So Where Has Harper Lee Been All These Years?

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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.

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