TIME Books

So Where Has Harper Lee Been All These Years?

Harper Lee
Rob Carr—AP Harper Lee smiles during a ceremony honoring the four new members of the Alabama Academy of Honor at the Capitol in Montgomery, Ala. on Aug. 20, 2007.

The To Kill a Mockingbird author returns after decades out of the spotlight

Today, Harper Lee’s publisher announced that the novelist will release her second novel in July. Lee, age 88, has become a part of the American canon with To Kill a Mockingbird, the story of a young girl’s coming of age against the backdrop of racism in 1930s Alabama. The novel is widely taught and earned her a Pulitzer Prize.

But it’s not just To Kill a Mockingbird‘s success that makes Lee’s news so remarkable. Lee is widely considered a true, and rare, literary recluse, having walked away from stratospheric success and publishing no additional books, despite decades of mounting interest. Lee does not grant interviews, and what articles she has written have been few and far between, including a 2006 item on her love of reading for O, the Oprah Magazine.

Lee, who resides in Monroeville, Ala., still, has reportedly worked on various projects through the years, including a novel whose manuscript she has said was stolen from her and a nonfiction book she simply walked away from. (Her new book, Go Set a Watchman, is neither; it’s the original draft, featuring Scout as an adult woman in the 1950s, that she rewrote to create Mockingbird.) But by all accounts, the author for whom writing To Kill a Mockingbird was a stressful, laborious process (and who’s been cruelly tarred for years with rumors that she did not even write it), had until recently lived a fairly harmonious life.

In 2011, though, Lee released a statement that she had not participated in a forthcoming book by the reporter Marja Mills, kicking off a period of intense speculation about her acuity and entanglements. Mills’s book, The Mockingbird Next Door, took as its subject a period of time in which Mills lived next door to Lee and her elder sister Alice. The incident is mired in controversy, with Lee strongly implying that her older sister participated in the book due to diminished capacities brought on by old age and Mills outright stating “I question that Nelle [Harper Lee’s real name] really wrote the letter that was released in her name this week.” An article published by New York last year raised questions over lawyer Tonja Carter’s involvement in Lee’s life; Carter, who has power of attorney over Lee, reportedly sued the nonprofit museum in Lee’s hometown that had long sold Mockingbird memorabilia. (In a lengthy statement about her new book, Lee notes that Carter “discovered” it and that “a handful of people I trust” encouraged the book’s publication.)

The controversy stirred up by the manner of reporting Mills’s recent book overshadowed what it revealed about Lee: That, having walked away from the spotlight, Lee was very happy. The novelist enjoys a small-town life colored by coffee at McDonald’s and salads from Burger King, reading Britain’s Times Literary Supplement and every day feeding the town ducks. As Lee has said: “It’s better to be silent than to be a fool.” But, to those that know her in her hometown, she’s by all accounts neither; sharp-witted and a presence in town. Soon, her fans can only hope, she’ll be the same once more on the literary scene.

TIME Books

Read TIME’s Original Review of To Kill a Mockingbird

Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images Pulitzer Prize winner and 'To Kill A Mockingbird' author Harper Lee smiles before receiving the 2007 Presidential Medal of Freedom in the East Room of the White House November 5, 2007 in Washington, DC.

'Author Lee, 34, an Alabaman, has written her first novel with all of the tactile brilliance and none of the preciosity generally supposed to be standard swamp-warfare issue for Southern writers.'

More than half a century has passed since TIME reviewed Harper Lee’s first and only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird — but this summer TIME may have a second opportunity to review this celebrated and reclusive author’s work, when the publishing house Harper releases her recently discovered second novel, Go Set a Watchman. The publisher announced on Tuesday that the novel — which was actually written before Mockingbird — will be available on July 14.

TIME’s first review of To Kill a Mockingbird appeared in an Aug. 1, 1960 edition of the magazine, under the headline, “About Life & Little Girls.” While the reviewer doesn’t hold back on the praise, perhaps no one at the time could have anticipated the sensation the book would become.

