Among American writers, Harper Lee remains one of the most enigmatic. It’s been over 50 years since the reclusive author published To Kill a Mockingbird, but the breakthrough novel remains a bestseller, translated into dozens of languages, and is central to school curricula across the world. The prestigious Folio Society is offering a cloth-bound version of this classic at a discounted rate for members.
To Kill a Mockingbird is somewhat autobiographical. Like its central character, Scout, Nelle Harper Lee grew up in a small Alabama town; “quite the little tomboy,” according to her sister Alice who, at age 100, is still practicing law. The Lee sisters’ father, Amasa Coleman Lee, was a lawyer who served 12 years in the Alabama state legislature. In 1931, when Harper was 5, 9 young Black men were accused of gang-raping 2 young White women, a certain death sentence in those times and in that place. The defendants, who were nearly lynched before being brought to court, were not provided with the services of a lawyer until the first day of trial. Despite medical testimony that the women had not been raped, the all-White jury found the men guilty of the crime and sentenced all but the youngest, a 12-year-old boy, to death. Six years of subsequent trials saw most of these convictions repealed and all but one of the men freed or paroled.
Lee was close friends with the more flamboyant Truman Capote. In 1959, she traveled with him to Holcomb, Kansas to cover the murders of the Clutter family; what they both thought would be a minor criminal affair. Lee ended up working as Capote’s assistant on the story, which culminated with In Cold Blood. But, by the time Capote published his masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird had become Lee’s own magnum opus. It arrived on the literary scene just as the nation was experiencing a major upheaval in social politics and race relations. The book was a turning point in how America viewed itself and its proclamations of true equality and personal freedom.
However, it is the only book its author Harper Lee wrote and she has never been interviewed in almost 50 years. Her Greta Garbo-like reclusiveness from the literary world has only increased interest in her, and – as often happens in the lives of such people – rumors replaced facts. Some claim Capote is the true author of To Kill a Mockingbird; that she is descended from General Robert E. Lee; and that her mother had twice tried to drown her as a child. Lee, obviously trying to stay above the ridiculous fray, won’t respond to such accusations.
Last year President Obama presented Lee – who will turn 86 on April 28 – with the prestigious National Medal of Arts. Naturally she did not attend the ceremony. Recently though, he recorded an introduction to a re-release of the 1962 film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird.
This enduring fascination with the novel and its mysterious author will keep Lee at the forefront of modern American literature.