Nelle Harper Lee, 1926–2016: Minorities Never Lie About Rape

Harper Lee’s death on February 19 drew the international attention one would expect given her status as the Martin Luther King of literature. Her novel To Kill a Mockingbird is annually visited on high schools everywhere with a demand for its reverence equal to the demand for unquestioned veneration of the reverend doctor himself. And yet, the mockingbird cried a complex tune last month, hitting notes not long ago thought to be beyond its range.

As expected, January’s holiday for MLK elicited the sniveling sighs of White supplication. In contrast, February’s eulogies lacked the once-anticipated chorus for Lee’s immediate canonization. The problem last month, of course, was actually the problem of last year with the sinful publication of Lee’s other novel, Go Set a Watchman. In it, Lee revealed that St. Atticus Finch was a segregationist(!)

Progressives and cuckservatives everywhere gasped! But then they remembered they control the narrative. In fact, they invented it. And they can modify it whenever the facts so require. After all, they had been claiming for decades that women never lie about rape while simultaneously Biblicizing a novel in which a woman does in fact lie about rape.

The Mockingbird mainstreamers eventually gathered themselves and saw the error of their initial shock. Unfortunately, Atticus hadn’t been immaculately conceived as they had previously believed. But he still had done right when the faith had been challenged, and if his motives had been mixed, that only demonstrated the nuanced characterization they always claimed to admire in literature.

Not a few social justice warriors, however, thought Harper Lee a fraud. No good person can be a segregationist, and to allow one to have the saintly role in Mockingbird undercut Lee’s claim to ordinary salvation, much less her place in the pantheon of the Civil Rights Movement.

Remarkably, this tizzy fails to account that Lee should be all the more revered were she truly a fraud. After all, earning a place next to Martin Luther King requires extraordinary credentials. King was an atheistic Communist adulterer who beat his bedroom visitors while holding forth as a pious Christian minister. He acquired a doctorate in theology by plagiarizing a significant portion of his dissertation.

The elites know how to handle mere wannabes like the Rev. Jimmy Swaggert who couldn’t do better than hook up with a single prostitute. Such are the failings of despicable mortals. For cultural sainthood and your very own holiday, there’s a much higher bar.

So can the advocates of Harper Lee produce the credentials for her place alongside the Reverend King? Or had she merely been posing all those decades as their wish-fulfillment of a White redeemer?

Before Mockingbird even hit the shelves in 1960, it had already been tagged as a must-read masterpiece by the literary elites. The Literary Guild and Reader’s Digest Condensed Books had chosen it, and none would doubt the Pulitzer people had it on their short list. So the lesser lights who write book reviews for periodicals obediently recited their hosannas.

Nonetheless, a few reviewers called out Lee’s failure to master point of view. In essence, they noted that Lee wanted to warm readers’ hearts with a cutesy, little girl narrator (six-eight-year old Jean Louise Finch, called Scout as a child) while still peppering the narrative with adult commentary. The problem is not dual narration, per se. Rather, Lee repeatedly lapses into Jean Louise’s adult commentary and diction within her Scout narration and within scenes ostensibly set in the 1930s.

A 1961 post-Pulitzer review came from James B. McMillan, the English Department chairman at the University of Alabama. While he praised Mockingbird as a “superior book,” he evidently wanted to cover his backside from the dual charge of lack of sophistication and lack of familiarity with modern fiction. His favorable review pointed out that Mockingbird’s setting “has been described in fiction a thousand times [and] the characters are exactly the types that a correspondence-school course in fiction would prescribe… [while] the incidents are standard stock:…childhood escapades, first day at school, white child’s visit to a Negro church service, a mad dog scare, an attempted lynching, a ladies’ afternoon party, and a predictable trial of a Negro for rape.”

Despite those occasional criticisms, the Pulitzer-winning Mockingbird enjoyed widespread acclaim and racked up massive sales. But Lee’s possible credentials as a fraud befitting liberal racial policies had made no appearance. That took time.

It started with Lee’s reluctance to publicly discuss her novel, and it progressed with her failure to produce a second novel. As the years wore on, skeptics wondered how she could possibly fail to publish again. Previously, it was thought that when great writers stopped writing, they blew their brains out a la Hemmingway. Lesser talents might vainly try to replenish their creativity with drink, and the occasional John Gardner might take his last motorcycle ride.

