The Measure Of Harper Lee: A Life Shaped By A Towering Text

Feb 19, 2016
Originally published on February 22, 2016 11:10 am

Peering back across Harper Lee's life, it can seem impossible to distinguish the novelist from her masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee died at the age of 89 in her hometown of Monroeville, Ala., on Friday morning — yet it's clear that her legacy will live on much longer than that, through her characters and the readers who have embraced them for decades.

"America and the world knew Harper Lee as one of the last century's most beloved authors," Hank Conner, Lee's nephew, announced in a statement. "We knew her as Nelle Harper Lee, a loving member of our family, a devoted friend to the many good people who touched her life, and a generous soul in our community and our state."

Conner's experience, though — and the experiences of those who knew Lee personally — are exceptional. For the most part, Lee's readers have known the author only through To Kill a Mockingbird, her debut — and, for decades, her only — novel.

The book depicts the strivings of a small-town Alabama lawyer, Atticus Finch, on behalf of Tom Robinson, a black man charged with raping a white woman, and it casts the events through the lens of Finch's precocious daughter, Scout. Despite its relative brevity, the book bears considerable weight, both in the gravity of its themes and the care with which it treats them.

Perhaps, then, it should be no surprise that Lee and her editor, Tay Hohoff, weren't exactly expecting this book to fly off store shelves.

Hohoff "cautioned her that a book with racism at its center involving a rape trial was not a thing in 1960 to make people run to the bookstores for," says Charles J. Shields, author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. "She counseled her client and said, 'If we sell 2,500 copies and break even, you should be proud.' "

You already know this twist: Turns out they were flat wrong.

The book all but immediately became a best-seller. (And it's gone on to sell more than 40 million copies, according to The Washington Post.) It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. Just a year later, it was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film.

What accounts for that kind of success? In many ways, it struck a chord for the very reasons Lee's editor was feeling cautious, says Mary Murphy, director of the documentary Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird.

"You know, there were two big revolutions in the '60s in this country when To Kill a Mockingbird came out: One was civil rights and the other was women's rights. And in a way, To Kill a Mockingbird speaks to both those things," Murphy says.

"Scout Finch at 6 enjoyed, as child growing up in the Depression, enjoyed more freedoms than most women in the '60s did. She wore pants, she swore, she played with boys, she spoke her mind," Murphy continues. "And of course the Civil Rights movement: Many people I spoke to who were active in the movement said that the fact that a white Southerner wrote that book gave them hope that justice could prevail."

And then, seemingly all at once, Lee was gone — at least, that's how the popular narrative goes. The author quietly continued to write, but she decided to step out of the spotlight. Lee did not publish another novel for more than five decades, and she refused nearly every attempt by the press to speak with her.

Naturally, there grew around her the mythology of the reclusive writer. It's a myth that Murphy says simply isn't true.

"Harper Lee was not a recluse. She was not holed up in her house like Boo Radley — unless of course, you were a reporter, and then she was not going to talk to you," Murphy says. "I think that's a big distinction."

Wayne Flynt, her friend and professor emeritus at Auburn University, says her absence had little to do with preconceived notions of her personality.

"Many people describe her as an introvert, many people explain her as being extremely shy, she was neither an introvert nor shy," Flynt says. "She was a private woman, she lived very much within herself, she was quite content within herself."

And he explains Lee's decision not to publish again — for decades — quite simply.

"I suppose what I would say is that there are some writers who have one great story to tell and they tell that one great story."

In the meantime, that singular novel was becoming a staple on high school syllabi, a beloved text read and reread even as its era passed on into the next, and new generations picked up the book.

"The people who have To Kill a Mockingbird seared in memory — their first reading experience of To Kill a Mockingbird seared in their brain — it's the biggest book club in the world," Murphy says. "I mean, for all our conversations about Facebook and social media, To Kill a Mockingbird is the biggest social media group of our time, in a way."

Lee was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work in 2007, and a National Medal of Arts in 2010.

Then, the second twist: Last year, after some 55 years of waiting, Lee decided it was time to publish a second novel, Go Set a Watchman. The book was initially billed by many as a sequel to Mockingbird, for it shared principal characters, reviving Atticus and Scout in a setting several years later than Mockingbird's main action.

Yet, in many ways, it was less a sequel than a glimpse at what would have been, had Lee gone with her first impulses as a writer rather than following her editor's advice and reworking her first drafts. For years, Hohoff had worked with Lee on radical revisions to the text, from 1957 to the book's eventual publication in 1960, according to The New York Times.

"I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told," Lee said in a 2015 statement.

Go Set a Watchman, then, let Lee's early visions of her definitive work find the light of day. In the process, though, it also invited significant skepticism that Lee, who had suffered a stroke in 2007, was fully in control of the decision.

Then, there were the decidedly mixed reviews.

"All I know for certain is that Go Set a Watchman is kind of a mess that will forever change the way we read a masterpiece," NPR's Maureen Corrigan, for one, wrote about the book when it was released in July 2015. Her assessment was by no means uncommon.

Lee's own reaction to the reviews and the controversy?

"She chortled," Flynt told at the time.

