her book sent, Lee said she never intended it as "an indictment so much as a plea for something, a reminder to people at home."

The title of the novel is drawn from Atticus' words to his children after he gives them air rifles as presents: "Shoot all the bluejays you want … but remember it's a sin to shoot mockingbirds."
When Scout asks her neighbor, Miss Maudie, what her father means, the woman replies: "Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us."

There are at least two "mockingbirds" in the book: Robinson and Radley. Among the great satisfactions of the book are the children's gradual recognition of the deep injustice suffered by Robinson and their acceptance of Radley, who emerges from the shadows in their moment of deepest crisis.

The book’s phenomenal success brought the world to Lee's door. In a 1964 interview with Roy Newquist, she said it felt "like being hit over the head and knocked cold."

Lee's mother was often sick, leaving much of her upbringing to the family's black housekeeper, Hattie. Lee was close to her father, an attorney and editor of the local paper, and often sat in the courthouse gallery to watch him try cases. One day he brought home an old typewriter, thinking his highly imaginative daughter and her friend Truman would be able to entertain themselves with it, which they did, writing stories and plays in her backyard.

At Huntingdon College for women in Montgomery, Alabama, Lee stood out because of her coarse language, dislike of wearing dresses and love of smoking a pipe. She later transferred to the University of Alabama, where she was editor of the campus paper and studied law.

After spending the summer of 1948 studying literature at Oxford University in England, however, she dropped out of law school a semester short of earning a degree and poured her energies into becoming a writer.

In 1949 she moved to New York City. For several years she supported herself as an airline reservations clerk, reserving her nights and weekends for writing stories that recalled her life in a small Southern town.

Her mother, who had diabetes and was overweight, died in 1951; weeks later, Lee’s brother Edwin died of a stroke at the age of 30.

In 1957 she showed a handful of stories to an agent, Maurice Crain, who urged her to develop one of them into a novel, but Lee hesitated, afraid that her job would not leave her enough time to write.

Then came the Christmas present she would never forget.

Lee had befriended other writers in New York, including Michael and Joy Brown, a couple who drew her into their family circle. Although not wealthy, they had had a good year. That Christmas they wrote a cheque that left Lee with enough money to live on for a year.

Lee quit her job to write full time. Five months later, she had a manuscript that her agent deemed good enough to send to publishers, including JB Lippincott.

The title was Go Set a Watchman, a title derived from the Old Testament verse in which Isaiah foresees the fall of Babylon.

"There were many things wrong about it," Tay Hohoff, who became her editor at Lippincott, later wrote of Lee's first effort. "It was more a collection of short stories than a true novel. And yet, there was also life. … The people walked solidly on the pages; they could be seen and heard and felt."

Hohoff advised the young writer to recast the story from Scout's eyes.

"I was a first-time writer," Lee said in a statement released decades later, when the publication of Watchman was announced, "so I did what I was told."

After more than two years of rewriting - during a tense period in the South following Supreme Court rulings on the desegregation of public schools and buses - Mockingbird was published on July 11, 1960. It was featured by three major book clubs - Reader's Digest, the Literary Guild and Book-of-the-Month Club - and shot to the top of bestseller lists, where it remained for nearly two years.

Over the next half century, she turned down nearly every interview request, often with a surly "Hell, no!" On one of the rare occasions when she assented - the 50th anniversary of the publication of Mockingbird - she told the reporter she would answer questions only if the book was not mentioned.

Her aversion to the spotlight brought comparisons to J.D. Salinger, another literary legend whose reputation rested on a sole novel, Catcher in the Rye. He died in 2010.

But unlike Salinger, who had a hearty contempt for the public, Lee was not a recluse. She was often seen around town eating out with friends and made some public appearances, including an annual awards ceremony at the University of Alabama for student winners of an essay contest on her famous novel.

Friends and family described her as a sociable, generous and warm-hearted person with a good sense of humour. In a set of letters sold at auction recently, Lee displayed her wit in comical aliases, signing off as "the Prisoner of Zenda" or "Francesca da Rimini," the ill-fated nobleman’s daughter whom Dante turned into a character in his Divine Comedy.

Although she said she was working on another novel after Mockingbird, that prospect was all but forgotten as the years passed. She hinted that the possibility of failure weighed heavily on her.

"When you’re at the top," she once told a relative, "there’s only one way to go."

The absence of a second novel gave rise to a stubborn rumor: that Capote had helped write To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee never publicly commented on the speculation, but sister Alice dismissed it as "the biggest lie ever told."

Capote, who was said to be jealous of his friendss Pulitzer, never completely refuted the rumor; he died in 1984.

Truman Capote never refuted the claim that he had helped Lee write Mockingbird.
Associated Press

Lee also was silent on the controversy that arose in later years over her agent, Samuel Pinkus. In 2007, when she was 80 and unable to hear or see clearly, she signed a document giving Pinkus the copyright to Mockingbird

Her lawyer later said she had no idea she had assigned him the rights and sued to regain the copyright and control over millions of dollars in royalties. The copyright was returned to Lee in 2012.

Lee never married and had no immediate survivors. She outlived her sister Alice, with whom she lived for many years until poor health forced each of them into nursing homes.

Alice Lee died in November 2014 at 103.

Less than three months later came the astounding announcement that a second novel would soon be in readers' hands. Booksellers and fans alike fizzed with anticipation, and pre-sales soared.

The quiet author gave no interviews, but statements released by her publisher suggested that, like much of the rest of the world, she rejoiced in publishing again.
"I’m alive and kicking,” she said, “and happy as hell."

Harper Lee, April 28, 1926 - February 19, 2016
Photo: Associated Press