But Harper Lee — having ridden the crack-cocaine high of publishing the most celebrated novel of the 20th Century — “Just Said No” to any further cravings. She alone among novelists was able to write, publish, bask in Pulitzer-level adulation, revel in phenomenal sales, and never again surrender to authorial urges.

Some started reasoning that if she couldn’t write a second novel, perhaps she hadn’t actually written the first. More than a few wondered if Truman Capote, her friend since childhood, had written Mockingbird.

Lee’s biographer Charles J. Shields purports to debunk the conjecture of Capote authorship. Shields feebly quotes the son-in-law of Lee’s editor Tay Hohoff to the effect that Lee and Tay were too close to keep secrets from each other. But Shields himself competently disposes of Capote’s ability to keep such a secret.

But disproving Truman Capote’s agency doesn’t settle the matter. An editor or agent who goes looking can choose from hundreds of capable ghostwriters. Shields’ own narrative demonstrates that Lee’s agent Maurice Crain presented Mockingbird as the novel Atticus to J. B. Lippincott in 1957, and Hohoff thereafter worked with Lee for two long, frustrating years. Shields quotes Hohoff as observing that Lee needed “professional help in organizing her material and developing a sound plot structure.” Did Hohoff herself render all that help, or was an unnamed writer eventually brought in?

Shields published his biography in 2006. At that time, the case for skepticism was limited to Lee’s lack of a second novel and her reticence to discuss the first as though it concealed a dark secret.

Though never argued, there might be a third piece of evidence. Shields devotes a long, interesting chapter to Lee’s assistance to Capote as he wrote In Cold Blood. As chance would have it, right after the galleys for Mockingbird went out, Capote won an assignment from the New Yorker to cover the killings of the Clutter family in rural western Kansas. Capote asked his friend Lee to assist him. With the fully completed Mockingbird in the hands of her publisher, Lee happily agreed.

Capote used his contacts, and Lee used her personal skills to offset Capote’s lack thereof to win interviews and investigative tips that eluded the general press covering the case. Among other feats, their teamwork nailed them a personal tour of the otherwise sealed-off farmhouse where the Clutter family had been murdered.

Shields references and quotes some of Lee’s notes, and they betray Lee as disaffected from general American values of the time. After seeing pictures of Jesus and Christian books in several rooms, Lee notes this as “modern religious crap” and sarcastically asks Capote if she might have missed a print of Jesus by the washer and dryer.

Capote understood that tape recorders and note taking inhibit interviewees from speaking freely, so he liked to rely on his superb memory of details. Lee’s task was to observe and paint the character portraits.

Shields of course may be editing to protect his narrative flow. But a fair reading of his chapter leaves one concluding that Lee utilized her prejudices and imagination in painting a character portrait of the murdered wife and mother Bonnie Clutter. And that portrait showed Bonnie’s suppressed creativity.

Lee wrote of Bonnie: “She was probably one of the world’s most wretched women; highly creative in instinct but with the creative will in her stifled over the years by a dominating husband…”

That’s Lee painting the character — she’s not quoting an interviewee. So might that be Lee projecting her own prejudices and life experiences? As a self-confessed tomboy and oft-assumed lesbian who never married, Lee might have personally entertained notions about stifling marriages.

But what about seeing suppressed creativity in Bonnie Clutter? In the Kansas winter of 1959-60, Lee had returned the galleys on Mockingbird and awaited the publication of her first novel after ten long years of an author’s hope and toil. She should have been pumping her fist and shouting “Yes!” to the world, shadow boxing every imagined foe who had doubted her abilities. But instead of being overwhelmed with the rush of creative accomplishment, she projected creative suppression onto a murdered woman she never met.

What of Hohoff’s observation that Lee’s novel needed professional help? Did Hohoff or Crain find Lee a ghostwriter, or was Hohoff’s editorial hand so heavy that it suppressed Lee’s own creativity?

In Mockingbird, an innocent Negro is unjustly convicted of rape — a capital offense at that time and place. On the courthouse steps after the verdict, Scout overhears a Miss Gates rejoicing about the injustice. “It’s time somebody taught ’em a lesson.”

But come fall, this Miss Gates is Scout’s third-grade teacher, and she seizes an opportunity to share her morality with her students. In a current events lesson, she excoriates Hitler. “There are no better people in the world than the Jews, and why Hitler doesn’t think so is a mystery to me….They contribute to every society they live in…[yet] the Jews have been persecuted since the beginning of history.”

Really? A racist elementary school teacher in a racist Alabama town in 1935 lectures about the evils of Hitler and the virtue and suffering of Jews? Could an author who actually grew up in a small Alabama town create such a character? Or might this be evidence of another hand — perhaps a ghostwriter whose existence would explain Lee’s projection of creative suppression onto Bonnie Clutter in 1959?

In 2015, the storm named Go Set a Watchman blew through the politically correct world. With moral shallowness barely anchoring their intellectual instability, many liberals flapped about in despair of the coming Supremacists, hopelessly unable to recognize this second novel as but a second denunciation of White racism.

That Atticus Finch became a segregationist would, no doubt, upset those longing for the societal transformation from White to café au lait. But admirers of Mockingbird, above all, ought to understand that fiction works in mysterious ways. After all, Mockingbird was a novel with an innocent girl from the 1930s absorbing every liberal shibboleth of the late 1950s. She don’t know nuthin ’cept there’s a whole lot of White racism going on.

The champions of Mockingbird boldly asserted that it demonstrated a love for the South even as it hit on every vicious anti-Southern theme. Does a lynch mob targeting an innocent Negro and a predetermined unjust conviction of said innocent Negro in the same book really fool anyone about the anti-White message?

Watchman plays the same old game of attacking White identity by pretending to advocate love and racial tolerance. But Watchman obviously didn’t have a serious editor or a ghostwriter, and it went to press without the benefit of either a blue pencil or a plot.

Two distressing editorial concerns are the endless pages of Southern anecdotes and the protracted debate which serves as a faux-climax.

Lesser problems also point to the lack of an editor. At one point, Watchman’s narrator mentions: “What saved it from becoming another grubby little Alabama community was that Maycomb’s proportion of professional people ran high.” One can easily imagine an editor blue penciling the word grubby — perhaps with a reminder that “we critique the South by pretending to love it.”

The point of view problems never fully solved in Mockingbird are mere technicalities compared to Lee’s recklessness in Watchman. After the narrator Jean Louise learns Atticus is a segregationist, she tries to describe her shocked state with an annoying switch to third person narration. Then, in the middle of a paragraph, she switches back to first person narration.

She rose, smiled goodbye, and said she would be coming back soon. She made her way to the sidewalk. Two solid hours and I didn’t know where I was. I am so tired.

The greater problem with Watchman stems from its lack of a plot. It meanders aimlessly but tolerably in the manner of Mockingbird’s Southern charm until it eventually tires the reader. Then Jean Louise Finch discovers that her Daddy Atticus has become a segregationist while she’s been living in the big city. After endless pages of moral posturing every bit as tiring as the overbaked Southern charm, Jean Louise confronts Atticus.

Jean Louise and Atticus argue with dialog less fit for fiction than a raw transcript of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. With moral righteousness, big city girl condemns small-town prejudice and is ready to sever all ties with it and with her father. But Atticus regains her love by praising her spirited devotion to the beliefs he himself opposes.

In essence, Watchman has only the makings for a short story — not a novel. And Watchman’s lack of a novel-sustaining plot comes off curiously like the proposed novel Atticus that Lee’s agent Maurice Crain first submitted to J. B. Lippincott in the spring of 1957. At the first editorial meeting, Lee was told that Atticus was “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel.”

Shields reports that Lee gave 111 pages of a second novel to Crain after her first novel was sent to Lippincott. The naming of those two novels is both confusing and enlightening. Lee had named the first novel Go Set a Watchman, but Crain had her change it to Atticus before sending it out to Lippincott. Lippincott accepted this novel, but changed the name once again, and the legendary To Kill a Mockingbird emerged.

Lee’s second novel was titled The Long Goodbye. Thinking of that title, one can imagine the story in 2015’s Go Set a Watchman. The narrator is saying goodbye to her prejudiced Southern town and father, or perhaps she’s saying goodbye to her innocent belief in her father’s saintliness. It’s not difficult to imagine that Lee retitled Goodbye with her now-available first title Watchman. Logically, it could come full circle. Atticus was the watchman-hero of the first novel, and his daughter Jean Louise becomes the watchman-hero of the second.

