The Harper Lee controversy
Last week, I was given a copy of Marja Mills’ memoir The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee (2014). So far I haven’t been able to read it. The problem is not the quality of the prose – I haven’t ventured into that yet – it is connected to the controversy surrounding the book. Mills has become embroiled in a serious dispute with Harper Lee. She claims that Lee – a famously private and reclusive author, who has to date resisted all requests for biographical representation – agreed to cooperate in a book about her life, focusing principally on her close relationship with her sister, Alice. Lee has strenuously denied this claim. Indeed, she condemned the book years before its release. In April 2011, in the first of many statements, Lee, who is now in her late eighties, said:
contrary to recent news reports, I have not willingly participated in any book written or to be written by Marja Mills. Neither have I authorised such a book. Any claims otherwise are false.
She vigorously reinforced the point a few months ago, when the book was published in July:
Miss Mills befriended my elderly sister, Alice. It did not take long to discover Marja’s true mission; another book about Harper Lee. I was hurt, angry and saddened but not surprised. I immediately cut off all contact with Miss Mills, leaving town whenever she headed this way.
She added: ‘Rest assured, as long as I am alive any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood.’
Reading over the many documents that are now in circulation, it is difficult to know what really happened between Mills and the Lee sisters. Mills claims that, following Harper Lee’s first public denial, Alice Lee wrote directly to apologise for her sister’s statement. In a letter that Mills and her publisher Penguin released in 2011 (Penguin continues to support the publication), Alice Lee writes:
Poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence. Now she has no memory of the incident.
Mills has since supported Alice’s account, arguing that Harper had likely experienced memory loss due to a stroke she’d had in 2007. Harper Lee retaliated, arguing that Alice had written the letter when she was 100 years old and suggesting her older sibling may have been experiencing her own incontinence of mind. This might be countered again. Alice is said to have sat through many taped interviews in the early 2000s.
Whatever may have happened, the circumstances are murky and mired in a kind of ethical ugliness that troubles me whenever I look at the book, which now sits on my desk. Whether or not Harper Lee agreed, at any stage, to cooperate with the book now feels somehow beyond the point. For the last three years, two-and-half years before the book was even published, she was deeply troubled by it and flatly denied being involved. Her history of refusing all interviews and biographical requests would seem to support that account. That is one matter.
Then there is the matter of the Lee’s age, and the possibility that, perhaps, at least one sister may not necessarily have fully understood what Marja Mills was up to when the friendship first began. For me, the issue is intensified by Mills’ defence, which feels disingenuous. Clearly predicting the controversy the book would attract once it was published the opening chapters are said to include the following (I say ‘said’ because I am, of course, yet to read it): that she
could not have done (the book) without the trust, support, and encouragement of Nelle (as Harper is known) and Alice Lee and their closest friends.
Mills is also reported to say that the project emerged out of a ‘years-long friendship’ with Lee and her sister, one that began when she moved next door to the pair in 2004, leading to eighteen months of drinking coffee at McDonalds, visiting the Laundromat, feeding ducks and eating catfish suppers with the sisters and their inner circle of friends.
A few days ago, the Los Angeles Review of Books published an essay that considers Mills’ book alongside the biography of another literary recluse, J.D. Salinger. Anne Boyd Rioux argues that while both writers ‘deliberately courted obscurity, retreating into what many have felt was an almost perverse silence, their right to privacy has never been fully acceded by an American public hungry not only for their books but also their personalities.’ As Rioux goes on to say, Mills’ biography and Thomas Beller’s J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist (2014),
raise, for their readers, compelling questions about what we seek in the lives of authors, what relationship their lives have to their works, and what connections readers can claim not only to their famous novels but also to the authors themselves.
I agree with Rioux, but I was interested to find that the review seriously underplays the issues surrounding the publication. Indeed, according to Rioux, ‘Mills’ scrupulous attention to the Lee sisters’ wishes and her allegiance to their friendship, while noble, make her a poor biographer.’ And yet there is evidence, even in the review itself, that Mills was not entirely attentive to their wishes. As Rioux writes,
a few chapters into The Mockingbird Next Door, it becomes clear that Alice was the driving force behind the family’s cooperation with Mills … Harper — or Nelle, as she is known … kept most of what she said to Mills off the record. While Alice sat for hours of taped interviews over a period of many months, Harper became testy when Mills tried to pull out her notebook during their talks.
One thing is for sure, it’s a curious and troubling situation that will likely never be entirely resolved. As always, it’s up to the reader to decide. I’ll let you know if I change my mind if I ever decide to read the book.
No such controversy surrounds Erik Jensen’s biography of Archibald Prize-winning ‘bad boy’ Adam Cullen, whose book is the subject of a fascinating review essay by Martin Edmond. In ‘Declivities and Eminences’, published in the SRB this week, Edmond describes how Jensen, then a nineteen-year-old reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald (and now the editor of the Saturday Paper), was invited to stay at Cullen’s Blue Mountains home in order to write a book about the artist. As Jensen writes in the early chapters of Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen, the research was not without its occupational dangers. He had to survive being shot at by Cullen and being deliberately pushed off the back of moving motorcycle. Edmond’s thoughtful review of Jensen’s book commends its handling of Cullen’s difficult personality. While writing about Cullen’s demons, his illness, his drinking and his drug-taking, Jensen has produced a book that is ‘brave, expressive, funny, pungent, revelatory, and at times very sad’.
Our second essay this week is from David Brooks . ‘The Wall, the Gate, the Balcony’ is at once a review of two Mark Henshaw novels – The Snow Kimono and Out of the Line of Fire – and a wide-ranging account of the way Australian writers ‘re-wrote’ the novel in the 1980s. Brooks describes how the work of Marion Campbell, Beverley Farmer and Peter Carey, among many others, embraced ‘openness … narratological innovation … textual self-consciousness’. As Brooks notes, Henshaw’s latest novel The Snow Kimono, is a complexly patterned work that builds on the innovations from that period. The Snow Kimono, writes Brooks, ‘not only exemplifies just such a maturation, it gives us a unique opportunity to conduct, with Out of the Line of Fire, a kind of textbook before-and-after comparison’.
From the Archives offers a companion to Edmond’s essay on Adam Cullen. In ‘From Boho to Pomo to Picaro’, Michael Sharkey looks at Tony Moore’s history of Australian bohemians, Dancing with Empty Pockets: Australia’s Bohemians since 1860 and Louis Nowra’s Kings Cross: A Biography. Sharkey offers a fascinating analysis of both works, but his essay is also a meditation on bohemia itself and the idea of ‘counter-culture’ as it has played out in Australia.