And herein, perhaps, rests a lesson: Despite our best attempts to confine Lee's life to the pages she wrote and the characters she created, her own life far exceeded the bounds of her book covers. Lee was more than Atticus, Scout and Tom; she was more than the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. And, perhaps, she often remembered that fact much better than the rest of us.

"She was a good companion," Flynt remembers. "She had lots of people she adored.

"One thing I will say about Harper Lee: If you ever met Harper Lee, you got just exactly what you saw. She never tried to be anything her entire life except who she was."

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Harper Lee, whose novel "To Kill A Mockingbird" touched millions of readers, died in her sleep this morning. She was 89 years old. Lee's family said she had been in good health, and her death was unexpected. "To Kill A Mockingbird" won the Pulitzer Prize after it was published in 1960. Lee avoided publicity, but was thrust back into the spotlight last summer when her controversial book "Go Set A Watchman" was released. NPR's Lynn Neary has this remembrance.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: When "To Kill A Mockingbird" was about to be published, Harper Lee's editor cautioned the first-time novelist not to get too excited.

CHARLES SHIELDS: And she counseled her client, Harper Lee, saying that if we sell 2,500 copies and break even, you should be proud.

NEARY: Charles Shields is the author of "Mockingbird: A Portrait Of Harper Lee." Lee's first novel was an immediate hit and has since sold some 40 million copies around the world. It's the story of a small-town Alabama lawyer who defends a black man accused of raping a white woman. It's told her the eyes of the lawyer's 9-year-old daughter, Scout. Shields says "To Kill A Mockingbird" was published at just the right moment.

SHIELDS: In 1960, on the cusp of the civil rights movement, a book like that touched the hearts of people, whereas anything more strident would have been rejected. The reason that "To Kill A Mockingbird" engaged us was because it made us laugh and think about ourselves, and it makes you wonder what you stand for and how far you'd go in defending what's right.

NEARY: Harper Lee was shocked by her book's success, as she told an interviewer at WQXR radio in 1964.


HARPER LEE: Well, my reaction to it was not one of surprise. It was one of sheer numbness. It was one of being hit over the head and knocked cold.

NEARY: The book's success was magnified many times a couple of years later, when it became a film starring Gregory Peck as the lawyer Atticus Finch.


GREGORY PECK: (As Atticus Finch) I'm no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and our jury system. That's no ideal to me. That is a living, working reality.

NEARY: The film made Harper Lee even more famous, but she was not interested in the celebrity that came her way. For decades, she responded to entreaties for her next novel with silence. A kind of mythology grew around Lee, and the public began to think of her as a recluse. Lee's friend Wayne Flynt says that just wasn't the case.

WAYNE FLYNT: Many people describe her as an introvert. Many people explained her as being extremely shy. She was neither. She was a private woman.

NEARY: Although Lee moved back to her hometown of Monroeville, Ala., when she had got older and had suffered a stroke, she lived most of her life in New York City. Flynt says the anonymity of New York gave Lee the privacy she cherished. She was a big Mets fan and loved to be able to go out in public unnoticed. And Flynt says lee was a great friend with a wonderful sense of humor.

FLYNT: She was a good companion. I can't tell you how witty she was, how funny she was, how down-to-earth she was, how earthy she was. She had lots of people she adored.

NEARY: Lee might have lived her life out quietly in Monroeville, but last summer, a new Harper Lee novel was published, creating a storm of publicity.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It's being called the biggest literary surprise of the 21st century.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The frenzy over Harper Lee's novel "Go Set A Watchman..."

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: "Go Set A Watchman" - this thing is incredibly controversial.

NEARY: As it turned out, "Go Set A Watchman" was not a second novel, but rather a first draft of "To Kill A Mockingbird." Readers were shocked to learn the adored Atticus Finch was depicted as a racist in the new book. And many question whether Lee was mentally competent enough to approve the publication of the novel. Mary Murphy, writer and director of the documentary "Harper Lee: Mockingbird To Watchman" was filming when lee was presented with a copy of "Go Set A Watchman."

MARY MURPHY: I was able to ask her one question. And my question was, did you ever intend to see this published? And she said to me, of course I did. Don't be silly.

NEARY: Murphy, who spent years researching Lee's life, didn't feel that answer settled the matter, and she didn't get a chance for a follow-up.

MURPHY: You know, it gave me a lot to think about, and I'm still thinking about it - you know, what her motivation was this time. And I think it's what everybody's puzzled about. I mean, I think some part of her may have been perfectly delighted to reveal her hometown, warts and all, in all the racist things that people were saying in the mid-'50s. There may have been some feisty part of her that enjoyed getting it out there.

NEARY: Harper Lee biographer Charles Shields is also left with many questions about what Lee might have wanted. But Shields says this book, too, came at a moment in history when the nation is once again reflecting on the role of race in our society.

SHIELDS: So I think the book is valuable in throwing cold water on any mythology that's come out of "To Kill A Mockingbird" of a white, paternalistic lawyer defending a black man in the '30s out of the goodness of his heart. It's much more complicated than that.

NEARY: The publication of "Go Set A Watchman" may force us to rethink the legacy of Harper Lee, Shields says. But it does not diminish her accomplishment nor the power of her books one bit. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.