Nell Harper Lee (1926-2016):
Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.
Seemingly impossible, but I did not read To Kill A Mockingbird (1960) as a young person, and I didn’t even see the film until 2007, and then only at The Husband’s insistence. I certainly would have been better briefed for adulthood if I had encountered this American novel in my early teens rather than in my mid-50s.
Harper Lee was a very quiet nonconformist. Her cold shoulder to any celebrity is challenging to conceive in today’s culture, especially for a popular writer. Lee had hoped her famous book would meet a “quick and merciful death”. Instead, it achieved immortality, certainly the most popular American novel of the 20th century. The film version, with a perfect screenplay by Horton Foote, is so spot on that the film and the book have merged in most peoples’ brains.
In 1950, as a young frumpy girl, fresh from the University Of Alabama, minus her law degree, Lee moved to New York City from her hometown of Monroeville. She didn’t think she was going to accomplish anything, she was just renewing her friendship with her childhood buddy Truman Capote. She said she was maybe going to write a book. She did, and the book was published in 1960. Lee became very famous.
That book is a barely disguised version of her Alabama family and Monroeville’s Southern racial consciousness, but it is also very much about Lee and Capote, childhood chums who become personally and artistically linked legends. The two kids were precocious with little in common with the other young people in the town. Lee was too rough for the girls, and Capote was too soft for the boys. They each had emotionally remote mothers. Capote’s mother was a self-centered social climber; Lee’s mother suffered from deep depression. Capote’s father attempted to seduce Lee when she was in her teens, and she punched him in the nose. Capote hated Lee’s gossipy mother, and later used her as the basis of his story Mrs. Busybody.
Like so many Harper Lee fans, I have sometimes speculated that she was a lesbian, because she seems gay to me, but mostly because of how tough it was for any gay Americans in the 1950s, with McCarthyism as a tool for taking on not only Communists but also the activities of suspected homos through near constant police harassment and countless raids on gay bars.
The primary reason her readers speculate about Lee’s possible gayness is because of her much loved gender-nonconforming fictional characters Scout and Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Scout is a tomboy and Dill is a little effeminate lad, which inextricably connected gay readers to the novel and Lee. Young gay readers came away from the novel feeling that there was someone else like him or her, either Scout or her friend Dill. So loved and lauded are Scout and Dill in the American gay literary canon that To Kill a Mockingbird is ranked 67th on the Publishing Triangle’s list of The 100 Best Lesbian And Gay Novels.
If Lee is to be judged by the company she kept, her childhood friend Capote, the writer of Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961) and In Cold Blood (1966) was notoriously gay.
Lee had moved to NYC in 1949 to be a writer, but perhaps also, like so many of us, to be more authentic and open. She only returned to Monroeville permanently after suffering a stroke in 2007.
Lee had wry sense of irony. She was the editor of the humor magazine at the University Of Alabama. When told that her book had great appeal for children, Lee stated:
But I hate children. I can’t stand them.
Lee became a great friend to Gregory Peck, who won an Academy Award for his portrayal of the ultimate father, Atticus Finch, in the film version of To Kill A Mockingbird. She remained close to the actor’s family after his passing. Peck’s grandson, Harper Peck Voll, is named for her. In 2005, Lee was portrayed on film twice, in two completely different Capote bio-pics, by Catherine Keener in Capote (Oscar nomination), and Sandra Bullock in Infamous.
In 2007, President George W. Bush awarded Lee the Presidential Medal Of Freedom, the first of several high honors. She received the National Medal Of Arts, presented to her by President Barack Obama in 2010. The current president has never read a book, so I am not looking to him to give a prize to a writer, unless he gives himself the medal for The Art Of The Deal (which he didn’t even write).
In 2013, Lee was forced to file a lawsuit to regain the copyright to To Kill A Mockingbird, seeking damages from the estate of her former literary agent. Lee claimed that the agent had engaged in a scheme to dupe her into assigning him the copyright on the book in 2007, when her hearing and eyesight were in decline, and she was residing in an assisted-living facility after having suffered a stroke.
She finished her first novel in 1955 and she waited five years to publish it on the advice of her editor who worried it would be too provocative. Lee’s second novel, Go Set A Watchman was published in July 2016, 55 years after her first. It was controversially published as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, although it has been confirmed that it really was the first draft of her famous novel. Go Set A Watchman is set some 20 years after the first book, with Scout returning as an adult from NYC to visit her father in Alabama. It received nearly unanimously bad reviews and much talk about the revelation of the racism of its main characters, and much speculation about the health and reasoning powers of Lee for allowing it to be published. Personally, I chose to skip it altogether and reread To Kill A Mockingbird instead.
Lee lived a quiet life after she returned to Monroeville, up until she left this world in 2016. She stayed active, moving easily around the town, protected from the press and unwanted fans by her neighbors. She avoided anything to do with her popular novel which is still selling a million copies a year, having never been out of print.
The public will never know if Lee was gay or straight. She has taken the answer about her sexual orientation to her grave, and may we all rest in peace with it.