Cultura y Artes

The New Yorker – Postscript: Harper Lee, 1926-2016

Cep-Harper-Lee-320 (1)Harper Lee is shown playing golf at a country club in Monroeville, Alabama, in this undated photograph.

The morning cometh, and also the night: so says the watchman set on the walls of the city of Babylon, in the Book of Isaiah. I thought of those words yesterday, when I heard about the death of Harper Lee. One of our nation’s greatest watchers died in the little town where she was born, almost ninety years ago, only a few streets away from the patch of land on Alabama Avenue where she learned to read and write, less than a mile from the courthouse she made famous.

Monroeville’s geography was mapped for the world in 1960, when Lee published her first novel, set in a fictional version known as Maycomb. The book became an immediate bestseller, and Lee’s mockingbird joined Keats’s nightingale and Poe’s raven in the literary aviary whose songs not only delight but endure. It was not, however, an easy creation, coming after many years of revisions and an abandoned draft that, last year, was published as a stand-alone novel, “Go Set a Watchman.”

Nelle Harper Lee was born in 1926, the child of Amasa Coleman Lee, known as A. C., and Frances Cunningham Finch. Descended from a Confederate general (but not that one), the family arrived in Monroe County in 1912, when A. C. joined a small law firm that soon became Barnett, Bugg, & Lee. The firm prospered, and by 1929 A. C. had bought the local newspaper and won a seat in the Alabama House of Representatives. Nelle was the fourth child, and by far the youngest: the first, Alice, fifteen years older, was one of the state’s first female lawyers and practiced into her hundreds; Louise, the second oldest, worked as a newspaper reporter before she fixed her energies on family life; the only son, Edwin, studied engineering and began a military career before dying suddenly of a brain aneurysm at the age of thirty.

Their father joked about renaming his firm “A. C. Lee and Daughters, Lawyers,” but Nelle’s real vocation emerged only when she dropped out of law school at the University of Alabama and moved to New York City. She had always wanted to be a writer: there were childhood sketches, some of them crafted and rehearsed with her friend Truman Capote, poetry published in her father’s newspaper, columns and short stories that appeared in college publications. Lee wrote feverishly and furiously, confiding in one interview that she drafted everything at least three times and confessing in another that she could go days without leaving the house when she was writing.

In New York, she worked at a bookstore, then as a ticket agent at Eastern Airlines and British Overseas Air Corporation. But in the late hours of the night, she wrote; in the early hours of the morning, she wrote; on holidays and weekends, she wrote. She arrived in Manhattan not knowing how to do the work, but knowing the work she was meant to do: creating an elegy for the South she had known that was also a prophecy of the South to which she hoped to return.

A few years wasted away with nothing to show for them except the pay stubs from jobs she detested. Then Capote, her old tree-house friend, introduced her to some other Southern transplants. Lee was drawn to one couple in particular, and their generosity would transform her life into something like an O. Henry story. Michael Brown made his living as a lyricist on Broadway, while his wife, Joy, raised their two sons on the Upper East Side. They loved Lee, and they worried about her finding time to write, so they did the only thing they could think of: made out a check and hung it in an envelope on their Christmas tree in 1956. The accompanying note read, “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please.”

The Browns had hoped their generosity would remain anonymous, and it did for decades, until archival letters revealed their identity. Before that, they were only an unnamed couple upon whom Lee lavished praised in an essay for McCall’s. The antecedent left intentionally ambiguous, the grateful author said only, “They’d saved some money and thought it was high time they did something about me.” Armed with the Browns’ check—a gift, they said; a loan, she insisted—Lee went back to work, and delivered the first pages of a novel to her agent early in 1957. She was then shepherded into the hands of an editor named Therese von Hohoff Torrey at J. P. Lippincott & Company. Tay Hohoff, as she was known, took the manuscript and helped Lee make it into a novel. “There were dangling threads of plot, there was a lack of unity—a beginning, a middle, an end that was inherent in the beginning,” Hohoff would later say about the pages that the wisp of a woman from Alabama brought to her office at Fifth Avenue and Forty-third Street. The first reader had recommended rejecting the manuscript, but Hohoff recognized the characters who would charm the world and the story that would awaken its moral imagination. True to her habit of drafting everything three times, Lee revised her third-person draft into one with first-person narration, then finally found her stride with a dynamic narrator who was both the little girl known as Scout and the adult known as Jean Louise.

