Can we trust anything the new Harper Lee biography says?

mockingbirdThe publication of the controversial – and apparently unofficial, no matter what the author and publishers originally claimed – Harper Lee memoir has led to coverage in certain journals of all the nuggets on the celebrated author’s life that Marja Mills supposedly reveals. For example, Bookriot’s Dwight Garner shares the revelations that Ms. Lee has a regular booth at McDonald’s, where she goes for coffee,” and “eats takeout salads from Burger King on movie night.” Apparently saddened by the absence of more than “hints of a life of the mind,” he complains that “She feeds the town ducks daily, with seed corn from a plastic Cool Whip Free container, calling ‘Woo-hoo-HOO! Woo-hoo-HOO!’ Somehow learning all this is worse than it would be to learn that she steals money from a local orphanage.”

Well, really? I guess it depends how much of a literary snob you are. But wasn’t it flagged from the start that a book of this type, produced under these conditions, was never going to be a literary revelation. After all, insight into writers’ lives normally gains value from observation of their creative processes at work, and in Lee’s case, there simply is no act of creation to observe. Absent that, it’s more than likely that a memoir about her will be a collection of trivia.

But there is still the more important question of whether we can actually trust what the author wrote. According to Lee’s version – which I believe, despite her chronicler’s protests – Mills extracted a letter of consent from her aging sister under false pretenses. If this really is the basis that the whole memoir was done on, can you actually trust anything in it? Of course, that partly depends on whether you regard Lee’s Cool Whip Free habits as sensational enough to be worth lying about, or even repeating, but if Mills lied about an issue as fundamental as whether or not a 100-year old woman knowingly and while of sound mind signed a consent letter, who knows what else she might have lied about?

About Paul St John Mackintosh (1567 Articles)
Paul St John Mackintosh is a British poet, writer of dark fiction, and media pro with a love of e-reading. His gadgets range from a $50 Kindle Fire to his trusty Lenovo cell phone. Paul was educated at public school and Trinity College, Cambridge, but modern technology saved him from the Hugh Grant trap. His acclaimed first poetry collection, The Golden Age, was published in 1997, and reissued on Kindle in 2013, and his second poetry collection, The Musical Box of Wonders, was published in 2011.

2 Comments on Can we trust anything the new Harper Lee biography says?

  1. The description of life in Monroeville certainly rings true. I grew up in Brewton, a town of similar size about forty miles to the south. Aside from a bit higher income in Brewton, thanks to the timber industry, the two are quite similar, as you can see from their respective Wikipedia pages:,_Alabama,_Alabama

    Those who’re looking for excitement or scandals in either are likely to be disappointed. Feeding “the town ducks daily, with seed corn from a plastic Cool Whip Free container, calling “Woo-hoo-HOO! Woo-hoo-HOO!” is about as exciting as it gets.

    When I was in high school, my classmates joked that the most exciting activity to be had was watch the changing of one of the town’s few red lights. Interestingly, those who complained the most, seemed to have ended up back there, while people like me, who find almost every place enjoyable, moved elsewhere. I now live about a four hour’s drive away.

    One of my neighbors knows close friends of Harper Lee. I might ask him what they think of this book. But I see little reason to go public with that. My own attitude is that, if a writer wants to be left alone, leave him or her alone. Harper Lee made it clear a long, long time ago that she wanted to be left alone. Perhaps Marja Mills and Penguin Press should have taken that to heart.

    –Michael W. Perry, co-author of Lily’s Ride: Rescuing her Father from the Ku Klux Klan (a YA novel set in 1870s NC)

  2. @ Michael W. Perry: Dead-on. Totally agree.

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