Getting To Know Harper Lee

Harper Lee
Ultimate recluse Harper Lee. Photo: Getty Images

“It’s better to be silent than to be a fool,” she said at one of her rare public appearances. Indeed, fifty-four years after she wrote an all time classic, the mystique and the aura around Harper Lee remains undiminished, and it is with great alacrity that one gets down to reading this book, which seeks to unravel her mysterious persona. Unfortunately, however, Marja Mills despite trying hard does not quite succeed in making us know the deeply private person any better. While it is certainly a good thing to be unpretentious, Mills is unable to invest her narrative with either insight or understanding.

Lee hasn’t given an interview since 1964 and Mills’ book is a memoir of her friendship with Lee. Significantly, prior to the book’s publication, it ran into controversy after a purported letter from a bed-ridden Lee claimed that she hadn’t authorised any such book and admonished Mills. While the authenticity of the letter is doubted, it raises serious questions about the nature of relationship an author shares with her subject. After all, friendship blurs lines and involves otherwise guarded confidence.

One reason for that could be the fact that so many years after publishing To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee herself has almost disdainfully rejected any attempts to know her better. She has been a recluse, and the only time she chose to pursue writing of any kind was when she briefly assisted Truman Capote complete In Cold Blood. Marja Mills is one of the few journalists to have succeeded in getting something out of the legendary writer. She has developed long conversations into a full-fledged text, supplemented it with a lot of interesting nuggets but still does not quite succeed… Which is a pity!

The Mockingbird Next Door Marja Mills The Penguin Press New York 278 pp; Rs 666
The Mockingbird Next Door
Marja Mills
The Penguin Press New York
278 pp; Rs 666

One wants to obviously know why Harper Lee never wrote any novel after To Kill a Mockingbird. The making of a recluse in itself is an interesting enough challenge, and to her credit, Mills is earnest. Mills knows that she is onto something that nobody else has done before her, but to be honest, seems rather overwhelmed by it all. However, perseverance is a great attribute, and that this journalist seems to have aplenty. We get to know, as Elizabeth Berg once remarked, of how reading sustains a person for a lifetime, how values that one holds dear remain unchanged and how it is a good idea to take joy in small things.

We all are aware of how Lee’s remarkable novel about latent racism changed all of us; we are, however, still left wondering how it changed her, if at all it did. Lee along with sister Alice love their Southern Albama, and take great delight in travelling across its largely unchanged terrain down the years. She loves to tuck into genuine Mexican food for a change of pace, but all through, she does not allow many to come even remotely near her for them to claim her as a friend. She quite simply does not love interceptions and interruptions.

The parts where Mills cajoles Lee to discuss things about Truman Capote are truly delightful. Lee recalls than Truman was a strange-looking little thing: a blond little boy with a high-pitched voice and vivid imagination. But it was his vivid imagination, which intrigued Harper and went on to make Truman the kind of powerhouse that he later became. But after In Cold Blood, Truman became too much of a celebrity for his friend’s liking, and in an endearing tone, Lee tells Mills, “Truman was a psychopath, honey.”

A normal day in the life of Lee would be her writing a letter or two (she is a painstaking correspondent) attending to faxes, reading books and remembering friends and relatives without wanting to be with them. Friends are less likely to drop by after dark so that she could count on a long stretch of time without distraction.


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