Here is TIME’s original review, in full:

Clearly, Scout Finch is no ordinary five-year-old girl—and not only because she amuses herself by reading the financial columns of the Mobile Register, but because her nine-year-old brother Jem allows her to tag along when he and Dill Harris try to make Boo Radley come out.

Boo is the Radley son who has not shown his face outside the creaky old family house for 30 years and more, probably because he has “shy ways,” but possibly —an explanation the children much prefer—because his relatives have chained him to his bed. Dill has the notion that Boo might be lured out if a trail of lemon drops were made to lead away from his doorstep. Scout and Jem try a midnight invasion instead, and this stirs up so much commotion that Jem loses his pants skittering back under the fence.

Scout and her brother live in Maycomb, Alabama, where every family that amounts to anything has a streak—a peculiar streak, or a morbid streak, or one involving a little ladylike tippling at Lydia Pinkham bottles filled with gin. The Finch family streak is a good deal more serious —it is an overpowering disposition toward sanity. This is the flaw that makes Jem interrupt the boasting of a lineage-proud dowager to ask “Is this the Cousin Joshua who was locked up for so long?” And it is what compels Lawyer Atticus Finch, the children’s father, to defend a Negro who is charged with raping a white woman. The rape trial, Jem’s helling, and even Boo Radley are deeply involved in the irregular and very effective education of Scout Finch. By the time she ends her first-person account at the age of nine, she has learned that people must be judged, but only slowly and thoughtfully.

Author Lee, 34, an Alabaman, has written her first novel with all of the tactile brilliance and none of the preciosity generally supposed to be standard swamp-warfare issue for Southern writers. The novel is an account of an awakening to good and evil, and a faint catechistic flavor may have been inevitable. But it is faint indeed; Novelist Lee‘s prose has an edge that cuts through cant, and she teaches the reader an astonishing number of useful truths about little girls and about Southern life. (A notable one: “Naming people after Confederate generals makes slow steady drinkers.”) All in all, Scout Finch is fiction’s most appealing child since Carson McCullers’ Frankie got left behind at the wedding.

See the page as it originally appeared, here in the TIME Vault

TIME Culture

Why We’re Still Searching for the ‘Great American Novel’

A first edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 'The Great Gatsby' at the London International Antiquarian Book Fair in London, England on June 13, 2013.
Oli Scarff—Getty Images A first edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 'The Great Gatsby' at the London International Antiquarian Book Fair in London, England on June 13, 2013.

Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

My country 'tis a book

Most credentialed literary critics disdain it as a grandiose hyperbole, and creative writers tend to speak of it in jest. But for almost 150 years, all of us—writers, readers, cultural trend-watchers—have been obsessed with the idea of the “Great American Novel,” a piece of literature that somehow captures the gestalt of the whirling multitudes that make up our ambitious country at a crucial or defining moment.

What first drew me to the subject of the Great American Novel idea was the strange obstinacy of its persistence. After reading hundreds of candidates and thousands of critical commentaries on those books, it dawned on me that the leading contenders, as a group, offer us something uncannily close to a DNA scan of the American imagination.

We know precisely when the Great American Novel entered public culture as an idea with legs: Jan. 9, 1868, in an essay by a now-forgotten Connecticut novelist, J. W. DeForest. Writing just after the Civil War, DeForest argued that with the country now reunified, fiction writers should stop concentrating on its separate regions, as Nathaniel Hawthorne and James Fenimore Cooper had done, and take in the country’s expansive sweep and social tapestry so as to capture “the national soul.” Revealing his own Yankee provincialism, DeForest proposed that the closest approximation to date was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853).

Yet his essay was well timed. The novel was just coming into high fashion in the United States. The call for the Great American Novel was calculated to appeal to its audience’s acute sensitivity to the perceived gap between the country’s growing industrial might and its relative underperformance in the areas of art and culture.

