Hiding Harper Lee

by W. A. Bilen


In the photograph she looks a bit impish. Dark eyes shift under unplucked brows as she peeks at the photographer over her left shoulder. Her brown hair, chopped boyishly, frames a face not quite thin, while her tight-lipped smile seems to conceal a secret.

Harper Lee.

She was young then, in her prime, riding the success of her first and only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Shot in a rocket to fame in 1960 at the age of thirty-four. Received the Pulitzer in 1961. Watched her book expand into a film starring Gregory Peck in 1962. Saw the movie claim eight Academy Award nominations, take four, in 1963. Ended the four-year research process with childhood friend Truman Capote for In Cold Blood in 1964. Ran her finger over Capote’s dedication to her when In Cold Blood was published to great acclaim in 1965.

Then she disappeared.

* * *

In Mockingbird, narrator Jean Louise Finch reflects on a time in her childhood when she answered to “Scout” and preferred overalls to dresses. A time when her father, a white Southern public defender, represented a black man when such things weren’t done. A time when she, her older brother, Jem, and their friend, Dill, conspired to get a man they had never seen, Arthur “Boo” Radley, to come out of his house. A time when all of these things came together in a vortex, clashing and confusing and knocking the truth about, so that she emerged on the other side no longer a child.

Routine contentment was: improving our treehouse that rested between giant twin chinaberry trees in the back yard, fussing, running through our list of dramas based on the works of Oliver Optic, Victor Appleton, and Edgar Rice Burroughs…But by the end of August our repertoire was vapid from countless reproductions, and it was then that Dill gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.
The Radley Place fascinated Dill. In spite of our warnings and explanations it drew him as the moon draws water, but drew him no nearer than the light-pole on the corner, a safe distance from the Radley gate. There he would stand, his arm around the fat pole, staring and wondering…
Inside the house lived a malevolent phantom.
* * *

“America worships the extrovert,” insists Toni Weingarten. That may be true, but America also obsesses over the introvert. We want what we can’t have. We want Harper Lee.

But we can’t have her.

Journalists and historians have described her as elusive, reclusive, and “a delicious mystery,” they who have tried to approach but failed.

But we keep salivating, hungering, lusting for a taste, a piece, a scrap.

We visit her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, where we peer around corners, hoping. We lick ice cream at the Dairy Dream where her house used to be, step over the rubble outlining the house where she played with Truman Capote. We step inside the second-floor courtroom where her father practiced, finger the railings that Hollywood reproduced perfectly for Gregory Peck to practice, lose, win. We imagine Atticus pacing, Judge Taylor leaning, Tom Robinson sweating. We photograph ourselves outside near the bronzed Atticus, picturing Jem and Scout and Dill scampering across the lawn, forgetting at times it was just a story. And that its creator is and has always been just a woman.

“Dill, you have to think about these things,” Jem said. “Lemme think a minute…it’s sort of like making a turtle come out…”
“How’s that?” asked Dill.
“Strike a match under him.”
I told Jem if he set fire to the Radley house I was going to tell Atticus on him.
Dill said striking a match under a turtle was hateful.
“Ain’t hateful, just persuades him—‘s not like you’d chunk him in the fire,” Jem growled.
“How do you know a match don’t hurt him?”
“Turtles can’t feel, stupid,” said Jem.
“Were you ever a turtle, huh?”
* * *

Nelle Harper Lee turns eighty this year. Her book turns forty-six. More will celebrate the latter than the former. She will spend the summer in New York, roaming in virtual obscurity, appearing to be just another senior citizen taking the bus or cheering at a Mets game, returning home to her one-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side. She will spend the winter in Monroeville with her sister Alice, attending church, stopping at the post office, lunching in the café. “We all go around,” says her minister, Thomas Lane Butts, “and no one even knows they are seeing one of the great literary figures of [the twentieth] century.”

