Remembering Harper Lee 

Barbara Shoup on the life and writing of Harper Lee


Editor's note: Harper Lee passed away at the age of 89 on February 19, 2016 in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. 

I’ve been living in Harper Lee’s world lately to prepare for a library talk I gave last week about To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman. I reread both books, watched the film, and saw Indiana Repertory Theatre’s production of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I read Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, by Charles J. Shields, and The Mockingbird Next Door, Marja Mills’s memoir about her friendship with Harper Lee.

I thought a lot about Lee’s struggles with her first novel, Go Set a Watchman, which she never got right, and her struggles with To Kill a Mockingbird, which she go so right that it catapulted into the fame and fortune that most writers dream of—and stopped her in her tracks.

I thought about a 2005 conversation Lee had with a waiter at a party in New York, described near the end of Shields’s biography. “Why didn’t you write another book?” the waiter asked.

“‘I had every intention of writing many novels,’” Harper Lee reportedly said, ‘but I never could have imagined the success To Kill a Mockingbird would enjoy. I became overwhelmed.’”

In the concluding paragraph of his biography, Shields wrote, “Rather than allow herself to be eternally frustrated, she ‘forgave herself’ and lifted the burden fro her shoulders of living up to the book. She refused to pressure herself into writing another novel unless the muse came to her naturally.”

But the muse never comes naturally. Writing isn’t about inspiration; it’s about addiction, obsession. The muse is knowing and needing the way writing will take you away from the real word into a world of your own making, one you have the power to shape and control.

Harper Lee knew this.

click to enlarge lee.jpg
In 1964, still struggling with the second novel she never produced, she described herself to an interviewer as someone who must write. “I like to write,” she said. “Sometimes I’m afraid that I like it too much because when I get into work I don’t want to leave it. As a result I’ll go for days and days without leaving the house or wherever I happen to be. I’ll go out long enough to get papers and pick up some food and that’s it. It’s strange, but instead of hating writing I love it too much.”

She spoke about the novels she hoped to write, books that would “…leave some record of the kind of life that existed in a very small world…to chronicle something that seems to be very quickly going down the drain. This is small-town middle-class southern life as opposed to the gothic, as opposed to Tobacco Road, as opposed to plantation life.”

“In other words,” she concluded, “all I want to be is the Jane Austen of south Alabama.”

The sad thing is, she could have been.

In the sixties, a promising writer, one whose first novel had received excellent reviews but sold only moderately well, would have been nurtured by her publisher. If she needed money to pay the rent so that she could get that second novel written, money would magically appear. Her editor would be on call in the case of any crisis or confidence, instantly available for lunch or dinner or a drink to help calm the writer down, to reassure her that of course she would finish the book she was working on in time and of course it would be wonderful. The editor would truly believe this. She would believe it was her job to guide you through the long, harrowing process of birthing a novel.

It is its own kind of weird blessing not to be famous, not to have people waiting to see what you’ve written next, to judge if it is better or worse than what you’ve written before. It is its own weird kind of blessing to keep the carrot of recognition ever before you. Maybe, maybe the next novel will be the one that makes you a “successful” writer. When it’s not, well, you go at it again.

Harper Lee had an editor who believed passionately in her work and guided her through revision after revision of both Go Tell a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird. She had friends who believed in her so much that they gave her enough money to quit her job and do nothing but write for a year.

She knew writing was hard, that it was supposed to be hard. Shields described Lee’s 1966 response to a Sweet Briar College student who asked about her typical workday. “She said she stayed at her desk six to twelve hours a day and ended up with, perhaps, one page of finished manuscript.” Harper Lee told the class, “‘To be a serious writer requires discipline that is iron fisted. It’s sitting down and doing it whether you think you have it in you or not. Everyday. Alone. Without interruption. Contrary to what most people think, there is no glamour to writing. In fact, it’s heartbreak most of the time.’”

What might Harper Lee have written if “Mockingbird” hadn’t been a publishing phenomenon; if instead, good reviews and moderate sales had given her confidence as a writer, a manageable taste of recognition, the courage to go on?

What if she’d never had to occasion to say to her cousin, Dickie Williams, who asked the question she had surely come to dread, “Richard, when you’re at the top there’s only one way to go.”

In his conclusion to Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, Charles J. Shields wrote, “A little more than a year after To Kill a Mockingbird was published, Nelle wrote to friends in Mobile, ‘People who have made peace with themselves are the people I most admire in the world.’ From all indications, she seems to have done that.”

I so hope he’s right. But I wonder.

And now we’ll never know.

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Barbara Shoup

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