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Unpublished Harper Lee Letters Purchased at Auction Share Intimate Reflections

The letters from the To Kill a Mockingbird scribe include remembrances of Hollywood celebrities, a bit of history and some sass

Lee receiving the Medal of Freedom in 2007 (Wikimedia Commons)
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Beloved author Nelle Harper Lee, who wrote the iconic To Kill A Mockingbird, was notoriously private and more or less dropped out of the public eye after the publication of her Pulitzer-prize-winning novel in 1960. But now, fans are getting a look into her later years with a cache of 38 unpublished letters that sold at auction last Thursday for $12,500.

As Michael Schaub at The Los Angeles Times reports, the letters are part of a correspondence between Lee and her friend "Clipper," Felice Itzkoff, who died in 2011. Sian Cain at The Guardian reports that the letters, written between 2005 and 2010, are affectionate and include reminiscences of Hollywood notables, some references to religion and memories of her family.

In one notable 2009 letter she references fellow Pulitzer-prize winner Eudora Welty’s criticism of her for being a one-hit wonder. “Alas, I never had the privilege of meeting Miss Welty,” she writes “… She was the only person I ever ‘wanted to meet’. I once heard her say something about ‘Harper Lee’s case’ – talking about one-novel writers. I could have told her: as it turned out, I didn’t need to write another one – much xxx, H.”

In another letter written on the day of Barack Obama’s first inauguration, she shared this anecdote about the star of the 1962 movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird. “On this Inauguration Day I count my blessings. I’m also thinking of another friend, Greg Peck, who was a good friend of LBJ. Greg said to him, 'Do you suppose we will live to see a black President?' LBJ said, 'No, but I wish her well.’”

The letters may also fan a debate that has swirled around Lee’s mental state at the end of her life. In 2015, plans were announced to publish a second novel by Lee, one that she completed before writing To Kill A Mockingbird that follows the main character of Scout as an adult returning to her hometown. Go Set a Watchmen was published in July 2015 and Lee died in February 2016 at the age of 89. At the time and since the publication, there have been unconfirmed rumors that Lee suffered from dementia in her later years, and that she would not have willingly allowed the publication of the second book if she was in a competent mental state.

Cain reports that throughout the batch of letters there are references that indicate Lee might have believed her mental capacity was declining. “I haven’t got bat sense – I blame drugs, but it’s probably senility,” she wrote in 2008, “... Everybody here is in dementia of some sort + I am no exception. At least I can remember major events – 9/11, for example, is also Alice’s birthday.”

But another collection of letters published earlier this year in the book Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship With Harper Lee by Alabama historian Wayne Flynt disputes that idea. Flynt has insisted Lee was of sound mind till the end, and even hinted in a 2006 letter that she found shortcomings in To Kill A Mockingbird, which were perhaps addressed in the publication of the second novel. “I wonder what their reaction would have been if TKAM had been complex, sour, unsentimental, racially unpaternalistic because Atticus was a bastard,” she wrote to Flynt, as Jennifer Crossley Howard at The New York Times reports—adequately describing Go Set a Watchman.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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