Spare a thought for residents of the small Bible Belt town of Monroeville in Alabama, where this week a horde of journalists were traipsing the sun-baked, dusty roads in search of anyone who might know a shy old lady living in the town’s sheltered housing complex.
July 11 marks the 50th anniversary of 84-year-old Harper Lee’s landmark civil rights novel To Kill A Mockingbird, which is set in a fictional equivalent of the town and draws heavily from Lee’s own life experiences. Like her protagonist Atticus Finch, the author’s father was a lawyer who represented black defendants in the Monroeville court house, and like her book’s young narrator Scout, as a child she was tomboyish and withdrawn.
But if newspaper editors were hoping to glean something new of the author’s enigmatic personality, they were surely to be disappointed. It says much about the relationship between Harper Lee and her keen press following that a five sentence exchange with Daily Mail journalist Sharon Churcher last week was re-reported the world over. In the fifty years since the book’s publication, Lee has said barely a word to the media, and she has not given an interview since 1964.
In lieu, journalists have been speaking to friends and associates of the author, known locally as “Nelle”. Taken together, these give us at least an intimation of why she has been so guarded.
The Mail‘s most insightful source was 87-year-old George Thomas Jones, a retired businessman from the town who has known Harper since she was a girl. He said:
I’m not a psychologist, but there’s a lot of Nelle in that book . . . People say the publicity the book got turned her into a recluse but publicity didn’t ruin her life: I don’t think Nelle’s ever been a real happy person. ‘[Her father] was a real genteel man, who listened more than he talked … but he sure didn’t show much affection. I used to caddy for him on the local golf course. He was so formal that he would wear a heavy three-piece suit.. ‘[Later] my late wife was [Harper’s own] golfing partner and she knew never to ask her about [the book]. It’s not just something she didn’t want to talk about – it’s a subject you wouldn’t want to touch with a ten-foot pole.
Meanwhile, the BBC’s Washington correspondent Steve Kingstone spent time with retired minister Rev Thomas Lane Butts, who describes himself as a close friend of Lee’s.
She [once] asked me, ‘You ever wonder why I didn’t write anything else?’ And I said, ‘Along with several million other people. She said, ‘I would not go through all the deprivation of privacy through which I went for this book again for any amount of money…[Besides] I did not need to write another book. I said what I wanted to say in that book.
The New York Times had to settle for the writer and documentary director, Mary McDonagh Murphy, who has interviewed Lee’s sister Alice, and who suggested she has shunned reporters in the opinion that “writers should not be familiar and recognisable; that was for entertainers.”
A three-day festival has been planned to commemorate the novel next week, including a panel discussion of the book featuring Southern scholars and writers, outdoor readings, and expert walking tours of Monroeville. But To Kill a Mockingbird‘s publishers have organised the festival on the assumption that Lee will not take part. A spokesperson for Harper Collins said: “The legacy of To Kill a Mockingbird speaks for itself.”