Would you retire if your first novel won a Puliter, sold a zillion copies and became an Oscar winning film?

"Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."

Harper Lee would.  But the question is why?

In 8th grade, I wrote my first major English lit paper on To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  Even then my middle-school-aged brain was intrigued by a mysterious question that has quietly puzzled the literary world for some 50 years.

Why hasn’t Harper Lee written another book?

This past July marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of the book a poll of librarians at the Library Journal called the “Best Novel of the Century.”  The film adaptation of the book was nominated for eight Academy Awards and went on to win three.  Come on!  Oprah called To Kill A Mockingbird our national book.  And Demi Moore named a daughter after the book’s feisty narrator Scout.

What more proof do you need?

Set in 1930s depression-era Alabama, To Kill a Mockingbird tells the story of honorable small town lawyer Atticus Finch, who defends a black man falsely accused of rape.  The story is told through the eyes of Atticus’ small tomboy, wiser-than-her-years daughter, Scout.

After the book’s publication in 1960, Harper Lee famously retired to her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama.   Since its publication, Lee has granted almost no requests for interviews or public appearances, and with the exception of a few short essays, including a recent article in Oprah’s O Magazine about her love of reading, has not published anything else.

The legendary author’s last major public appearance was in 2007, when she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House by President Bush.  True to character, she didn’t say much at that ceremony either.

The question has always been is she or is she not writing a second book?  Perhaps Ms. Lee just has a 50-year-old case of writer’s block.  However, some have speculated that there actually is another novel but it won’t be published until after her death.  Lee’s sister Alice has insisted that there will not be another book.

Supposedly, a cousin asked Lee when she would produce another book.  Lee’s reply, “When you’re at the top, there’s only one way to go.”  Perhaps the pressure to produce another book as highly acclaimed and commercially successful as the first has been too much for Lee.  Golly gee, I think it would be for most of us.

In 1964, Ms. Lee stated in Newquist, “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.”

Legend has it that she did actually work on a second novel — The Long Goodbye — but eventually filed it away as unfinished.  During the mid-1980s, she began a factual book about an Alabama serial murderer, but also put it aside when she was not satisfied.

Another potentially interesting factor comes in the form of a dark and persistent rumor that has shadowed the book since it was published.  Some have postulated that Lee’s long time friend Truman Capote either wrote or heavily edited the book.  The pair grew up together for a time in Alabama, and reunited years later in New York City where Lee worked as a research assistant for Capote.

Evidence that the relationship was significant to both comes in the fact that Lee put Capote in her novel as Dill, the pathological liar and invert. Whereas Capote put Lee in his first novel Other Voices, Other Rooms as Idabel, the most notorious tomboy in the state.

Most literary scholars dismiss the rumor of Capote’s authorship partially based on the fact that Capote, who had an enormous ego and insatiable desire for literary accolade, would never have remained silent had he indeed written the award-winning book.

Mockingbird was published after Lee accompanied Capote to Kansas to help him research an infamous murder that eventually became perhaps his best work In Cold Blood.  Lee’s book won a Pulitzer Prize; Capote’s did not, and he was envious, which damaged their friendship.

It also didn’t help that Capote failed to credit Lee for her contributions to his book, and also failed to deny false rumors that he was the author of Mockingbird. At one point, Capote’s own father publicly inferred that his son had indeed written the book.

This literary mystery has spawned a small movement of its own.  Capote in Kansas: A Ghost Story by Kim Powers is a novel that blends fact, speculation and fantasy based on the time Capote and Lee spent working on In Cold Blood.  It’s “a novel about Truman Capote, Harper Lee, and the ghosts of the Clutters, the Kansas farm family murdered fifty years ago, in cold blood. Kim Powers imagines the truths Capote and Lee uncovered in Kansas and kept hidden for years; the rumors and revelations that followed the success of To Kill a Mockingbird, which estranged the former friends; and the confessions Capote makes in his final months that ultimately reunite them.” (from the publisher)

Nevertheless, evidence does suggests that Lee apparently struggled with the novel for years in the 1950s while working at menial jobs in New York.  Then some Alabama friends gave her a Christmas gift of enough money to quit her job and work full-time on the book for a year.

“It was meant to be a gift to her father,” says Charles Shields, author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee.”  She wanted to write a love story from a daughter to a father, who was a great man in a small town and the model for Atticus.” Like Atticus, Harper Lee’s father was a lawyer who once defended black men accused of murder.

Eventually, a bright editor named Tay Hohoff at J.B. Lippincott & Co was able to take Lee’s story and help turn it into the novel we know today.  Lee completed the book in the summer of 1959.

Read by millions, beloved by English teachers and students alike, there are more than 30 million copies of the book in print.  It has never been out of print and nearly 1 million copies are sold every year.  It currently ranks No. 56 on USA TODAY’s Best-Selling Books list.

In celebration of the 50th anniversary, Lee’s current publisher, HarperCollins, bookstores, libraries and scads of writers and readers across the planet are preparing to give Lee and Mockingbird a grand shout-out this year with new editions, new books, readings and screenings of the 1962 movie.

Will there be another novel?  Doubtful.  Lee, at age 84, appears to be going strong and seems to have no plans to give us another book.  But it’s a delicious little literary mystery that only time will answer.


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