All this explains the birth of the Great American Novel idea much better than its persistence, long after it became clear that American literature had nothing to apologize for. From 1930 through the 1990s, American writers garnered a disproportionate share of Nobel prizes, and U.S. literature became the dominant player in the English-speaking world. If anxiety about legitimizing our claim to culture were the whole story, by all rights the Great American Novel mantra should have long since disappeared.

One factor in its persistence: Even before the Revolution, the land that became the United States was widely seen in futuristic terms, as a project in the making, founded on the promises that would come to be enshrined in the Declaration of Independence (life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness), yet struggling ever since to make good on them. The overwhelming majority of the dozen or so Great American Novel candidates taken most seriously, from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Toni Morrison’s Beloved, have shunned flag-waving patriotism and concentrated on the gap between promise and delivery. American audiences proverbially love feel-good plots and happy endings, but not when it comes to assessing Great American Novel candidates (or when the Academy picks contenders for the Oscar for “Best Picture,” for that matter).

The nation’s geography and social tapestry has become so much more complicated than when the original 13 rebellious British colonies uneasily allied in the 1770s that it’s become an increasingly formidable challenge to pin down one “American” experience. All this has guaranteed the Great American Novel will remain a future prospect rather than an achieved result.

There are a certain number of specific scripts that have seemed especially promising for generating the 20 or so leading Great American Novel candidates. One is immortalization through multiple retellings of a particular novel’s plotline, like the saga of the embattled heroine of The Scarlet Letter. Another is the family saga that grapples with racial and other social divisions, often turning on a plot of love or friendship across the divides. Still another targets assemblages of characters who dramatize in microcosm the promise and pitfalls of democracy.

Perhaps the single most popular and durable script of all follows the life struggle of a focal figure who strives to transform himself or herself from obscurity to prominence. Favored candidates, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, unfold as inquests into the promise and perils of the homegrown culture myth of “the self-made man.”

Of course, most Great American Novel scripts are distinctive but not unique to U.S. literature, and the scripts change over time. Before 1930, the protagonists of American up-from novels were overwhelmingly white and American-born; since then, a far greater percentage have been immigrants and people of color.

Whatever that future may be, the vast and expanding field of American fiction isn’t just a haphazard centrifuge. Great American Novel talk reflects the core logics underlying the often sharp, surprising twists and turns of its long history. And key to the impetus that drives the seemingly unkillable dream is the myth of the United States itself as a culture of aspiration, even and indeed especially when those aspirations seem balked or betrayed.

Lawrence Buell is a professor emeritus of American literature at Harvard University. His latest book is The Dream of the Great American Novel. He wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a national conversation hosted by the Smithsonian and Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Books

Philip K. Dick Knew How to Throw Shade

The 'Man in the High Castle' author really, really didn't like 'The Caine Mutiny'

The writer Philip K. Dick has returned to the public eye recently, as the pilot for a show based on his The Man in the High Castle — an alternate history in which the Axis triumphed in World War II — is streaming on Amazon.

When the Minority Report author and longtime Berkeley resident first made the pages of TIME Magazine, it was for a very different reason. In the fall of 1955, the magazine had put the writer Herman Wouk (of the mega-bestseller The Caine Mutiny) on the cover. As the story inside noted, Caine had won the author a Pulitzer Prize, extreme wealth and media attention, particularly to the surprisingly conservative take-aways of the story. “His chief significance is that he spearheads a mutiny against the literary stereotypes of rebellion—against three decades of U.S. fiction dominated by skeptical criticism, sexual emancipation, social protest and psychoanalytic sermonizing,” the story continued.

But not everyone was a fan. This letter to the editor appeared in the magazine as few weeks later:

Philip K. Dick letter cropped
TIMEFrom the Oct. 3, 1955, issue of

Dick did not appear in TIME again until his death in 1982, mere months before Blade Runner would propel his work into the mainstream, a trend that has continued for decades as his visions of tech-inflected dystopia grew more and more relevant.

As Richard Corliss noted of Dick in 2002, “his dark vision of the future is now.”

