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Remembering Harper Lee, Author of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

A PBS doc described her impact and the stir 'Go Set a Watchman' made


Novelist Harper Lee has died at age 89. The author of To Kill a Mockingbird died peacefully in her sleep at an assisted living facility in Monroeville, Ala., on Friday, February 19, 2016, The New York Times reports, leaving in her wake a mystery that will likely never be solved.

After decades of silence, Lee created a stir with the release of her second novel, Go Set a Watchman, in 2015. Watchman was as controversial as Mockingbird was revered. People wondered why Lee was suddenly publishing a second book (and whether she was mentally competent to do so) and her legacy was reconsidered.

Before the release of Watchman, a 50th anniversary documentary seemed a fitting way to put a period on the sentence of Harper Lee’s literary career. The surprise in Lee’s back pocket inspired a remake of Harper Lee: American Masters, which aired on PBS on July 10, 2015, in advance of the release of Lee’s long-secret second novel.

In 1960, Lee had stunned everyone with her debut novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Even herself. She later recounted her reaction to the hubbub around the book in a radio interview: “My reaction wasn’t one of surprise, it was one of sheer numbness, of being hit over the head and knocked cold.

“I never expected the book to sell in the first place,” she continues in a clip that’s featured in the anniversary documentary. “I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers.”

Maybe for Harper Lee there was nothing else left to play. She’d sang the song, played the solo and walked off the stage, and we’re all better for it.

— James McBride

But Mockingbird won a Pulitzer Prize, sold millions of copies, became required reading in high schools across America, inspired a hit movie and made Truman Capote so jealous of his lifelong friend that he dropped her.

Meanwhile, Lee, like her mysterious character Boo Radley, shunned the limelight. She proceeded to drop out of sight.

A Celebratory Documentary

Fifty years later, Emmy winning filmmaker Mary McDonagh Murphy commemorated Lee and her beloved book with a documentary called Hey, Boo! Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird and an accompanying book called Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of To Kill a Mockingbird. Both were released in 2010 to celebrate Lee’s one and only novel, which by then had sold nearly 50 million copies.

The documentary aired on PBS American Masters and was released in 20 theaters nationwide. The companion book became a New York Times bestseller. It was an impressive tribute, featuring interviews with big guns of the book world talking about the importance of Lee’s masterwork.

In it, Oprah Winfrey called Mockingbird  “one of the first books I wanted to encourage others to read.” Author Wally Lamb said Lee’s book cast a spell over him as a kid. Tom Brokaw remembered being struck by the way Lee captured the nuances and pressures of small-town life. And author/musician James McBride called Lee brave for taking on racism — and forcing a conversation about racial injustice — before the Civil Rights Movement was in full tilt.

The interviews were woven with historical footage of the Ku Klux Klan and violent protests as well as images of Capote partying at Studio 54 and a young Harper Lee.

No one interviewed for the documentary, neither the celebrities nor those close to Lee, had any reason to expect there would be much more to say about her. She hadn’t spoken to the press since 1964 and was living in a nursing home in the small town of Monroeville, Ala., where she had grown up.

In the documentary, her older sister, Alice Finch Lee, a lawyer who took over their father’s firm and handled all the writer’s affairs, was adamant there would be no more books. “I haven’t anywhere to go but down,” she recalled Lee saying.

The film closed with writers speculating on why Lee had produced only one book. McBride waxed poetic: “Maybe for Harper Lee there was nothing else left to play. She’d sang the song, played the solo and she walked off the stage, and we’re all better for it.”

Revelation of a New Novel

Then, of course, Lee did what she had done in 1960: She stunned the world with the announcement that her second novel, Go Set a Watchman, would be published in summer 2015. Once again, Lee became a literary sensation, with preorders of the new book putting it atop bestseller lists long before its release.

Murphy had rare access to an advanced copy of Watchman, but she and PBS kept it under wraps, saying only that they used it to update the documentary.

“Go Set a Watchman was written before To Kill a Mockingbird and believed to be lost or destroyed,” Murphy says. “Its remarkable discovery allows readers of Lee’s beloved classic the chance to see Atticus and Scout again. How and why this happened is a mystery we unravel in the new version of the documentary.”

Murphy live tweeted during the broadcast at #HarperLeePBS. The Wall Street Journal published the book’s first chapter and made an audio sample, narrated by Reese Witherspoon, available, to kick off a WSJ Book Club discussion on Facebook.

There was much to discuss. The release of the book led to all sorts of speculation. Why was this manuscript suddenly discovered after Lee’s sister passed away? Was Lee being taken advantage of by the attorney who is now charged with looking after her affairs?

Bob Blancato, an elder advocate and Next Avenue contributor, explored the prospect of elder abuse in a February blog post. “We don’t know the full story behind Lee’s manuscript yet,” Blancato wrote. “But if Lee has dementia, as has been reported, her vulnerability would make her a prime example of one type of older adult who is more likely to be taken advantage of by unscrupulous people.”

We may never know the full story behind Lee’s manuscript. Just as we will likely never know why she stopped talking to the press. Or why she stopped writing. But regardless , the original documentary made one thing clear: The enduring power of Lee’s writing is stronger than any rumor or speculation. Just ask any kid who’s read To Kill a Mockingbird in English class.

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