Beechcroft was describing fiction, but that final sentence aptly describes what happened to Lee, whose death at age 89 was announced today, after the wild success of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” For decades, observers have speculated about Lee’s life, trying to fill the void left by her quiet conduct of her affairs and the protectiveness of her family, and wondered when, if ever, she would publish another novel.
That conjecture only increased last year when HarperCollins announced that Lee had apparently reversed her long-standing objections and would be publishing “Go Set a Watchman,” a book bearing the original title for “To Kill a Mockingbird” that returned to Atticus and Scout Finch later in their lives. The book was published amid questions about Lee’s competence to make such a decision and concerns about the ethics of the choice to release “Go Set a Watchman.” Now, Lee’s death suggests that those who have long sought to unpack whatever secrets lay beyond the gate established by her withdrawal from public life will remain unsatisfied. But perhaps that’s a useful lesson for all of us. Our curiosity about Lee says a great deal more about us than the answers might have said about her.
One of the most striking ways audiences express our arrogance is in our assumption that the artists we love must want to be understood and must want to explain their work. If they fail to make themselves available to us, that arrogance makes it easy to assume that they have something to hide, or that something is profoundly wrong with them.
But if there’s one thing that’s clear in Shields’s book, it’s that Lee was, if not indifferent to how others saw her, determined to live on her own terms. As a child, her friendship with Truman Capote grew out of their shared outsider status. In college, “Her cussing was unconscious; the clothes she wore appealed to her because they were practical; she laughed when one of her teasing remarks drew a comeback delivered with equal zest. But she would not stoop to seek others’ approval. The notion that she should never seemed to enter her head.”
After “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published, Lee seemed shocked not simply that people felt interested in what she herself saw as a scanty biography but also that journalists and literary critics felt that they had a right to dissect her, even going so far as to track down her old classmates. Lee told students at West Point that “I was that person before, and no one in the press much cared about the details of my life. I am yet that same person now, who only misses her former anonymity.”
Another flawed assumption is that when success comes suddenly or easily to an author, the work that preceded that success must also have been a lark. Shields’s “Mockingbird” makes clear that in Lee’s case, at least, this was not so. It took her seven years to produce the stories that she first showed to a literary agent. She pored over her sentences, planning carefully what she would write and then reworking the sentences over and over again. After “Mockingbird” was published, when Lee was at work at a planned second novel, “She had to know at least two chapters ahead what characters were going to do and say before she could make any progress.”
And the pressure to follow up “To Kill a Mockingbird” seems to have inhibited her prose, Shields suggests. Esquire rejected a piece editors there had commissioned Lee to write and paid her a kill fee; what she had turned in apparently couldn’t be saved through editing. And Shields detected “a strong whiff of sanctimony” in a subsequent magazine piece in McCall’s. Treating Lee like a spontaneous literary genius, rather than someone for whom writing could be gruelingly hard work, might seem like a gesture of respect. But it may have done Lee a disservice, setting a mark that might have been impossible for her to meet again.
A third myth is that the authors of one successful work must necessarily have more to say. And Lee seemed to have ambitions beyond “To Kill a Mockingbird,” suggesting that she wanted to be her region’s Jane Austen. Certainly, Shields embraced the idea that Lee “was lucky enough to have captured many of the things she most wanted to replicate her first time out. Many writers have done much less after many books. Maybe she was, in some sense, satisfied. Maybe her deed was done.”
Given the circumstances under which it was published, “Go Set a Watchman” doesn’t quite make clear Lee’s own ambitions and intentions. But, as I wrote last year, it’s highly worth reading. If “To Kill a Mockingbird” simultaneously condemned Southern racism and allowed the reader to feel morally superior for rejecting it, “Go Set a Watchman” banishes the illusion that made “To Kill a Mockingbird” so popular. A belief in your own goodness is not the same thing as a real commitment to equality.
That’s a rather harsher truth than the ones Jane Austen put on offer. And if the prose in “Go Set a Watchman” didn’t enhance Lee’s reputation, the discomfiting and newly discovered clarity of the adult Scout’s vision ought to have done something to burnish Lee’s legacy as an observer of race and class in the South. This may not have been what we wanted from Harper Lee, in the end, but it’s what we got.