My letter from Harper Lee

Keeping out of the public eye doesn’t stop her being sharp-eyed, curious and impeccably well-mannered. I have the evidence

11 July 2015

9:00 AM

11 July 2015

9:00 AM

Who knows whether Harper Lee, now 89, has given permission for her novel, Go Set a Watchman, to be published next week? Perhaps — as the rumours have it — she really is deaf and blind, and mentally incapable of sanctioning the book’s release, as she sits in a nursing home in her birthplace, Monroeville, Alabama.

But I do know that — contrary to popular opinion — she hasn’t shut herself off from the world since To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960. Quite the contrary — in the past half-century, she has been an exceptional consumer of world affairs, British affairs in particular. She’s a long-time Spectator reader, for God’s sake!

How do I know all this? Because she told me — in a letter she sent to me when I was the Telegraph’s New York correspondent.

It was one of those great snapshot moments you remember for ever. On a freezing morning in February 2006, I bicycled down an ice-bound Broadway to the Telegraph’s Manhattan office in SoHo. And there, next to the huge pile of that day’s American papers, sat a handwritten letter.

Just the envelope set my heart racing — in its top left-hand corner, the sender had written a return address: a post office box in Monroeville, Alabama. Surely it couldn’t be from the world’s most famous recluse?

Eight months earlier, I’d written to her, using the address ‘Harper Lee, Monroeville, Alabama’, much more in hope than in expectation. I was longing to interview her about the trial of Edgar Ray ‘Preacher’ Killen, a former Ku Klux Klan organiser, now 90, who orchestrated the murders of three civil rights activists in 1964. Acquitted in his 1966 trial, he was found guilty in 2005 — thus my interview request. He remains in the Mississippi State Penitentiary.

I hadn’t held out much hope of any response from Harper Lee — and so, when I got no reply after a few weeks, I wrote about Edgar Killen without any comment from her.

To open that letter, eight months later — and see at the bottom ‘Harper Lee’ — was one big jolt to the heart.

No, she wasn’t about to give me her first proper interview since 1964 when, incidentally, she praised The Spectator for its book reviews. (An American friend later told me the story of her rootling through a secondhand bookshop and falling, with delight, on vintage copies of The Spectator.) Harper Lee once said her ideal response to interview requests is, ‘Hell, no’. And ‘Hell, no’ was the subtle undercurrent of her letter to me. But what an elegant brush-off it was.

‘I don’t know if it’s proper to thank a journalist who, after having been turned down for an interview by his subject, cobbles together a piece that sparkles with good-naturedness,’ she wrote. ‘Proper or not, thank you.’

The letter was written in a fine cursive hand, with a barely noticeable leaning of the lines down towards the bottom right-hand corner of the page; but, still, imperfect enough for Harper Lee to apologise. ‘Macular degeneration, an idiotic medical term for senile blindness, makes it difficult for me to read and write (I can’t do a thing about these slanting lines),’ she wrote.

Her use of ‘senile’ was strictly in the sense of old, as opposed to demented. Her hand was securely on the tiller, as she softened the blow of rejection with praise.

The previous Christmas, I had written an article in these pages about the Fulton Fish Market — Manhattan’s 200-year-old market, which had just moved from its old home, in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, to the Bronx. Modesty doesn’t forbid me from quoting Harper Lee’s flattering response.

‘I was impressed by your words on the Killen trial and delighted most recently by your story on the Fulton Fish Market in the Christmas issue of The Spectator,’ she wrote, ‘My sister takes the Speccie, the Weekly Telegraph and the TLS.’

Harper Lee’s older sister, and long-term housemate, Alice Lee — known as ‘Miss Alice’ — died last November, aged 103. A property and probate lawyer for nearly 70 years, she worked for Barnett, Bugg, Lee and Carter, the Monroeville law firm where her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, also practised. A.C. Lee inspired Atticus, the upstanding lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee supposedly joked that Miss Alice was ‘Atticus in a skirt’.

