By Megan Garber
Nelle Harper Lee, born in Monroeville, Alabama in the spring of 1926, was named, in a roundabout way, after her grandmother: “Nelle” is “Ellen” spelled backward. The writer’s father, A.C. Lee—the inspiration for Atticus Finch—called her “Nelle.” So did her friend from childhood, Truman Capote. So do the small group of people, past and present, who move in her intimate orbit.
To the rest of us, however, she is Harper. That’s because, when Nelle Lee published her first and (as yet) only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird—leading to, in short order, a Pulitzer, an Oscar-winning film, and a fame she didn’t ask for—the young writer didn’t trust the media not to mispronounce the name she’d spent her life with, the one she’d gotten from her grandmother, as “Nellie.”
So Harper Lee it was. And Harper, for most of us, it remains.
Lee, today, finds herself in a place she traditionally has not enjoyed occupying: the news. That’s because of the surprise announcement that To Kill a Mockingbird will have its long-awaited sequel: Go Set a Watchman, about the adventures of a grown-up Scout as she returns to Maycomb, Alabama to visit Atticus. That a novel more than 60 years in the making would finally be published was the result, Lee said in a statement delivered through her publisher, HarperCollins, of some crazy serendipity: The book’s long-lost manuscript was discovered by her lawyer, the statement says, “in a secure location where it had been affixed to an original typescript of To Kill a Mockingbird.”*
Which is all, almost needless to say, a very big deal. (When the new novel was announced earlier today,apparently, “a series of screams” could be heard in the offices of Penguin Random House, Lee’s U.K. publisher.) To Kill a Mockingbird is beloved in ways few of its fellow curricular staples are. More than half a century after its original publication, it continues to sell more than a million copies a year; it’s been translated into more than 40 languages. Not only has it proven itself, repeatedly, to be on the right side of history; it also captures, in a way few books are able to, that particular feeling, smallness straining against bigness, that comes with being a kid. For many American children—myself, and possibly you, very much included—Mockingbird offered an early, easy exposure to justice and the lack of it. It eased us, through the charming person of Scout, into a truth we were alternately warned about and protected from: that life can be, without at all meaning to be, cruelly unfair.
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Mockingbird’s author is now 88 years old. She spent much of her adult life in New York City, living with the kind of strategic privacy that tends to get one labelled as “reclusive.” Recently forced to sell her Upper East Side apartment, she now lives in an assisted-living facility back in Monroeville—a 2007 stroke, a friend says, having left her “95 percent blind, profoundly deaf,” and bound to a wheelchair. “Her short-term memory,” he says, “is completely shot, and poor in general.”
Perhaps he is overstating Lee’s condition. Perhaps not. But it’s worth considering, either way, something that is both inconvenient and also indicative of the expectations we place on the small cadre of people we have elevated to the status of Author: that Harper Lee, née and known to those close to her as Nelle, spent the majority of her life not wanting Go Set a Watchman to be published. Or, at least, she has spent the majority of her life telling the media that she didn’t want Go Set a Watchman to be published. (She has had many opportunities to do so: In 2006, The New York Times wrote a piece about her specifying “the three most frequently asked questions” associated with her name: “Is she dead? Is she gay? What ever happened to Book No. 2?”)
“Will success spoil Harper Lee?” a reporter asked.
“She’s too old,” Harper Lee replied.
“How do you feel about your second novel?” another asked.
“I’m scared,” Harper Lee replied.
At one point, Lee’s sister (and companion and caretaker and sometime legal adviser), known publicly as Miss Alice, claimed that a burglar had stolen the manuscript of Mockingbird’s spectral sequel. But Lee had many other explanations for why the anticipated novel failed to materialize. To a cousin: “When you’re at the top, there’s only one way to go.” To a bookseller: “I said what I had to say.” To a friend: “I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill A Mockingbird for any amount of money.”
All that, human nature and media systems being what they are, only served to stoke the curiosity that swirled around a Second Novel From Harper Lee. As did Lee’s own reluctance to situate herself within fame’s familiar infrastructures. As The New York Times summed it up: “Unmanageable success made her determined to vanish.” Lee’s repeated response to the interview requests of Charles Shields, who published an (unauthorized) biography of her in 2006, was “not just no, but hell no.” Lee once told Oprah Winfrey, over a (private) lunch, why she’d never appear on her show: While people tended to compare her to Scout, she explained, “I’m really Boo.” Lee did not, in the manner of some other literary “recluses,” fully withdraw from public view—she occasionally accepts awards and honorary degrees and the like—but she has insisted that her participation in her own publicity be mostly of a silent nature. In 2007, at a ceremony inducting four new members into the Alabama Academy of Honor, Lee declined a request to address the audience, explaining, “Well, it’s better to be silent than to be a fool.”
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Given all that, you have to wonder: Why end the silence? And why do it now?
Perhaps it really was as simple as a manuscript lost and recovered, serendipitously for all involved. Perhaps all those doubts Lee had previously expressed about the publication of a second novel were merely the results of the natural, but not invincible, anxiety that comes with that infamously fraught project. Perhaps Lee regretted having signed over her copyright of Mockingbird, and wanted something else she could call, in the fullest sense, truly hers. Perhaps Lee, approaching her 90s, figured that age will afford her what her attempts at a sheltered life could not: the easy relief of silence.
Perhaps she decided that she has not, after all, said all she has to say.
Or perhaps, having witnessed the rise of what Boris Kachka calls the “Mockingbird industrial complex” from afar, the writer wanted to bring a renewed kind of intimacy to her work. “I think it very undignified for any serious artist to allow themselves to be exploited in this fashion,” Truman Capote, in full frenemy mode, once sniffed of Lee’s work to promote the film version of her novel. Lee’s silence, after the initial heat of her fame dissipated, might indicate that she agrees.
Or perhaps Lee, alive but ill, is being treated the way so many deceased authors are: as ideas rather than people, as brands and businesses rather than messy collections of doubts and desires.
We won’t know. We can’t know. All we will have, in the end, is a book, a thing that will raise as many questions as it answers. And, for better or for worse, that is probably just how Harper Lee—Nelle to the small collection of people who really know her—would prefer things.
* This post originally misstated the U.S. publisher of Harper Lee’s new book, Go Set a Watchman. It is HarperCollins, not Penguin Random House, which will publish the books in the U.K. and Commonwealth. We regret the error.