TIME viral

Read Roald Dahl’s Tear-Jerking Letter Urging Parents to Vaccinate Their Kids

Roald Dahl
Ronald Dumont—Getty Images British writer Roald Dahl (1916 - 1990) on Dec. 11, 1971

Dahl's daughter died from the measles as a child

As the recent measles outbreak in the U.S. grows, fueling a debate about parents who choose not to vaccinate their children, a 27-year-old letter written by beloved author Roald Dahl explaining his passionate stance on the issue has gone viral.

Dahl, who wrote classics including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda, penned a letter in 1988, two years before he died, begging parents to not deny their children vaccinations “out of obstinacy or ignorance or fear.” Dahl explained:

Olivia, my eldest daughter, caught measles when she was seven years old. As the illness took its usual course I can remember reading to her often in bed and not feeling particularly alarmed about it. Then one morning, when she was well on the road to recovery, I was sitting on her bed showing her how to fashion little animals out of coloured pipe-cleaners, and when it came to her turn to make one herself, I noticed that her fingers and her mind were not working together and she couldn’t do anything.

“Are you feeling all right?” I asked her.

“I feel all sleepy,” she said.

In an hour, she was unconscious. In twelve hours she was dead.

Olivia, to whom James and the Giant Peach and The BFG were dedicated, died in 1962 — before there was a measles vaccine. More than two decades later, Dahl told British parents that their refusal to vaccinate their own children was “almost a crime” and called for mandatory immunization.

Read the full letter on Roald Dahl’s website here.

TIME Books

Release of Next ‘Game of Thrones’ Novel Will Not Happen in 2015

This image released by HBO shows Kit Harington in a scene from "Game of Thrones."
Helen Sloan—AP This image released by HBO shows Kit Harington in a scene from "Game of Thrones."

Fans will have to make do with a compilation of prequels rather than the next instalment in the saga

George R.R. Martin’s The Winds of Winter, the long-awaited sixth novel in his ‘A Song of Ice and Fire‘ saga that inspired the HBO series Game of Thrones, will not be published in 2015, his publisher told The Guardian on Friday.

Jane Johnson said HarperCollins would instead be publishing a new illustrated compilation of three official prequel novellas to the series, The Hedge Knight, The Sworn Sword and The Mystery Knight.

“The short novels have been previously published in separate anthologies but never put together before, and this will be a particularly beautiful edition,” Johnson told The Guardian. But she added that she had no information on a possible publication date for The Winds of Winter, which fans have been eagerly awaiting since Martin published the bestselling A Dance with Dragons in 2011.

In December Martin posted on his website to suppress speculation over the book’s release. He wrote: “I’ve said before, and I will say again, I don’t play games with news about the books. I know how many people are waiting, how long they have been waiting, how anxious they are. I am still working on Winds. When it’s done, I will announce it here…I don’t know how I can make it any clearer.”

[Guardian]

Read next: Amanda Peet Thought Husband’s Show Game of Thrones Was a ‘Terrible Idea’

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Books

A Creepy, Tragic Formula for Commercial Success

Edgar Allan Poe
Archive Photos / Getty Images Engraved portrait of author Edgar Allan Poe, circa 1830

Jan. 29, 1845: Edgar Allan Poe’s 'The Raven' is first published

The plot of “The Raven” is one of the most familiar in American literature: A bereaved scholar, mourning his lost love, is driven insane by grief (and a talking raven). The storyline must have been similarly familiar to Edgar Allan Poe, who seemed to be living a version of it, sans talking bird. What wasn’t familiar to the debt-plagued poet was the success that followed its publication.

After it appeared in New York’s The Evening Mirror on this day, Jan. 29, 170 years ago, “The Raven” became an overnight sensation, and so did Poe. He went from perpetual bankruptcy — according to a Jill Lepore profile of the poet that ran in The New Yorker in 2009, he lived on bread and molasses and was occasionally reduced to begging for change on the street — to a brief stint of relative financial security. Within a month, the poem was reprinted 10 more times. By the end of the year, Poe had published two new books, one a collection of short stories and the other of poems.

