Thursday 12 December 2019

Harper Lee - Reclusive author who championed tolerance


Pulitzer Prize winning author of
Pulitzer Prize winning author of "To Kill a Mockingbird," Harper Lee, 89, has died. Photo: Getty Images

Harper Lee, the American novelist, who has died aged 89, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 for her first published work, 'To Kill a Mockingbird'; more than 50 years later, however, the literary world was stunned by the revelation that the manuscript of an earlier novel, featuring many of the same characters, had been discovered.

'To Kill a Mockingbird', which was made into an Oscar-winning film in 1962, sold more than 30 million copies and has never been out of print. But Lee, whether from a desire for privacy, a terminal case of writer's block or a sense that she could not repeat the critical and commercial success of her debut, never completed another book. After a couple of interviews in the early 1960s, she withdrew from public view, joining the pantheon of great American literary recluses headed by Thomas Pynchon and JD Salinger.

In 'To Kill a Mockingbird' Scout Finch looks back on her childhood growing up in the 1930s in Maycomb, a fictional small town in Alabama identifiable both geographically and by its characters as Monroeville, where Lee was raised.

Lee's years of silence left her book - a searing indictment of racism in the Deep South of America - to echo in her absence. "A hundred pounds of sermons on tolerance, or an equal measure of invective deploring the lack of it," stated 'The Washington Post' on the novel's publication, "will weigh far less in the scale of enlightenment than a mere 18 ounces of new fiction bearing the title 'To Kill a Mockingbird'."

Half a century later, in a bizarre turn of events which, as Gaby Wood wrote in The Telegraph, appeared to have "something of the quality of a hoax", the typescript of a second novel was found - in a safe-deposit box kept by Lee's older sister Alice. Titled 'Go Set a Watchman' (from Isaiah 21:6), and written before 'To Kill a Mockingbird', the newly unearthed novel was published in July 2015.

"It's not a sequel," insisted Lee, who was by now infirm, nearly blind and living in sheltered accommodation. "It's the parent." In 1957 she had submitted the draft of 'Go Set a Watchman' to her editor, Tay Hohoff, who responded that "there were many things wrong about it" including "dangling threads of a plot", and after several years of redrafting, what emerged was 'To Kill a Mockingbird'.

'Go Set a Watchman' puzzled critics, many of whom felt it to be a work-in-progress, uneven in quality and tone, and with inconsistencies of plotting. Set 20 years after the time period of 'Mockingbird' and narrated in the third person, the novel follows Jean-Louise Finch (Scout as an adult) as she returns to Maycomb in the years when the civil rights movement was building momentum. Most alarmingly, the revered figure of Atticus, now an arthritic septuagenarian, has been transformed into a racist who was once a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Nelle Harper Lee was born in Monroeville, Alabama, on April 28, 1926. "In my home town, a remote village in the early 1930s, youngsters had little to do but read," she recalled. "We're talking unpaved streets here, and the Depression." Harper was the youngest of three children born to wildly different parents. Her mother Frances was mentally unstable, while her father was a source of pride. Amasa Coleman 'AC' Lee was a lawyer and a descendant of the Confederate general Robert E Lee, and is often said to be the inspiration for Atticus.

Growing up in Monroeville, the tomboyish Harper found a kindred spirit in her friend Truman Capote, later the celebrated novelist and social butterfly, whom she portrayed in 'To Kill a Mockingbird' as the precocious Dill Harris.

Lee was educated locally and studied law at the University of Alabama. In 1949, she spent a year at Oxford as an exchange student, after which she felt unable to return to Alabama. She left university without a degree and moved to New York to further her ambition to be a writer. While writing essays and short stories, she supported herself by working as an airline reservation clerk. Having received encouragement from the literary agent Maurice Crain, who suggested she work one of her short stories into a novel, Lee gave up her job and devoted herself to writing.

Harper Lee's second novel came out almost six decades after her first. In spite of numerous entreaties, she made few public pronouncements after the mid-1960s. In 2013, she sued an agent who, she claimed, duped her into signing over the copyright on her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (the case was settled out of court). More welcome attention arose from her attendance at luncheons held at the University of Alabama for finalists of an annual student essay contest on 'To Kill a Mockingbird'. She delighted in how "they always see new things in it". (© Daily Telegraph London)

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