Harper Lee letters offer takes on religion, family
Around the same time “To Kill a Mockingbird” made Harper Lee a best-selling author and Pulitzer Prize winner, she was still fighting for creative control.
“I must say it’s increasingly difficult for magazine articles to be written any other way than a magazine editor standing over your shoulder telling you what to write. You know how well that sets with me,” the Monroeville, Alabama, native wrote to her New York friend, Harold Caufield (affectionately referred to as “Darling Aitch”). The 1961 letter — the year after the book was published — told of Esquire’s turning down a piece she had been asked to write.
“I didn’t confirm to their Image (or the one they wish to project) of the South. My pastiche had some white people who were segregationists & at the same time loathed & hated the K.K.K. This was an axiomatic impossibility, according to Esquire! I wanted to say that according to those lights, nine-tenths of the South is an axiomatic impossibility.”
Lee’s letter is among six donated to Emory University by a California-based book collector and being made public Monday. The typed correspondence dates from the mid-1950s, when she began writing “Go Set a Watchman,” the precursor to “Mockingbird” that unexpectedly came out in 2015, through the early ’60s and the release of “Mockingbird.” They touch upon everything from politics and writing to religion and dating. They also describe her caring for her ailing father, Amasa Coleman (A.C) Lee, the lawyer and newspaper man who was the basis for one of literature’s most famous characters, Atticus Finch.
“This correspondence from Harper Lee provides wonderful insight into her life during the critical years when she wrote what would be her only two novels,” Joseph Crespino, an Emory professor and author of the upcoming “Atticus Finch: The Biography,” said in a statement. “They provide a window into her life and her views during a period of tumultuous change in southern political life.”
Lee died in 2016 at age 89. As Crespino writes in his book, she both revered and rebelled against her father, whose hallowed image formed by “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Gregory Peck’s performance in the 1962 film adaptation was upended by the portrait of Atticus as a stubborn reactionary in “Go Set a Watchman.” Harper Lee had argued with her father about the rising civil rights movement, but remained close to him. In the mid-’50s, she even moved from New York back to Monroeville after A.C. Lee fell ill.
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