June 30, 2010


Don't mention the mockingbird!: The reclusive novelist who wrote the classic novel that mesmerised 40 million readers (Sharon Churcher, 27th June 2010, Daily Mail)

Only now, towards the end of her days, has Harper returned to live in a sheltered housing complex in her childhood home town of Monroeville.

I went to Alabama in an attempt to answer the great mystery of why she – like that other American literary legend J. D. Salinger, who died in January – should have spent almost half a century in silence.

Her friends agree to introduce me to her on one condition: that I make no mention of ‘The Book’, as people here refer to it.

Based on a few gnomic utterances over the years, many literary commentators have attributed Harper’s solitary life and subsequent failure to publish another book to her alarm at the tidal wave of praise for her Mockingbird, in which the racial bigotry of the South is witnessed through the eyes of a little girl, Scout.

Others have suggested that perhaps she only had one great book in her, and that she knew that every subsequent attempt would be regarded as a disappointment.

But according to confidants, many of whom have known her since childhood, what Harper has really found a burden is her enduring sadness about the book’s underlying themes.

They say that while To Kill A Mockingbird is ostensibly a courtroom thriller – in which Scout’s compassionate and principled lawyer father Atticus Finch defends a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman – Harper drew on deeply painful family secrets to create her protagonists.

Furthermore, her liberal views on race were extremely unpopular in her native Deep South. Indeed many in her own family were unhappy with the tone of her book.

‘I’m not a psychologist, but there’s a lot of Nelle in that book,’ said 87-year-old George Thomas Jones, a retired businessman who has known Harper and her family since she was a girl.

‘People say the publicity the book got turned her into a recluse but publicity didn’t ruin her life: I don’t think Nelle’s ever been a real happy person.’

Mr Jones said that Harper’s father Amasa Coleman Lee, a former newspaper editor, lawyer and state senator who was clearly the model for Atticus Finch, was ‘a real genteel man, who listened more than he talked .  .  . but he sure didn’t show much affection.

'I used to caddy for him on the local golf course. He was so formal that he would wear a heavy three-piece suit, shirt, tie and stout shoes to play golf, even in the heat of the summer.’

In an episode that foreshadows the compassionate and fiercely moral hero Atticus, played by Gregory Peck in the movie, Harper’s father had defended two black men charged with murder in a celebrated case in 1919.

After they were convicted and hanged, he never practised again. But unlike the fictional Finch, Mr Lee was a staunch segregationist who supported the harsh ‘Jim Crow’ laws of the American South.

In the novel, Scout lives in fear of a ‘malevolent phantom’, a psychologically disturbed neighbour called Boo Radley, who ultimately saves her life.

While it is clear that the character is in part based on a reclusive neighbour, in reality, it was Harper’s mother Frances who was the source of much terror and unhappiness.

Suffering from depression and violent mood swings, friends in the close-knit Alabama town say that Frances allegedly twice tried to drown her daughter in the bath. As a result, perhaps, the young Harper was regarded as a difficult and aggressive child who would think nothing of punching other children who annoyed her.

‘When you passed by the Lee house, Mrs Lee would be sitting in a swing with just a stone face,’ said Mr Jones, ‘looking dead ahead, emotionless.’

Other neighbours recalled she would sometimes shout nonsensical invective at passers-by. [...]

Harper’s biographer, the American academic Charles Shields, said that her mother Frances was descended from slave-owners who had farmed cotton around Monroeville, where they built a stately plantation house.

In her younger days, Frances was considered a brilliant pianist, but by the time Harper was born in 1926, she seemed to have lost all interest in life due to depression.

Harper’s older sister, Alice – who, remarkably at 98, still practises law in an office above a Monroeville bank – said: ‘My mother was a highly nervous person but it was no problem. There was nothing abnormal.’

Alice is still close to Harper and helps handle her financial affairs. I asked whether her sister ever regretted writing the book. ‘I don’t think she has any regrets,’ Alice replied with a frown. ‘But we talk about the book only in relation to business.’

The young Harper once dreamed of becoming a lawyer like both her father and sister. But she was diverted from that path by her lifelong friendship with Truman Capote, the author of Breakfast At Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood, who was a childhood neighbour much like Dill, Scout’s best friend in Mockingbird.

The young Capote had already begun to work on stories. ‘I convinced [Harper] she ought to write too,’ he said later. ‘She didn’t really want to but I held her to it.’

Writing did not come easily to Harper. Sometimes she would labour for a dozen hours before finishing a single page. But it was her only life.

Her mannish haircuts and hatred of make-up led to speculation that she was a lesbian. However, Mr Shields believes she was just shy and, like Charlotte Bronte, had an unrequited crush on a married man, her literary agent Maurice Crain.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 30, 2010 6:09 AM
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