The battles of the Old South had been fought on cotton fields, but the battles of the New South took place in courtrooms, and Lee knew that Southern literature needed to reckon with this new setting. She rejected the plantations of Margaret Mitchell and the back forties of William Faulkner for the worn steel bars of a jail cell and the polished wood of a witness stand. There was nothing Gothic or grotesque about Lee’s vision of the South, and her Methodism inclined more toward human perfectibility than frailty, toward sanctification more than sin. Her early work, like “Watchman,” suggested that Southern politics were intractably agrarian bigotries that blighted even the most enlightened, but her mature work, like “Mockingbird,” seemed to argue instead that enough effort and empathy could change a man from the racist Robert Ewell into the hero, Atticus Finch. The novel’s symmetry came not only from the stereoscopic first-person narration of Scout, who was both experienced and innocent, but also from the chiasmus of one crime falsely alleged and another justly left unprosecuted: the illegitimate trial to which Tom Robinson was subjected set against the one Arthur “Boo” Radley was spared.

The author photograph on the back jacket of “Mockingbird,” of the short-haired girl in the grass, is how Lee would look for most of her life. That picture, taken by Capote, shows her as she was: beautiful, but not obviously so; serious, but also a little silly. She never outgrew her boyish look, even though she seemed to age instantly in the overwhelming year that followed the novel’s publication. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and every bookstore wanted her to come for signings; there were ecstatic reviews, and every newspaper that ran one wanted an interview. Then came the movie. The rights were sold in January of 1961, but before Horton Foote could finish writing the screenplay or Gregory Peck had agreed to star, the novel won the Pulitzer Prize.

Capote observed the toll of all this on the Miracle from Monroeville. “Poor thing,” he wrote in one letter, “she is nearly demented: says she gave up trying to answer her ‘fan mail’ when she received 62 letters in one day.” In another, he observed, “Poor darling, she seems to be having some sort of happy nervous-breakdown.” Capote had a clear sightline on Lee because, in December of 1959, while she was still waiting on the proofs of “Mockingbird,” she had committed herself to helping with his true-crime project: the serialized feature in The New Yorker that became In Cold Blood.” They made several trips together to Kansas, and she accompanied Capote on almost all his interviews, including those with the killers Perry Smith and Richard Hickock.

Lee’s painstaking notes, totalling more than a hundred typed pages, reveal a careful observer, a keen legal mind, and a tragic-comedic chronicler of American history. She noted everything from the length of Nancy Clutter’s bedroom mirror to the height of Mrs. Clutter’s socks. She summarized court testimony and counsel strategies while offering psychological portraits of the jury. She researched the town’s religious demography, but also found for her friend the kinds of facts for which a writer sells his soul, including a half-page précis on Kansas’s most famous quack, John Romulus Brinkley, who performed surgical goat-gland transplants on men as a kind of early-twentieth-century Viagra, and whose wife, Lee recalled, had once blasted Bertrand Russell for promoting free love while the Brinkleys were trying to sell it.

What’s clear from her Kansas notes is that Lee could report a story as well as write one—skills she put to use years later when she set to work on her own true-crime book. It was meant to be the tale of a black preacher accused of murdering five family members, the relative who shot him dead at the funeral of the last victim, and the white lawyer who defended them both. Because it was Harper Lee, it was also meant to be a broader, more pained portrait of how race affected life, death, and criminal justice in the Deep South.

“The Reverend” was never published, but in the years between “Mockingbird” and “Watchman,” Lee was no mossback. When she was in Manhattan, where she hid in plain sight on the Upper East Side, in an apartment marked “Lee-H” on the front-door buzzer of the building, she went to shows at the Alvin Theatre, Mets games at Shea Stadium, and lunches at Pearl Oyster Bar. When she was in Monroeville, where she lived with her sister, on West Avenue, she went for coffee at McDonald’s, fed the ducks in Vanity Fair Lake, and gambled at the Wind Creek Casino in the next county. Neither recluse nor rube, she visited Gregory Peck and his family in California, played golf at courses up and down the East Coast, and was at the White House not only to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush but to congratulate President Lyndon B. Johnson on the day the Senate ended its long filibuster against the Civil Rights Act. Her public silence artfully disguised her private vitality: her life’s itinerary, not yet fully documented, and her voluminous correspondence, not yet collected, together reveal a woman so funny and fierce that readers will soon wonder how they ever mistook her for a small-town savant.

Harper Lee said once that she aspired to be “the Jane Austen of South Alabama.” She knew that the region’s small towns sheltered big truths, and she succeeded in making them known to the world. In doing so, she inspired generations of Scouts, who grew up to be just that: the moral watchmen she taught us we could be.

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