In 1978, Harper Lee went down to Alexander City, Alabama to research a nonfiction book about a murderous preacher. By early 2009, I was researching the same story, and so I sent Lee a letter requesting information related to the case. She replied by saying she’d found “a mountain of rumor and tall stories to a molehill of fact,” and kindly wished me luck.
My immediate reaction was something along the lines of, “Hey, I got a letter from Harper Lee!” Time to go frame shopping.
Soon thereafter, however, the obsessed writer in me kicked in and, I confess, I started to feel a little bothered by the fact that she hadn’t shared anything substantial with me about her book. I'd heard she had a cache of information related to the story, and I desperately wanted a peak at those materials. I wanted to know everything there was to know about that story, and she knew more about it than anyone.
Time passed. My nonfiction book became a novel.
Last year, when it was announced that Lee was going to publish Go Set a Watchman, a novel written 50 years ago, I started thinking about her other project, and I wondered if The Reverend , as her book was to be called, would finally be published.
A few weeks ago, I visited the Woodruff Library at Emory University and read a letter Lee had written to the author Madison Jones in 1987. The letter completely changed my perspective. The letter detailed the many obstacles she ran into while researching her book.
Madison Jones had apparently approached her with a request similar to mine, and she responded with a laundry list of reasons why writing a factual account wasn’t possible. She ended by saying, “I hope this letter is sufficiently discouraging.”
It occurred to me then that maybe she wasn’t holding out on me (I know it’s ridiculous, but that’s how I felt) but that maybe she was tired of fielding these kinds of questions from strangers. My letter came 22 years after the one sent by Madison Jones, which came almost ten years after she started the project. People were still asking her about an unfinished book from 30 years ago!
Judging by the Jones letter, the research had been somewhat grueling and emotionally exhausting. She talked how everyone asked her when the movie was coming out and if they could be in the movie. (Note to people: novelists write books.) Others were only interested in extracting money from her in exchange for their stories.
Judging by the letter, I don’t think she had much fun, so why would she be interested in helping someone else go through that? Why would she want to go looking for boxes of research that had likely been thrown out years earlier?
I didn’t know it at the time, but I found out later that she’d recently suffered a stroke and was going through other health problems. Now I felt bad for even bothering her.
Despite her health issues, she still took the time to write a letter to me. And while it wasn’t as detailed as the one she wrote to Madison Jones, her letter to me echoed the sentiment of her letter to Jones. “I trust time has settled the Reverend’s dust,” she said, just as she had said to Jones twenty two years earlier. By 2009, I think, it was all she had left to say about the matter.
Further Reading: The Compelling Story Harper Lee Never Wrote; Harper Lee Manuscript Found?; Harper Lee's Next Book; Protecting Harper Lee; Comparing the First Chapters of Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird;