One hit wondress

Since the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee has become a virtual recluse – Rebecca Long profiles the enigmatic writer

Since the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee has become a virtual recluse – Rebecca Long profiles the enigmatic writer

Nowadays, it’s impossible to get yourself published, unless you sell your soul to the relentless publicity machine required to get you on the bestseller’s list. The interviews, the book signings, the photo shoots and the readings are all designed to maximise sales and get those intelligent people on The View and The Southbank Show slavering over your new tome. Or so I’ve been told.

But what about those authors who decide that what they write is all we need to know about them? Those writers who refuse, for whatever reason, to play the marketing game? There are those who insist, despite our clamouring, on living their lives as far outside the spotlight as they can manage. The cheek. Harper Lee is one such writer, a woman who has lived as a virtual recluse since her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960. She was 34 when it appeared and it has remained her only novel. Shunning interviews and becoming, in every sense, an anti-celebrity, she has built up an aura of mystery about herself that, ironically, no amount of publicity could ever have bought.

Nelle Harper Lee was born in Monroeville, Alabama on April 28th 1926. Her father Amasa Coleman Lee was a former newspaper editor who practised as a lawyer in their hometown. Lee herself studied law at the University of Alabama from 1945 to 1949 but she left for New York six months before finishing her studies. By the 1950s, she was working as an airline reservations clerk and writing in her spare time. But then her friends gave her the most remarkable Christmas present of her life; a year’s wages. Despite her protestations that they couldn’t afford it, they insisted that, with her talent and a year off, something wonderful was bound to happen. To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960.

Prior to this, in 1959, Lee accompanied her childhood friend Truman Capote to Holcombe, Kansas, to act as a research assistant on what Capote termed his one masterpiece, his classic “non-fiction” novel In Cold Blood. Some critics maintain she should have received a co-writer’s credit for the work she did and for acting at times as Capote’s moral compass. In fact, for a time after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird Capote resented his friend’s success. He certainly didn’t try to dispel the rumours that were making the rounds of literary circles that the book had, in fact, been written by him. So in a nutshell: Lee shot to fame in 1960 on the publication of her only book, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1961, saw her masterpiece turned into a film starring Gregory Peck in 1962, watched that film win four Academy Awards in 1963 and was rewarded for her four years research by Truman Capote’s dedication to her on the publication of his book in 1964. And then she disappeared.

When you look at it like that, we don’t know all that much about her. We’ve turned to the one book she did produce in order to answer the questions that she won’t, no matter how often they are asked. It’s clear to anyone reading To Kill a Mockingbird that the novel is more than vaguely autobiographical. Lee was a notorious tomboy at her protagonist Scout’s age: she detested dresses and loved to curse. Her father Amasa Lee was a lawyer just like Atticus Finch, which incidentally was her mother’s maiden name. Her father even took a case similar to that of Tom Robinson’s: two black men, a father and son were accused by a white woman of rape. Like Tom Robinson they both died as a result of prejudice. Lee’s childhood friend Truman Capote provided the inspiration for the wistful and imaginative Dill, who came up with the idea of bringing Boo Radley out. Lee was only six years old at the time of the notorious Scottsboro case, where nine young African-American men were wrongly accused of rape by white prostitutes. However, the repercussions of the case were still being felt almost three decades later, when she began to write her masterpiece. But how far can depend on her novel for information? And who is the real Harper Lee? Do we even have a right to ask such a question? If Lee ever wanted proof that literary fame has its drawbacks she could look to her childhood friend Truman Capote. He lived a life as notoriously public as hers was private. At one time, he was the most photographed author in history, while some people didn’t even know what Lee looked like.

Instant fame terrified Lee; she admitted as much in a rare interview with author Roy Newquist in 1964. For an author who had previously been seen as a kind of sidekick for Truman Capote, the sudden success of what was to be her only book must have been daunting to say the least. “I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement … I hoped for a little 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”. Daunted by the fame that was suddenly hers and the pressure suddenly heaped on her shoulders by both the public and her publishers, is it any wonder she kept her silence for forty years?

Lee only ventured back into the public arena when her old university began running a essay competition for children on the subject of To Kill a Mockingbird. She has since refused Oprah Winfrey an interview, something which must have taken a lot of guts. Apparently, even those lucky few who have been granted an interview will, if asked about her, politely change the subject. Maybe it’s all a big conspiracy, one in which her minister, Thomas Lane Butts, plays a part.”We all go around,” he says, “and no one even knows they are seeing one of the great literary figures of [the twentieth] century.” Definitely suspicious.

Can we let people be famous on their own terms? Or does the whole idea of fame in our society work on a kind of a trade off: privacy for celebrity, control over one’s own self image for public adoration? Authors like Harper Lee, J.D Salinger and Thomas Pynchon seemed to think so. But why is it, when an author shuns the public arena, he or she must be called a recluse? It is really that black and white? Many people over the years have questioned Lee’s great secret. Maybe she’s not a recluse at all. She simply wants to live a normal life, to be allowed an existence outside of a couple of hundred pages she wrote over forty years ago. When you say it like that, it doesn’t seem very much to ask.