Not long before Harper Lee wrote the letter, my father, Ferdinand Mount, had been the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. So she signed off with the ego-expanding words, ‘So two of us in Monroeville are fairly familiar with Mount family journalism. You are an amiable chip off your ancestral block, Sincerely, Harper Lee.’

I quote her not just to show off, but also to shed light on Harper Lee’s supposedly reclusive character.

In her half-century-long retreat from the world, I suppose it’s true that she is literally a recluse — someone who has chosen to shut herself away. But — as her letter shows — she’s not the grouchy, self-obsessed type of recluse who has turned in on herself.

In those beautifully written, self-deprecating words, she reveals herself as the far superior kind of recluse: the obsessive reader, avidly devouring international news and literary gossip, who prefers books and newspapers, and her family and close friends, to the unrelenting glare, noise and sycophancy of strangers that comes of embracing fame.

Her childhood friend in Monroeville, Truman Capote, went the other way, clinging on to fame for dear life. And look where that got him: drunk, drug-addicted, facelifted up to the eyeballs — and fixated on staying in with the supposedly beau monde. It’s not difficult to see which of those two gifted children of 1930s Alabama made the right choice.

I realise I’ve been seduced by Harper Lee’s Southern charm; that she was nimbly deflecting a fan with the greatest defence mechanism of all: impeccable manners. Still, my hunch is that — however blind or deaf she now might be — the intelligence, emphathy and wit she showed in that letter burn as brightly as ever. Such an acute mind would not have allowed the new book to be published unless it was in To Kill a Mockingbird’s league.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Harry Mount’s Odyssey: Ancient Greece in the Footsteps of Odysseus is out on 16 July. Philip Hensher will review Go Set a Watchman in next week’s Spectator.

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Show comments
  • BryanKStearns

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  • Simkins25

    From Homer to Harper Lee – it’s a tough old life Harry Mount!

  • trace9

    Trueman Capote, a Million Times. Dear, what a breathless, fluttery Epistle to an Icon, how plethoric of Americanisms & what a fan he is – of a fanny. & Surely, now, they must ban the very name Lee – that of the evil leader of the Army of Evil – of the Evil South – now a crime to be thought have ever to have been Beautiful. Ban the flag – if really, for that tv series, as in most cases now emblem of the social rebel – not Johnny Reb. – & the young-ish, unconquered freethinker. Oh dear me, BAN that last Evil word, uber alles!

    Over to you, Harper & kinky co., & the ever-Mouthy Mounty.

    Go, set a watchman..

    Good one from Greece tho’. The US undergoing Sexit, flexit – & what after Obexit.. Ex’d itself all the way down to USAexit – there’ll be hardly anything left to greet the eager-eyed tsunamic Mexican Waves.

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  • Gilbert White

    South African author saying recently she did not like black people. Wonder how many Atticus would have shot if he lived in Joburg?

  • jim

    Nice old lady but surely we’re well past all this “brothers under the skin” guff by now? It was the likes of her book (and especially the movie) that helped soften us up for the cretinous decisions that led us to where we are today. Blame it on Harper Lee and Gregory Peck.

  • Corbus

    It’s all a bit passé. Lovely picture of Bernie Ecclestone, though.

    • lakelander

      I was going to post that but you beat me to it.

  • CortexUK

    What I take from the reviews of GSAW that I have read is that Harper Lee isn’t a very good writer after all, and it was her editor Tay Hohoff whose name should be on every copy of TKAM sold from this day onwards – with a sleeve note explaining how she took a poorly-written manuscript from a middling writer and turned it into a literary masterpiece and global bestseller. As John Harvard said:

    “The destruction of myths is a legitimate sport, but its only justification is the establishment of truth in place of error.”

    Lee’s brilliance as an author appears to be a myth, and we now have evidence for the truth. Maybe we now understand the reason she stopped writing; she only had one good book in her, and she couldn’t even achieve that feat without the help of the brilliant editor (and writer, see below) who died in 1974.

    Here’s the book Hohoff wrote before TKAM was published, about an early 20th century activist from New York who was a champion of Black and immigrant rights: