What has Harper Lee been doing for the last 48 years?

Harper Lee published To Kill A Mockingbird, one of the most famed novels of the twentieth century, in 1960.

Since then, as near as I can tell, she has done nothing. No novels, no works, an essay or two.

Does anyone know why this is? It seems strange that a 34-year-old woman coming off a huge success like that would just say “the hell with it” and sit around for half a century.

JD Salinger of Catcher in the Rye fame has done the same thing. He hasn’t published anything since 1965 and has given an interview since 1980. He is a recluse to the point of being hostile about it. Some people think he has written more but just refuses to show it to anyone.

Some people are just like that and maybe some writers are more prone to it than others.

She has worked on other books, but was never satisfied enough with them to attempt to have them published. It’s entirely possible that she only had one book in her.

And it’s not as if she’s pulled a J.D. Salinger and absolutely disappeared. She’s attended literary festivals and awards ceremonies since the 60s, including receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.

Mary Badham, who played Scout, lives not far from here and I had the good fortune to attend one of her readings from To Kill A Mockingbird. She took a few questions and one of them was “Are you in contact with Harper Lee - what happened to her?” She said that she had very little contact with her and that Ms. Lee felt that she had largely said what she wanted to say with TKAM. As someone upthread put it - she had one great book in her and she wrote it.

Ms. Badham did stay in touch with Gregory Peck and called him “Atticus” til the day he died. He called her “Scout.”

What about the rumors that Truman Capote wrote / edited / helped with TKaM? I tend to be skeptical, myself, but I know this is one explanation suggested.

I heard there’s no truth to that. I think she’s a one-book wonder.

There’s an alternative (and to my mind more credible) theory that Harper Lee wrote “In Cold Blood”. She had no particular desire to be famous and didn’t like all the attention from writing “To Kill A Mockingbird”, while her good friend Truman wanted nothing more than to be famous. Harper wrote and Truman took the credit and unwanted adulation.

But what a book!

Agreed! I’d much rather see one great book than a dozen cheesy romance novels. It’s all about quality.


The way I read it, this belongs in Cafe Society.

Moved GQ > CS


I know I have commented on this in previous threads. I collect first edition books and have one of TKaM so did a ton of research on it. Capote and Nelle Harper Lee were friends, with her legendarily being Scout and him Dil in TKaM. But Capote had nothing to do with writing the book - in fact, his first book, Other Voices, Other Rooms, is a completely different look at the same setting - no Atticus or Robinson trial - none of the actual plot points of TKaM - but the protagonist of OVOR is a Dil-like character, told in a far more melancholy way. And he does meet and hang out with a tomboy girl - IIRC her name is Lulubelle or Idabelle in his book.

To my knowledge - and I believe it is shown in the two Capote movies that came out recently that I haven’t see - Harper Lee was Capote’s amanuensis for In Cold Blood. She helped him with his research, edited his writing and paved the way for that wee, weird man to actually get access to the stolid Midwesterners he needed to talk with to learn more about the murders.

In response to the OP - someone on the SDMB (was it Sampiro?) posted a thread where Harper Lee had been going to the local library a lot and using the research facilities and no one had recognized her. She was finally recognized and so she stopped going to avoid the attention.

She is known for not signing autographs except for very rare occasions. I have signed bookplate that I dropped into my copy of TKaM (just loose - you don’t glue a bookplate onto a first edition! :wink: )

I think she has just been living her life in Alabama - I hope she has gotten a steady stream of royalties to keep her in the lifestyle she wants - she deserves it for writing, IMHO, the Great American Novel of the second half of the 20th Century (I put The Great Gatsby at the top for the first half of the 20th Century)…

She’s been resting. On her laurels.

The epilogue.

Like Margaret Mitchell?

Gone With The Wind was published in 1937. Mitchell died in 1949. There’s a bit of a difference between that and the 48 years between 1960 and 2008.

I could see doing it. If I wrote my first book and it was that good, I’d never be able to publish again, knowing I can’t beat it.

I’d be afraid to reveal myself as not all that talented.

If Capote had written TKaM, it’s hard to believe it’s the one and only thing he didn’t eventually shoot his mouth off about.

There IS that…I can’t imagine Capote not bragging on it if it were true. On the other hand, Lee was almost a sister to him. They’d known each other since they were children. I can almost see him keeping quiet for her sake. Of course, if she’d died first, he very well may have taken credit once she couldn’t be personally hurt by it. We’ll never know on that score.

But I’m of the “Lee wrote Mockingbird” school, so I’m a skeptic on it being Capote’s work, anyway.

Apparently, according to Salinger biographies I’ve seen that were written by people who knew him, Salinger is sitting on a giant mountain of unpublished manuscripts.

Maybe someday we’ll get to read them.

For him, the loyalty showed by his not falsely claiming to have written it :slight_smile: