Wednesday, September 2, 2015

What Happened to Harper Lee's True Crime Manuscript?

After much speculation, followed by an examination by a rare books expert, a recent article in the Wall Street Journal announced that Harper Lee’s safe contained no additional novels.  This is unhappy news for those of us hoping to find out what happened to Harper Lee’s abandoned true crime manuscript, The Reverend

To review: Harper Lee went down to Alexander City, Alabama in 1978 to research a novel based on a murderous Baptist preacher who was in turn murdered by a family member of one of the alleged victims. 

According to a letter written in 1987 to the author Madison Jones (now located at Emory University), Lee “accumulated enough rumor, fantasy, dreams, conjecture, and outright lies for a volume the length of the Old Testament,” but did not acquire enough information to produce a factual account, which was her stated intention.  The letter suggests that she abandoned the project.

So what happened to her notes, the ones that may have stretched to the length of the Old Testament? 

And what happened to the files that the late attorney Tom Radney gave her? 

Radney represented both the Reverend and the man who killed him in front of 300 witnesses.  He claimed to have given all of his files to Lee, and his family was among those who hoped a manuscript would be discovered in her safe. 

Some have suggested that Lee gave her research materials away to another writer. If so, who got the files?
Certainly not Madison Jones.  In her letter to Jones, Lee included two photocopied letters supporting her central thesis—that Jones would be crazy to try and write a book about the Reverend (more on this later)—but she provided no material that might help him.
It seems the letter had its intended effect.  By 1989, Jones had published two new books, but nothing related to the Reverend.
So, again, the question becomes, what happened to her research materials and any manuscripts related to the project?

I can imagine only three options:

1) She gave them to a writer other than Madison Jones.  This is the least likely option in my opinion.  If she didn’t give them to Jones, why  would she give them to someone else?

Twenty two years later, another author interested in writing a book about the Reverend’s story audaciously approached Lee asking her to share her research.  Lee replied by saying that all those years ago she “found a mountain of rumor and tall tale to a molehill of fact,” but did not mention what she had done with her work on the subject.  If she had given it all away, however, wouldn’t she have said as much?

2) Perhaps, she boxed up the material and placed it in a closet or in storage. 


3) She threw it all away. 

Either of the second two options feels closer to the truth.  My hope is it is the former and not the latter, and that some day we will know the truth.

No comments:

Post a Comment