A deeper look at the mystery of Harper Lee

Harper Lee at a 2007 ceremony honoring four new members of the Alabama Academy of Honor in Montgomery, Ala.
(Rob Carr / Associated Press)

In the last few years, Harper Lee has been in the news. She lost her copyright to “To Kill A Mockingbird” and had to sue her former agent to get it back. She sought to block the small museum in her hometown of Monroeville, Ala., from selling “To Kill a Mockingbird” merchandise. She has, through an attorney, disavowed the new book “The Mockingbird Next Door” by Marja Mills, a journalist who became Lee’s neighbor -- although lawyers representing her sister say the book was undertaken with Harper Lee’s consent.

That’s quite a lot for a writer who has strategically stayed out of the limelight since the 1960s. Especially for one who is now 88 years old and in an assisted living facility.

New York magazine’s Boris Kachka looks into the mysterious case of Harper Lee and her decline.

“If our country had a formalized process for anointing literary saints, Harper Lee might be first in line, and one of the miracles held up as proof would be her choice to live out her final years in the small town that became the blueprint for our collective ideal of the Small Town,” Kachka writes. “But at 88, the author finds her life and legacy in disarray, a sad state of litigious chaos brought on by ill health and, in no small part, the very community she always believed, for all its flaws, would ultimately protect her.”


In a long piece that looks at that community’s interest in Harper Lee without getting bogged down in the convoluted legal issues, Kachka tries to sort out exactly what is going on. Is Harper Lee so malleable, as her elder sister has maintained, that she’ll sign anything put in front of her? Did she willingly participate in the writing of “The Mockingbird Next Door” only to forget doing so? Different friends and neighbors -- some of whom are no longer allowed to see Lee -- have different takes.

What is happening with Lee now is muddy, but one thing is clear: This is a sad final chapter for the author of one of the most beloved books of the 20th century.

Like passing notes in class; I’m @paperhaus on Twitter