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Harper Lee, Marja Mills, and the perils of literary biography

The enduring fascination surrounding the life of Harper Lee is understandable. The author of only one book – a certified literary masterpiece that codified much about the American civil rights movement for several successive generations, and was made into an equally iconic movie – Lee is also notoriously reclusive. The author has assiduously avoided the spotlight and, in 1964, famously stopped granting interviews to journalists altogether.

Lee is back in the news as the result of a recently published memoir by Marja Mills, a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Ostensibly a memoir set in the small town of Monroeville, Alabama, Mills’s book includes material gleaned from interviews with Harper Lee and her sister, Alice, whom Mills befriended. Titled The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee, the book became a flashpoint for controversy even before its publication last week. In 2011, Lee issued a statement through an intermediary insisting in no uncertain terms that she had “not willingly participated in any book” by Mills. Last Monday, Lee reiterated her objection, saying in a letter that “any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood.” According to the Washington Post, Mills immediately countered this assertion in a statement that claims the sisters gave her “their blessing.”

The whole incident is interesting not only because of the guarded and private author at its centre, but also because of the questions it raises about what rights an author has over another person’s story, especially if that other person is still alive (Harper Lee is now 88, her sister Alice is 102). In 2004, Mills took up residence in a house next door to the sisters’ abode in Monroeville; the Guardian’s Aida Edemariam writes about the way proximity provided Mills with an entree into the women’s lives:

In Mills’ book, friendship allows not only access, but a structural dodge: she has written a memoir – about the process of research and discovery, about her life and affliction with lupus (about which the sisters were extremely kind; another slight unease, because, as Alice Munro once wrote, “a sick person … emotionally, holds all the cards”), and the progress of their friendship. It is not a biography – although, in fact, it does a great deal of careful biographical work. Of course, says Michael Holroyd, author of biographies of Lytton Strachey, Augustus John, and Bernard Shaw, “had [Mills] written a memoir without such an illustrious neighbour, it would not have been published. [But for a memoir] she doesn’t technically need permission.”

There is also the question of Harper Lee’s health. The elderly author suffered a stroke in 2007, and is now confined to an assisted living home in Monroeville. In a long and surpassingly sad article for Vulture, Boris Kachka chronicles Lee’s increasing frailty, and the challenges she has faced in her old age (including, incredibly, an agent who temporarily appropriated the author’s copyright). Kachka writes of the way Mills portrays Lee (whom friends refer to as “Nelle”), presenting the famous author as desolate and increasingly disillusioned:

Overall, Lee comes off both plain and complicated. She can be paranoid, but often for good reason. In Monroeville, Mills writes, “information about Nelle was currency. It could be spent, traded, or saved for the right moment.” On Nelle’s earliest meeting with Mills, in a sweltering room at the Best Western, one of the first things she told the reporter was, “This is not the Monroeville in which I grew up. I don’t like it one bit.” Mills writes of Lee looking over a ravine. “Nelle suggested that perhaps she could toss all her belongings in there and burn them, preferably shortly before she died, so she wouldn’t have to worry about her personal things falling into the wrong hands. She was only half kidding.”

This, finally, is the saddest part of this whole tale: the realization of what the woman who wanted to be the “Jane Austen of South Alabama” has been reduced to.