Harper Lee: An Appreciation

CREDIT: AP Photo/Rob Carr

Harper Lee, author of the beloved To Kill a Mockingbird, has died at the age of 89.

To Kill a Mockingbird won a Pulitzer Prize, has never been out of print, and continues to sell almost one million copies a year.

Lee’s health had been declining for years. She suffered from a stroke in 2007 and subsequently moved into an assisted-living facility. She was virtually blind and deaf, confined to a wheelchair, and alone; her older sister, Alice, who had been Lee’s confidant, housemate, and manager, died in 2014 at the age of 103.

She was famous for her desire to not be famous. Though when Mockingbird was first published, she was featured in Life magazine — as the New York Times describes, Lee was photographed with her father in Monroeville “on the front porch of the family home, posing on the balcony of the country courthouse and peering in the window of the ramshackle house that served as the model for the home of Boo Radley” — she went on to avoid nearly all publicity.

We ask so much of our great writers today, so much engagement beyond the books. For the most part, they deliver. Toni Morrison will talk to Terry Gross; Jennifer Egan will have a short story serialized in tweets. Twitter is populated by everyone from Ta-Nehisi Coates to J.K. Rowling to Mary Karr to Neil Gaiman. Leaders of letters trudge through the muck of ever-changing algorithms with the rest of us. Even the famously social-media-averse deign to make themselves seen and heard in mainstream media. There is only, really, Elena Ferrante, and even in her anonymity she manages a kind of public life, granting interviews to The Paris Review and its ilk, illuminating her writing process even as she keeps her true identity in the dark.

Harper Lee wasn’t about that noise. Her refusal to be her own voice in the world has made her last years all too murky: Skepticism abounds about the “discovery” of Lee’s novel, Go Set a Watchman. Did Lee want it published? Did she, with her reportedly diminished ability to see and communicate, even know what was being said about her work, that this long-gone rough draft would be shared with the world? The result is a novel that can never not spark moral conflict in a reader: Is the book on our shelves because Harper Lee wanted it there, or in spite of the fact that she didn’t?

Lee inspired curiosity — an occupational hazard — even as she wanted to be left alone. She was defiant about privacy in a cultural moment when many casually say that privacy is dead. She published one novel, really, when all market forces and reader demands cried out for more. She was a woman outside of time.