As to authorship, both 2015’s Watchman and the original version of Mockingbird lacked a plot. Readers can see that for themselves with 2015’s Watchman, and the Lippincott editors noted it about Lee’s original version of Mockingbird. But Mockingbird ended up with a plot — presumably after Hohoff said Lee needed “professional help in organizing her material and developing a sound plot structure.” That help may have been a ghostwriter that Watchman never got.

Regardless of actual authorship, Mockingbird served its purpose to vilify White identity. It propagated the most vile Southern stereotypes of Negroes being lynched and unjustly convicted by White juries while popularizing the myth of grateful Negroes who would call Whites blessed if only they’d discard their racial identity.

With Watchman, the message remained constant. However, Lee’s inability to construct a plot left her unable to reestablish the sainthood of Atticus after tarnishing his image in the pursuit of lionizing the adult Jean Louise. A ghostwriter could have solved this problem. “Professional help” could have re-crafted the story so that liberals still loved Atticus as much as ever and Lee even more than before. But Watchman never got a ghostwriter, and that tarnished Lee’s legacy almost as much as her now-nuanced character Atticus.

One can easily understand why this second novel sat unpublished all those decades. The phenomenal success of Mockingbird rested on the shoulders of St. Atticus, and this second novel undercut his sainthood. Since Lee publicly promised an upcoming novel for several years, it’s reasonable to assume she spent those years vainly searching for Watchman’s literary solution. Presumably, she then gave up, and certainly, she never publicly discussed her failure.

The buzz preceding Watchman’s 2015 release included charges of Lee’s manipulation by her attorney. Lee’s sister Alice – who had been her business confidant – died in November 2014. Within months of the death, Alice’s law partner announced the discovery of Watchman and its forthcoming publication.

Some suspected that the law partner had decided to cash in on Lee’s second novel. They reasoned that Lee and her sister knew the second novel was subpar, and that’s why they left it unpublished all those decades. But with Alice’s death and Lee’s diminished capacity from old age and a stroke, the door was open to manipulate Lee.

As a result of the controversy, the state of Alabama investigated the charge of undue influence. State officials interviewed Lee and her caregivers and spoke to friends who held contrasting opinions. The state determined that Lee possessed sufficient capacity to make her own decisions, and that she did indeed desire the publication of Watchman.

Giving due weight to those findings, Lee’s attorney did not take advantage of Lee after Alice’s death. And yet, the timing of the decision to publish Watchman strongly suggests that Alice’s death was the key factor. The simplest way to reconcile the known facts is to assume that Lee herself changed course after Alice’s death.

Alice may have dissuaded Lee from publishing Watchman all those years. But once Alice died, Lee forsook the advice of her older sister and business advisor. Marja Mills’ memoir The Mockingbird Next Door makes clear that the sisters’ deep love for each other did not preclude their frequent disagreements. Mills quotes Maurice Crain as saying, “They don’t agree on anything, not even the temperature.” So perhaps, they disagreed on the advisability of publishing Watchman.

If there hadn’t been sisterly disagreement, why would Lee fail to publish Watchman all those decades and yet retain the manuscript? Retention assured that someone at some point would discover it, and the story of Atticus the segregationist would become known. And Lee did indeed let that become known – but only after Alice died.

Last year, Russell Berman of The Atlantic interviewed Harper Publishing’s Jonathan Burnham about the surprise emergence of Watchman. Burnham put forth that Lee believed the Watchman manuscript had been lost in the 1960s, but Lee’s attorney had instead chanced upon it attached to the back of the Mockingbird manuscript while conducting a routine check of the latter. If so, that still doesn’t explain why Lee waited so long to publish Watchman before it was lost. Nor does it square up with Alice’s claim in the 1980s that burglars had stolen the manuscript for Lee’s second novel.

Given the foreseeable uproar over Atticus the segregationist, Lee must have felt strongly enough about Watchman to publish it after Alice’s death. Surely Alice had counseled her that tarnishing Atticus’ reputation might do the same to her own. And yet, Lee proudly published her second novel fifty-five years after the first. A love for Watchman must have burned inside her all those years.

Perhaps, Lee so loved her second novel because it lionizes her alter-ego Jean Louise. Or perhaps, Go Set a Watchman was the one novel she wrote all by herself.

R. Duke Dougherty, Jr. is the author of the novel Cassidy O’Callaghan. Synopses of his books can be found at or at ebook sellers Amazon, Barnes&Noble, and Kobo.

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