Usually we expect Friday the Thirteenth to be the day that brings bad news. In 2016 it is highly unlikely that any Friday the Thirteenth, or any other day, will eclipse the sad news of 19 February.
On this day, Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird, and Umberto Eco, author of In the Name of a Rose, left us. Both were successful and celebrated authors. Both probably achieved much more than they ever expected. Yet, we have two authors who could hardly be more dissimilar.
Just as To Kill A Mockingbird, is famous and public, so Harper Lee was enigmatic and private. She never expected the great success that Mockingbird turned out to be.
I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected.
— Harper Lee, quoted in Newquist, 1964
She was born, in the virtually unknown town of Monroeville, Alabama. And here, in the town with a population of 6500, she also transitioned from nightly sleep into the eternal quietness that awaits us all.
Her nephew, Hank Conner, said in a statement “We knew her as Nelle Harper Lee, a loving member of our family, a devoted friend to the many good people who touched her life, and a generous soul in our community and our state. We will miss her dearly.”
This theme, of Nelle Harper Lee, as an ordinary person, and not a famous author pervades her life. This is significant in an era where fame is equated to or confused with success. (Note to feminists: Nelle is a tribute to her maternal grandmother. It was not an attempt to sound more like a man!)
When asked why she did not continue writing, she answered: “Two reasons: one, I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill a Mockingbird for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say, and I will not say it again.”
Her intense desire for privacy, and perhaps, inability to deal with the lack of it caused by of success is a a subject that has been discussed, examined, dissected and misunderstood since her book Mockingbird took its maiden-flight.
At InstaScribe we had a heated discussion about the second part of Ms. Lee’s (never married) statement. We seriously doubted that she, or anyone else, has only one thing to say, and can get it said in one go.
Why she chose to stop writing has not been revealed yet. Most probably we will never know why she chose to stop writing, but we salute her for not stopping one book sooner!
Having said that, Go Set a Watchman was published in 2015. It was the bestseller in the US for that year. The success of this book shows that the public believes they could learn from Ms Lee, and that she had much more to say.
Go Set a Watchman was surrounded by controversy. Originally published as a sequel to Mockingbird, it was later admitted that it was, in fact, the first draft.
Much has been written about the fact that Watchman was published after Harper Lee insisted for 55 years that she only had one story to tell. Various legal shenanigans were suggested, and a claim of elder abuse was made. (This was later dismissed.)
Alice Lee, Nelle’s sister and lawyer, died ten weeks before the publication of Watchman. Add to this the fact that at this time our dearly departed author was partially blind, deaf, suffered from a stroke and had short term memory problems, you can see why many are confused by the publication of Watchman.
Yet, Harper’s life is not to be remembered for controversy, but for quietness, or as a mourner wrote,
“Hey, Boo, you left your mark without a lot of fanfare… The recognition and praise seemed to roll off you like water from a duck’s back. I’m pleased you disavowed the limelight of fame, in favor of the familiar company of your true friends and hometown waters. Paddle on, Nelle.”