For Monroeville, Alabama, population 6,400 and shrinking, the summer of 2010 was momentous. Over a long July weekend, locals reenacted historical vignettes, held a silent auction, cooked a southern feast, and led tours of local landmarks. There was a documentary screening, two lawn parties, and a marathon reading of the novel whose 50th anniversary was the grand occasion.To Kill a Mockingbird, which needs no introduction — because it is the introduction, for most American children, to civil rights, literature, and the justice system — had sold nearly a million copies for each year in print. There were at least 50 other celebrations nationwide, but the epicenter was Monroeville, a place whose only real industry (the lingerie plant having recently shuttered) was Mockingbird-related tourism. It was not only the model for the novel’s fictional Maycomb but the home of its author, Harper Lee. She lived less than a mile from the festival, but she never came.
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. 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. Maycomb was a town where love and neighborly decency could overcome prejudice. To the woman who immortalized it and retreated to it for stability and safety, Monroeville is something very different: suffocating, predatory, and treacherous.
For much of her life, Nelle Harper Lee (known to friends as Nelle) spent more time in the comforting anonymity of New York than in the Monroeville redbrick ranch house her family had occupied since 1952. Then, in 2007, a stroke left her wheelchair-bound, forgetful, and largely deaf and blind — forced to sell her Upper East Side apartment and move into a Monroeville assisted-living facility. It was a loss but also a homecoming: For decades she’d relied on another local living legend, Alice Lee — her older sister, part-time housemate, and lawyer — to maintain her uneasy armistice with her hometown and her fame.
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It wasn’t just infirmity that kept Nelle from basking in those 2010 celebrations; it was disillusion. Allergic to both attention and commerce, she’d always found the Mockingbird industrial complex tacky and intrusive, but had managed to carve out a separate existence in its shadow. Now too many “well wishers” were stopping by her new apartment — including her literary agent, whom she eventually barred from the facility. (He’d already had her sign over her copyright.) Just a month before the anniversary, a family friend entered her room with a Daily Mail reporter in tow. The journalist flew back to London with an unflattering photo and a cruel 2,000-word profile to match. Monroeville had finally confirmed her fear that there really was nowhere to hide. She’d once explained to Oprah Winfrey, over lunch in a private suite at the Four Seasons, why she’d never appear on her show: Everyone compares her to Scout, the sweetly pugnacious tomboy who narrates Mockingbird. But as she told Oprah, “I’m really Boo” — Boo Radley, the young recluse in the creepy house who winds up saving the day.
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A.C. Lee was shocked by his daughter’s success. “It’s very rare indeed when a thing like this happens to a country girl going to New York,” he told a reporter. “She will have to do a good job next time.” He died in 1962, after meeting Gregory Peck but before seeing him play Atticus in Alan Pakula’s film. Nelle spent the next couple of years trying to write, but couldn’t shake the fear that there was, as her father had worried, nowhere to go but down. At one press conference to promote the movie, Lee’s humor was edged with tension. “Will success spoil Harper Lee?” asked a reporter. “She’s too old,” Lee said. “How do you feel about your second novel?” asked another. “I’m scared,” she said.