Pariah to Profit: Growing up with Miss Nelle “Harper” Lee

antigravity_vol12_issue6_Page_14_Image_0001Monroeville, Alabama was a perfectly fine place to be a kid. I was spared any major life trauma, all things considered. I had plenty of friends and my grandparents lived close by and the bubble of safety never burst on me the way it must for kids who grow up in bigger cities. I always wanted to get out, but only because I felt there was so much else to see. But I saw even when I lived there, and especially once I had left, how with each progressive year, the town vanished around me.

13.4 square miles never felt so empty. Stores closed. Industries moved. We lost nearly a third of our class in fourth grade when the Vanity Fair textile mill shifted workers from Monroeville to Atlanta. The city block that used to house the VF factory is now an asphalt lot. The company my father poured his sweat into for 35 years, Alabama River Pulp, was once a massive three-pronged industrial beast, employing most of my friends’ parents and competing with two other large lumber yards for a robust regional business. These days it has shrunk to just one arm, seeing the closure of both of its other branches, and was bought out by Georgia Pacific in 2010. The unemployment rate in Monroe County is currently at 9.4% with the average salary for a family coming in at $38,000. There are people trying very hard to keep the place afloat, but sadly much of the future existence of my hometown seems to depend on its most famous resident, Nelle Lee (you might know her as Harper), and the American classic she penned, To Kill a Mockingbird, remaining a relevant cultural touchstone.

So it didn’t surprise me one bit when news of a new Harper Lee novel spread through the town to cries of joy and excitement. I can’t claim to have been a close personal friend of Miss Nelle or any of her relatives, but she passed through my childhood on a number of occasions, some mundane and others epic. I, like most kids of a certain age (particularly in the South), was required to read Mockingbird for school. I had always loved reading. Both my grandfather and I were regulars at the local library, so I was enamored by the idea of a novel written by someone who grew up in the same place I did.

I was positively engrossed by the story and its message struck a chord deep within me. The next time I saw Miss Nelle, I was in line with my dad at Sweet Tooth Bakery on a Saturday morning, idly daydreaming of apple fritters when she walked in. I had to actively work to suppress my inner fan girl, but I had been sternly warned by every adult in my life—including the school teacher who assigned the novel to my class—that I should never speak a word to her about the book. That she was a perfectly nice lady, but that it just wasn’t something we do. It was a deal everyone in the town had implicitly made with her—an unspoken pact, the breaking of which was the highest form of taboo.

So I never said a word. But my inquisitive mind longed to pick her brain about how she did it. And honestly, it does to this day. I would love nothing more, as a journalist and writer, than to sit down with Miss Nelle and talk about the spark that started this fire. To talk about what drove her to write and what she hoped to get from it. To confirm that Dill was really just a modified version of her childhood friend, Truman Capote. To hear from her own mouth what she thinks about the rumors (and there are plenty) about her and her singular work of art. But I never will. For myriad reasons, not the least of which is a deeply ingrained sense of respect. It was hammered into my consciousness early and often and there is something within me that feels… well, protective of her. Of her story. Of her right to not talk. To not pose for pictures and answer questions about why she never wrote another book or why she was never married. And that instinct flared wildly when I heard the news of the summer 2015 release of her “new book,” Go Set A Watchman. On the day of the announcement, my Facebook feed exploded with joyous exclamations that finally (!) we would get more words from this iconic voice of the South. And from the jump, it smelled utterly rotten to me.

antigravity_vol12_issue6_Page_15_Image_0001Aside from a few short stories penned in the early ‘60s, there is no other record of Miss Nelle having written after the meteoric rise of Mockingbird. There was word that the pressure and media glare was too much for someone so private to bear. Some said she was afraid she could never top it, so why bother? Still, others insisted (in hushed whispers of course) that she never wrote the book to begin with. The most most popular version of that tale ascertains that her good friend Truman was the man behind the curtain, composing what would become one

of the most classic American novels of all time in order to support his friend financially. Not only is the prose all wrong for it to have been Capote, but if you believe for one second that a man with his ego would stay silent about such artistic ownership in the face of the book’s universal praise, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.

The story of the new book, if you’ve not heard, goes a bit like this. A copy of it was “discovered” in a bank vault wrapped inside an original Mockingbird manuscript by Lee’s attorney, Tonja Carter. She showed it to Miss Nelle, who (allegedly) was thrilled as she assumed it was lost after all these years. She agreed to allow HarperCollins to release it as-is. It is being spoken of as a sequel to Mockingbird, but the reality is that it was, according to the publisher, a first stab at telling the story of Scout and her family. It is written from the viewpoint of an adult Scout, returning to Maycomb to visit Atticus. When she presented it to her agent in the late ‘50s, he told her frankly that it wasn’t the story she needed to tell. He told her to focus on the relationship from the vantage point of a young Scout, and from that editorial nudge came To Kill a Mockingbird.

