EXCITEMENT at the publication of To Kill A Mockingbird’s prequel is tinged with unease at the suspicion its vulnerable author, Harper Lee, is being exploited, writes Dani Garavelli.
If Harper Lee were Scottish, then the adjective most closely associated with her would probably be “thrawn”. A wilful perversity courses through the life of the author of To Kill A Mockingbird; from her early days knocking around with Monroeville’s other literary misfit, Truman Capote, through her love/hate relationship with the Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, to her glorious “Hell, no” response to any reporter who pitched up at her door hopeful that this time she would be willing to give a no-holds barred interview. How else can you explain her decision to spend her twilight years in her home town, the model for the fictional Maycomb: a place where every sign, every building must remind her of the book she has spent decades trying to bury?
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND MOBILE APPS
In recent years, the Alabama backwater has become a kind of TKMB theme park. Within walking distance of the assisted living flat where Lee has stayed since suffering a stroke in 2007 lie the Mockingbird Grill, [Boo] Radley’s Fountain Grill and the famous courthouse with its museum and gift shop. Visitors can tour the building, where the fictional Atticus Finch defended Tom Robinson, before heading off to fill their bags with TKMB T-shirts, mugs, posters, bangles and even, briefly – until Lee complained – a Calpurnia-inspired cook book. Who can blame the town for billing itself The Literary Capital of Alabama (a move Lee greeted with derision) or for playing up the two stellar talents it nurtured? But, for the author of a book which is often judged more popular than the Bible, moving back to Monroeville must have been like Jesus returning to Nazareth to find tours of the carpentry shop, and stall holders shouting, “get your Canaan wedding wine here”.
Lee is not – as some spurned journalists would have it – a recluse; before her health failed, she frequently ventured out to local coffee shops. But, when civic leaders held a jamboree to celebrate TKMB’s golden anniversary, in 2010, she was nowhere to be seen.
Lee’s relationship with To Kill A Mockingbird was dysfunctional from the outset. There was a brief moment of euphoria when she realised her debut novel wasn’t going to be panned by the critics, but the praise and the scrutiny it attracted was to prove more painful to her than if it had sunk without trace; soon her greatest achievement became her greatest burden.
She hated the endless questioning – Was she Scout? Was she gay? Was her mother mad? – and the burden of expectation success placed on her as a writer. In the harsh glare of the spotlight, her pen froze and the more pressure that was placed upon her, the harder it seemed to be for her to coax it back across the page. Finally, with no second novel forthcoming, she suffered the indignity of having her authorship challenged. Perhaps Capote actually wrote TKMB, some suggested. Those claims were baseless, but Capote didn’t bother to correct them. As he sought out celebrity, Lee shrank away from it, refusing to talk about her book or the prospect of any new ones. She was, she said, when she was still giving interviews, not Scout at all, but Boo Radley, the book’s reclusive hero, who prefers to live in the shadows.
This stubborn, publicity-spurning character is the Harper Lee the public has come to know and tolerate; so last week, when she announced, through her lawyer, Tonja Carter, the news fans had waited more than half a century to hear, that a second novel, Go Set A Watchman, was to be published, and that it too would be told by Scout, there was excitement, but it was tempered with scepticism. With JD Salinger dead, a sequel to TKMB is the greatest literary coup imaginable, but why had this earlier work suddenly surfaced and what would make Lee – who once said she wanted nothing further published until after her death – change her mind? Even her statement, in which she described herself as “delighted, humbled and amazed”, sounded a bit affable and un-Lee-ish.
Though described as a sequel, Go Set A Watchman was written first; it was the original manuscript Harper Lee handed over to publishers JB Lippincott and is narrated by Scout as an adult. Not overly impressed, those who read it did like the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, so they asked Lee to go back and focus on that. She spent two years, writing and rewriting, and the result was TKMB. After that novel’s success, Go Set A Watchman disappeared. But, earlier this year, months after the death of Lee’s 102-year-old sister Alice, a lawyer and long-term protector of her estate, it was “rediscovered” inside the original TKMB manuscript, all of which is deeply serendipitous or deeply suspicious, depending on your perspective. And so, just days after this bombshell was dropped, and with booksellers rubbing their hands in glee, the book-reading world stands divided between those in a state of near rapture at the prospect of TKMB II and those who fear Lee is being manipulated by people who don’t have her best interests at heart.
That, at 88, Harper Lee should find herself once more the focus of rumour and conjecture is sad, but not altogether surprising. Since she had her stroke, she has been at the centre of a succession of wrangles which have raised fears she could be vulnerable to exploitation. First of all there was the case of Samuel Pinkus, her former literary agent who somehow managed to get Lee to sign over her TKMB copyright to a company he controlled, although Lee said she had no recollection of signing any document. Bringing a legal action, which was later settled, Alice implied Pinkus had taken advantage of her sister’s poor eyesight and general frailty.