Harper Lee’s biggest secret? She’s not a recluse at all. She simply wants to live a regular life, to be allowed an existence outside the bounds of a couple hundred pages written decades ago.

It might have turned out differently.

If she felt the press had represented her accurately, she might not have stopped granting interviews.

If fans had allowed her to talk about something other than her characters, she might not have stopped accepting speaking invitations.

If publishers had not expected her to create something bigger and better, she might have written more than a few lines.

Then again, she might not.

Her pastor says she “thinks it’s ridiculous that people want to drive by and see the house where she lives,” her sister insists she was “terrified to speak” in public, and she maintains that she’s already said everything she wants to say.

What Mr. Radley did was his own business. If he wanted to come out, he would. If he wanted to stay inside his own house he had the right to stay inside free from the attentions of inquisitive children, which was a mild term for the likes of us. How would we like it if Atticus barged in on us without knocking, when we were in our rooms at night? We were, in effect, doing the same thing to Mr. Radley. What Mr. Radley did might seem peculiar to us, but it did not seem peculiar to him. Furthermore, had it never occurred to us that the civil way to communicate with another being was by the front door instead of a side window? Lastly, we were to stay away from that house until we were invited there, we were not to play an asinine game he had seen us playing or make fun of anybody on this street or in this town—
“We weren’t makin’ fun of him, we weren’t laughin’ at him,” said Jem, “we were just—”
“So that was what you were doing, wasn’t it?”
“Makin’ fun of him?”
“No,” said Atticus, “putting his life’s history on display for the edification of the neighborhood.”

She can tolerate proper inquiries, such as correspondence that comes by envelope and stamp. Having been brought up with the courtesy of responding to letters, she started out replying personally; when she developed tendonitis, pragmatism overtook etiquette. That doesn’t mean she likes other contact any better, and she’s still not too fond of those who don’t respect her wishes to be left alone. The observers and survivors tell their stories:

“Upstream, two women were discussing the weather with Miss Lee, when a middle aged woman came sailing into the room, clutching a paperback edition of Mockingbird, and made a beeline for the novelist. Enroute, she nodded to an acquaintance and trilled, with all her dentures shining, brightly, ‘Isn’t this simply marvelous!’ Then she was introduced to Miss Lee. Miss Lee was pleased to meet her. ‘Isn't this marvelous!’ chirped the woman. Miss Lee didn't say.”
“For a while, when I was a reporter…I joined the crowd of people trying to break through her wall of silence. I learned that a friend of a friend was in touch with her and wrote what I thought was a very nice letter, asking if she’d grant me a few minutes on the phone or submit to an interview in writing. In a few weeks my letter came back with “Hell No” printed in green ink across the top.”
“Mother knew someone who could get Harper Lee to autograph a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird…I’d lived and worked at the newspaper in Harper Lee’s hometown of Monroeville in 1975 and ’76. Inside the book, on an envelope, my mother, normally not a presumptuous woman, suggested that Harper Lee write: ‘To Rheta Johnson From Harper Lee, one author to another.’ Harper Lee scribbled an addendum: ‘I don’t know her, and don’t know what she’s written—HL.’ The book she signed, ‘Best wishes.’”
“I was ringing up a father and his daughter [at the museum courthouse], there to do a term paper. I turned around and saw Harper Lee outside across the street. The father and daughter rushed outside, but she knew what they wanted, and she just glared at them, got in her car, very calmly, didn’t say a word.”

And the stories take on lives of their own:

“I heard a story about a Christmas party at which a woman brought a friend. Harper Lee was there. The friend forgot to tell the ‘outsider’ not to bring up Mockingbird. The outsider, when introduced, mentioned the book. Harper Lee didn’t say anything. She just turned around and walked out the door.”