And that is the story Miss Nelle’s handlers would have you believe. A press release quote claiming to have been spoken by the woman herself notes that she “was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it” and that she is “humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.” Anyone familiar with the legend of Harper Lee knows that she is essentially a recluse. She spent her entire life attempting to escape the notoriety her one novel brought her, all the while insisting she would never put pen to paper again or release any other work. Giving up her home in New York City after a severe stroke in 2007, she moved back to Monroeville and eventually into an assisted living facility, as she had suffered the almost complete loss of her hearing and vision, as well as a portion of her fine motor skills. She is now (by many accounts of those close to her) confined to a wheelchair and it has been said she will “sign almost anything that is put in front of her.” She just recently settled a suit to regain the copyright to her famous novel, after unbeknownst to her, she signed it away to her then- agent Samuel Pinkus.

All of that together is enough to cast a gigantic cloud of doubt on this release, but the timing of this discovery is the most troubling part of the story to me, as it came just months after the death of Nelle’s older sister Alice, who passed away in November 2014 at the age of 103. An Alabama icon in her own right, Miss Alice was, until recently, the oldest practicing attorney in the state. Her case history includes a laundry list of civil rights battles and she was a well-known patron at many Monroeville businesses. She was gregarious and affable and had charm for miles. She was all the things Nelle could never muster within herself. She was also her sister’s legal representation, spokesperson, and advocate. And at the end of the day, she was the last thing standing between her baby sister and the circling vultures.

Vultures might seem a harsh term, but in the end the “industry of Mockingbird” is the slowly beating, lurching heart of Monroeville. In 1997 the town was dubbed the “Literary Capital of Alabama” and Miss Nelle herself remarked in response to the news that “the literary capital of Alabama doesn’t read.” No love lost, clearly. There is also the sad reality that in 2013, she had to sue the old courthouse museum for their years of blatant profiteering off anything and everything mockingbird-related. Each spring a Mockingbird play is staged on the town square, including scenes performed in the old courthouse (the interior of which was immortalized

in the 1962 film adaptation). Crowds gather to experience the nostalgia and the raw emotion of this unforgettable tale, such as the Mayella Ewell character screaming “I got somethin’ to say, ‘an then I ain’t gonna say no more!” Audience members are chosen to sit in the jury box (only white men of course, as we want to remain historically accurate). Afterwards, maybe they’ll grab a bite to eat at Radley’s (yes, named after the book’s reluctant hero) or The Courthouse Cafe. Maybe they’ll sleep a night at the Mockingbird Inn or snap a picture in front of one of many Mockingbird-themed murals drawn on the sides of buildings on the square. They’ll breeze in and see this lovely, sleepy town, somewhat frozen in time. I grew up two blocks from that square in an Antebellum style house more than a century old. That town is in my blood and my head and my heart forever. But the town these visitors see? It doesn’t exist.

When Mockingbird was first published, Monroeville didn’t exactly roll out the red carpet for its now-beloved daughter. As you can imagine, many residents felt that the book cast an unflattering light on them and their backward ways. It was only when the book soared into the stratosphere and became a commodity that the cries of “you know, she’s from here” started to resound. You’ve heard the line from Portlandia, right? “Put a bird on it!” Everyone in my town took that to heart and you couldn’t take a step without running into mockingbird this or mockingbird that. A passionate, gut-wrenching tale of aborted justice in the face of unflinching racism in the deep South became a bumper sticker, a coffee mug, a refrigerator magnet. And not once did any of them stop to consider the wishes of its author. Miss Nelle fled to New York City, putting the two-faced money gobblers in her rearview. And I don’t blame her for one second.

So when I heard the news, my heart fell. I thought of Miss Nelle, sitting in that quiet nursing home out on the Highway 21 Bypass, her beloved sister in the ground and her closest friends scattered to the winds, her once notoriously peppery persona marred by physical infirmity, at the mercy of people who see her as a living, breathing dollar sign, and so “humbled and amazed” about the release of a book she spent her life promising we’d never see. She once told Oprah in an off-camera interview that people had her figured all wrong, that every article written about her compared her to Scout. “But,” she admitted “I’m really Boo.” If you can believe nothing as an ultimate truth from all of this confusion and sadness, believe that.

And always remember: ”You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” So I have. And you won’t see a copy of Go Set A Watchman on my shelf. I won’t be a vulture. And I won’t feed them either. I will re-read To Kill a Mockingbird instead. And I will take joy in knowing that it was created by someone who was once a little girl just like me, growing up in the same town and seeing the same bitter ugliness clash with simple beauty.