A Letter from Harper Lee
Fifty years after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, the author isn't as reclusive as you think
I got the news that a judge in Georgia had stopped the presses on my first novel, The Wind Done Gone, a parody and critique of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, while I was sitting on a nineteenth-century full tester bed, a massive thing with plantation provenance. The bed came to us from a white and undocumented side of my husband’s family. All involved enjoyed the unspoken joke that finally someone on the black side of the family could openly lie down on the bed instead of dusting it.
The bed quickly became my office of choice. And so I was sitting up in that bed when I got the call that told me my book was being suppressed by a judge in Georgia; and I was sitting up in that bed when I started looking at a stack of papers faxed to me from my lawyers, the letters and declarations of authors petitioning the court on my behalf, demanding that my book be set free.
The names dazzled. Toni Morrison, Ishmael Reed, Pat Conroy, Shelby Foote, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., were among the signatures for my review. Eventually I came to a fax of a fax: a letter signed by Harper Lee. This signature carried the weight of To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee’s classic novel about race, redemption, and righteousness.
The court case in To Kill a Mockingbird is arguably the most famous fictional court case in Southern literature. Lee’s tale of the white Southern lawyer, Atticus Finch, burdened with defending a black man against a false charge of rape in a small Alabama town, spoke loudly to me in the moment.
As I read it, an older white Southerner was telling a younger black Southerner to get up and go to court whether or not she got justice. Even before Lee got involved, I had started thinking of myself as a character from her novel—the falsely accused and scared Tom Robinson. Now I was Tom and Scout, and Lee was Atticus and Boo Radley, the reclusive neighbor who turns out to be a rescuer.
A few weeks later (after excellent lawyering by a team from the Atlanta-based firm Kilpatrick Stockton) a three-judge panel on the Federal court of appeals freed my book on May 25, 2001.
By June, The Wind Done Gone was on the New York Times best-seller list. Around our house it was a subdued time—in part because I was going on book tour with guards in response to threats, in part because my daughter was being subjected to racist commentary about my book from a schoolmate. Most of it was due to the fact that my husband’s grandmother had died in the days between when the presses were stopped and the book was published. Corinne Steele had hated Gone with the Wind. I hated knowing she had returned to the red Alabama clay thinking I wasn’t going to be allowed to tell how we felt about Mitchell’s work.