Even her publisher couldn’t resist temptation. Since Lee refused to write a foreword for the thirty-fifth anniversary edition, HarperCollins published her letter so indicating, already two years old, in its place:

“Please spare Mockingbird an Introduction. As a reader I loathe Introductions. To novels, I associate Introductions with long-gone authors and works that are being brought back into print after decades of internment. Although Mockingbird will be 33 this year, it has never been out of print and I am still alive, although very quiet. Introductions inhibit pleasure, they kill the joy of anticipation, they frustrate curiosity. The only good thing about Introductions is that in some cases they delay the dose to come. Mockingbird still says what it has to say; it has managed to survive without preamble.”

Why can’t we just leave Harper Lee alone?

* * *
The Radley Place had ceased to terrify me, but it was no less gloomy, no less chilly under its great oaks, and no less uninviting…we knew Boo was there, for the same old reason—nobody’d seen him carried out yet. I sometimes felt a twinge of remorse, when passing by the old place, at ever having taken part in what must have been sheer torment to Arthur Radley—what reasonable recluse wants children peeping through his shutters, delivering greetings on the end of a fishing-pole, wandering in his collards at night?
We had almost seen him a couple of times, a good enough score for anybody.
But I still looked for him each time I went by. Maybe someday we would see him…It was only a fantasy. We would never see him. He probably did go out when the moon was down and gaze upon Miss Stephanie Crawford. I’d have picked somebody else to look at, but that was his business. He would never gaze at us.

Many of us haven’t touched greatness and never will, so we do the next best thing: try to touch someone who has. We want to believe that if we find the humanity in a star, then maybe we can be stars, too. We want to believe that stars hold a locked secret, and we hold the key. We want to believe that they can change us, touch us, heal us, guide us. In our desperation, we pull and lean and poke and jab and scratch and punch, begging, pleading, please look at me, look at me, look at me, playing the poor sinner and leaving the star no choice but to play the savior.

But what would we do, we who think we own shares in her, if we were Harper Lee? Would we embrace the legacy we created with all of its glitter and shine, never stopping to mourn the privilege of an ordinary life: attending church uninterrupted, stopping at the post office uninterrupted, lunching in the café uninterrupted? How long would it take to wonder whether it was all worth it and wish we could take it back? At what point would our darker sides emerge, clawing and fighting, to regain what we had lost? Would we risk having star replaced with bitch or freak?

I entered the Radley front gate for the second time in my life. Boo and I walked up the steps to the porch. His fingers found the front doorknob. He gently released my hand, opened the door, went inside, and shut the door behind him. I never saw him again…
Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.

Harper Lee knows the answer; she’s been trying to tell us for years.

* * *


Resources Used

  1. Childress, Mark. “Looking for Harper Lee.” Southern Living 32.5 (May 1997): 148-150. Proquest. George Mason University Online Collection. 28 February 2005.
  2. “Chicago Press Call.” Rogue 8.12 (December 1963). 10 May 2005 .
  3. Clark, Jane Ellen. Telephone interview. 5 April 2005.
  4. Johnson, Rheta Grimsley. “Harper Lee’s mark now evident in hometown.” The Atlanta Constitution (14 June 1999): B2.
  5. Johnson, Claudia D. To Kill a Mockingbird: Threatening Boundaries. Twayne Publishers: New York, 1994.
  6. Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. Warner Books: New York, 1960.
  7. Lee, Harper. Foreword. To Kill a Mockingbird: Thirty-Fifth Anniversary Edition. By Harper Lee. HarperCollins: New York. 7 April 2005 .
  8. Mills, Marja. “Harper Lee, the complex woman behind ‘a delicious mystery.’” The Chicago Tribune (13 September 2002). Proquest. George Mason University Online Collection. 1 March 2005.
  9. Tabor, Mary B. W. “Book Notes: A ‘New Foreword’ That Isn’t.” The New York Times (23 August 1995): C11. Proquest. George Mason University Online Collection. 28 February 2005.
  10. Weingarten, Toni. “An introvert yearns for a comfortable silence.” The Christian Science Monitor (29 November 2002): 11. Proquest. George Mason University Online Collection. 23 March 2005.