Harper Lee’s Forgotten Sense of Humor

3 minute read

Remembrances of To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee, who has died at 89, are likely to focus on what has become the central narrative of her life: that she wrote one novel to tremendous success, withdrew from public life and lived largely in seclusion. That narrative was underscored last year when she surprised the world with the release a second novel, Go Set a Watchman, which had a fascinating backstory of its own.

It’s easy to see why that narrative captivates fans of Lee’s writing, and it’s certainly an important part of her biography—but it can often overshadow another element of her personality, one that was well known in the years before she became more reluctant to engage with her own celebrity.

Harper Lee was funny.

In fact, one of her first forays into writing was for the campus humor magazine at the University of Alabama, Rammer Jammer. She eventually became editor. (Many full issues, including those she edited, can be read at the University of Alabama library website—though not all of the humor holds up more than a half-century later.) And in the months after the 1960 release of To Kill a Mockingbird, she was known as a “modest, easygoing” writer who possessed a “delightful, down-to-earth humor.”

Her interviews were sprinkled with quips that proved the point: When Lee was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her first novel, TIME quoted her as saying that it was “handsome recompense for ‘the long and hopeless period of writing the book over and over'” and that she had written much of the book in a surprising place: “In Monroeville [Ala.], well, they’re Southern people, and if they know you are working at home they think nothing of walking right in for coffee,” she said. “But they wouldn’t dream of interrupting you on the golf course.”

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When her book was called “immoral” by a Virginia school board shortly after the Pulitzer announcement, she sent a contribution to the Beadle Bumble Fund (a sort of Darwin Awards of philanthropic giving) so that it could be used “to enroll the Hanover County School Board in any first grade of its choice.”

About a year later—ironically, in retrospect—she joked with reporters that her second book was coming along so slowly that she hoped she lived to see it published. In the same interview, she was asked whether she’d encountered anyone who thought the name “Harper Lee” belonged to a man. “Yes. Recently I received an invitation to speak at Yale University, and was told I could stay in the men’s dormitory. But I declined that part of the invitation,” she said with a smile. “With reluctance.”

Her sense of humor, however, was not distinct from the straightforward goodness that made her books appeal to so many generations of readers. Rather, it was just one more tool for speaking truth to power. “Friends and former classmates at the University remember her as a warm though independent-minded girl,” one report on her Pulitzer win declared, “who took great delight in deflating phoniness wherever it appeared.”

And, though Mockingbird‘s heart and sense of justice have rightful pride of place in its fame, Lee’s sense of humor is there too—not in conflict with the serious subject matter, but rather underlining its reality. After all, she said in 1961, “humor has its roots in something that’s not funny at all.”

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com