Poe, whom TIME called in 1930 “a morose genius who wrote horrible stories magnificently,” claimed to have written “The Raven” based on careful calculations to maximize its commercial success, Lepore reports. He concluded that gothic tales with spooky, supernatural elements sold best — so that’s what he wrote.

But it could also be argued that he wrote what he knew. As TIME’s 1934 review of two Poe biographies noted, “Tragedy visited him early and often, [and] did nothing to thicken an already abnormally thin skin.” He loved and lost an endless string of women, beginning with his mother, who died when he was 2. The love of his adolescent life — an older woman, the mother of a schoolmate — “died insane” when he was 15, according to TIME. An unsurprisingly macabre teen, Poe spent much of his time at her grave.

Unlike the narrator of “The Raven,” Poe managed to move on from this early tragedy, and was engaged to be married by the time he left home to attend the University of Virginia. When he returned, his fiancée was engaged to someone else. Finally, when he was 27, he married his 13-year-old cousin. By the time “The Raven” was published, his child bride was dying of tuberculosis.

Commercial ruse or not, it’s hard to read “The Raven” and not picture Poe, burdened by the accumulated grief of a lifetime of loss, flinging wide his chamber door and finding “darkness there and nothing more.”

Read TIME’s full 1934 review of two Poe biographies, here in the archives: Poor Soul

TIME Books

Sequel to Stieg Larsson’s Dragon Tattoo Trilogy Coming in August

MCDGIWA EC003
Columbia Pictures Ronney Mara stars as Lisbeth Salander, in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Get ready to reunite with Lisbeth Salander

A new novel in late Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy will hit shelves in 35 countries this August, the book’s publisher announced Tuesday.

The unfinished manuscript left after Larsson’s death in 2004, That Which Does Not Kill, was completed by Swedish journalist and author David Lagercrantz, the Guardian reports. (While the English titles all took the The Girl Who _____ format, the original Swedish titles did not.)

The book will reunite readers with troubled computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, the titular character of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, though the plot has so far been kept under wraps.

The entire series has sold more than 80 million copies worldwide and seen multiple film adaptations including one starring Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig. Larrson reportedly had several more novels planned when he died.

“What I wanted to make use of in the book was the vast mythology that Stieg Larsson left behind, the world he created,” said Lagercrantz, who told newspaper Dagens Nyheter that he worked closely to recreate Larsson’s writing style.

[The Guardian]

TIME Books

At Last, You Can Read Harry Potter in the Gryffindor Common Room

Harry Potter
Warner Bros.

Pour yourself a butterbeer and relive your favorite series

It took 14 years for J.K. Rowling to agree to make the Harry Potter series available digitally. And while the seven books hit the e-shelves in 2011 through Rowling’s fan site Pottermore, they’ve never been available like this. The e-reading subscription service Oyster — often called the Netflix of books, since it lets you stream an unlimited number of books on many devices for $9.95 a month — has worked with Pottermore to bring the entire series and the complete Hogwarts Library to users.

Oyster is noteworthy for having a customizable user experience: readers can alter the visual theme of their book. But those reading the Potter series can choose a Hogwarts house to read in — where the font and colors will reflect whether you’re a Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw or Hufflepuff. Users can even tap a Sorting Hat icon that will place them in a house to read in at random. (That is, you no longer need to make polyjuice potion to get inside Slytherin.)

OysterReaders can choose a custom House Theme to read in.

 

The “Hogwarts Library” that will be featured on the service includes three books that once only existed in the wizarding world: Quidditch Through the Ages, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and The Tales of Beedle the Bard. Fantastic Beasts, a textbook “written by” Newt Scamander, is being turned into a Potter spinoff of three films, the first of which will hit theaters November 18, 2016.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is neither a prequel nor a sequel to the Harry Potter series, but an extension of the wizarding world,” Rowling, who is penning the screenplay, said in a statement in 2013. “The laws and customs of the hidden magical society will be familiar to anyone who has read the Harry Potter books or seen the films, but Newt’s story will start in New York, seventy years before Harry’s gets underway.”