Then, there was the strange case of Marja Mills, a journalist who insinuated herself into the sisters’ lives for 18 months, hanging out with them as they went about their daily lives, in order to write a book, The Mocking Bird Next Door. After it was published, Alice said Lee – keen to document certain aspects of her life before it was too late – had given it her blessing, but in a statement issued through Carter, Lee insisted it had been written under false pretences. “Rest assured, as long as I am alive any book purporting to be with my co-operation is a falsehood,” the statement said. “[Harper] would sign anything that was put in front of her,” responded Alice.
The photos of Lee which have been published in recent years show a bird-like woman, tiny, with white, feathery hair and a broad, guileless grin. But as a younger woman, she had the aura of someone uncomfortable in her own skin. One can only imagine what Monroeville made of odd couple Lee (whose first name is actually Nelle) and Capote – the tomboy and the drama queen – observing their neighbours and writing stories on a typewriter which they passed back and forth as 21st century children do their console controllers. Life wasn’t easy. Lee’s mother was unstable and, though her father AC Lee – a tax lawyer, who did once unsuccessfully defend two black men accused of murder – was a strong moral force, there were limits to his support. When Lee decided to drop out of law school to become an author, he told her she’d have to make it on her own, so she got a job as a ticket agent for an airline.
If you want to get a handle on Lee’s complex personality, however, it is her intense and ultimately destructive relationship with Capote that probably holds the most clues. Though Capote left Monroeville when he was nine, the two remained close, writing each other into their short stories, and it was to Capote she turned when she moved to New York. He introduced her to his contacts, and soon she had a circle of friends including Broadway composer Michael Martin Brown and her then literary agent, Maurice Crain. Like many artistic partnerships, however, their relationship was tested by success. Though a letter written in 1959 shows Capote had little input into TKMB, Lee was integral to the success of In Cold Blood, travelling with him and conducting interviews as he researched the murder of four members of the Clutter family. Capote was upset that Lee’s novel won the Pulitzer Prize while his masterpiece didn’t, and she was hurt that Capote failed to adequately acknowledge her contribution. If their friendship had simply fizzled out, that would have been one thing, but as Capote struggled to keep his position on the social ladder, he became increasingly vicious: he described Lee’s upbringing as “southern grotesque”, told people her mother had twice tried to drown her and allowed rumours he had written her novel to persist. “Truman… fled from the truth as Dracula flees from the cross,” Lee later said.
By the mid-70s, Capote had antagonised his old friends and lost himself in a haze of alcohol and self-pity. But those most closely involved in To Kill A Mockingbird had disappeared too. Crain had died, Lee’s editor Tay Hohoff had retired and the book had become a monster, too big to follow. Lee befriended Gregory Peck, who played Atticus in the movie of her work, but she gave up on her ambition to become the Jane Austen of the south.
Though many of the themes in TKMB are dark – there is never any doubt the falsely accused Robinson will be convicted – its mainstream appeal is obvious. It is a profoundly (some would say simplistically) moral tale in which innocence and empathy are the highest virtues. Its evocation of the south, with its ladies “like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum,” is powerful enough to compensate for Atticus’s insufferable white sanctimony and the uneven narration which never quite decides if we are watching through the eyes of Scout as a child or an adult looking back. TKMB has sold more than 40 million copies and is still a favourite on school curricula all over the world.
Arguably, it wasn’t just the novel’s success that stopped Lee in her tracks, it was the disappearance of the south she wanted to chronicle. As journalist Boris Kachka pointed out, even as the film came out, Depression-era Monroeville was vanishing, the 1930s buildings eventually yielding to faceless malls. Today, the homes of Lee, Capote and Boo Radley are long gone. On the site of the Lees’ house stands Mel’s Dairy Dream. The townspeople, however, are still protective of their own. Though some were angry when Lee took action against the courthouse museum in 2013, they voiced their support for the author as news of the new novel broke last week. But even they are unclear what exactly is going on. Tonja Carter, who began exerting a greater influence as Alice’s health failed, is said to keep visitors at bay, and even those who were once close friends find it difficult to gain access. Carter issued Lee’s statement on Go Set A Watchman and appears – some say – to have power of attorney over her affairs.
Those who have most at stake from the publication of Go Set A Watchman are adamant Lee is right behind it. Her literary agent, Andrew Nurnberg, says the author is “feisty and funny” and increasingly excited about the impending publication. Such is Lee’s inscrutability and her frailty that we may never gain an insight into what prompted her change of heart, but even if she approves, the move feels exploitative. Could the first unedited draft of a novel by an inexperienced writer really compare favourably with TKMB? And, if it doesn’t, Lee, with her shy ways, will be dragged back into the limelight in the most destructive way possible. «
Go Set A Watchman will be published on 14 July by HarperCollins in the US and Heinemann in the United Kingdom