Long story short: now is a good time to study up on Thestrals, Hippogrifs and Norwegian Ridgebacks.

Read next: The Harry Potter Actor Who Played Malfoy Is Seriously Bummed He Was Sorted Into Gryffindor

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Books

Read TIME’s Original Review of The Catcher in the Rye

Salinger cover
Cover Credit: ROBERT VICKREY JD Salinger on the Sept. 15, 1961, cover of TIME

Author J.D. Salinger died five years ago, on Jan. 27, 2010

When The Catcher in the Rye author J.D. Salinger died five years ago, on Jan. 27 of 2010, TIME’s remembrance of his life noted that he had long been “the hermit crab of American letters,” dissatisfied with his own fame and drawn to a reclusive life away from the spotlight.

In fact, when he was the subject of a lengthy cover story for TIME in 1961, shortly after the publication of Franny and Zooey, he had already begun to recede into seclusion. Though the story is rife with biographical details — his IQ score was 104; he “played a fair game of tennis”; he was literary editor of his school yearbook — it’s absent any comment from the man himself. The cover art too drawn from a photograph, not from life.

But his books, the story suggests, contain plenty of information about the man who wrote them. “For U.S. readers, the prize catch in The Catcher in the Rye may well be Novelist Salinger himself,” TIME’s original 1951 review of the book posited. “He can understand an adolescent mind without displaying one.”

That’s not all the critic had to say about the book. Here’s the full review:

THE CATCHER IN THE RYE (277 pp.)—J. D. Salinger—Little, Brown ($3).

Some of my best friends are children,” says Jerome David Salinger, 32. “In fact, all of my best friends are children.” And Salinger has written short stories about his best friends with love, brilliance and 20-20 vision. In his tough-tender first novel, The Catcher in the Rye (a Book-of-the-Month Club midsummer choice), he charts the miseries and ecstasies of an adolescent rebel, and deals out some of the most acidly humorous deadpan satire since the late great Ring Lardner.

Some Cheap Hotel. A lanky, crew-cut 16, well-born Holden Caulfield is sure all the world is out of step but him. His code is the survival of the flippest, and he talks a lingo as forthright and gamy, in its way, as a soldier’s. Flunking four subjects out of five, he has just been fired from his fourth school.

Afraid to go home ahead of his bad news, he checks in at a cheap New York hotel; in the next 48 hours, he tries on a man-about-town role several sizes too large for him. Getting sickly drunk at a bar, he slithers away in a Walter Mitty mood, pretending: “Rocky’s mob got me … I kept putting my hand under my jacket, on my stomach and all, to keep the blood from dripping all over the place. I didn’t want anybody to know I was even wounded . . . Boy, was I drunk.”

Some Crazy Cliff. When the seedy night elevator man proposes sending a young prostitute to his room, bravado makes him play along. Besides: “I worry about that stuff sometimes. I read this book once . . . that had this very sophisticated, suave, sexy guy in it . . . and all he did in his spare time was beat women off with a club … He said, in this one part, that a woman’s body is like a violin and all, and that it takes a terrific musician to play it right. It was a very corny book—I realize that—but I couldn’t get that violin stuff out of my mind anyway.” His enthusiasm for that kind of fiddling practice fades in hopeless embarrassment as soon as the tart snakes out of her dress.

Scolded by testy cab drivers, seared by his best girl’s refusal to elope with him, and surrounded by an adult world of “phonies,” he loses control of his tight-lipped histrionics. He sneaks home for a midnight chat with his perky ten-year-old sister, breaks down and cries on her bed. In a moving moment, he tells her what he would really like to do and be: “I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy . . .”

For U.S. readers, the prize catch in The Catcher in the Rye may well be Novelist Salinger himself. He can understand an adolescent mind without displaying one.

Read the 1961 cover story about J.D. Salinger here in the TIME Vault: Sonny

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser