Harper Lee has remained an enigmatic figure since the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird 55 years ago, with readers and journalists alike itching for a glimpse into the life and mind of the reclusive Pulitzer Prize-winning author. Earlier this week, Lees publisher announced that her rediscovered second book, Go Set a Watchman, will be released in July. But evidence of Lees thoughts and literary mind have been around for more than half a century in some of her earliest writings.
Nelle Harper Lee grew up in Monroeville, Alabama, and studied prelaw at the University of Alabama. While a student at Alabama, Lee found friends within the literary community on campus. She began writing for the now-defunct student humor magazine, Rammer Jammer, in the fall of 1945, and she became editor in the summer of 1946. Her name appears on the masthead of the November 1945 homecoming parody issue, an Esquire spoof called “R.J. Esquire.” Lee contributed “a very informal essay” as “Nelle Lee” titled, “Some Writers of Our Times,” in which she pokes fun at the literary culture on campus and throughout the country, which remains eerily relevant today. Her hilarious characterization includes “an intensive study of what is vulgarly known as ‘The Writer.'” (See below.)
“[A] factor in the development of creative talent is that a soul is required,” she writes. “Now there are several classifications of souls, namely: The Frustrated Soul, The Somnambulistic Soul, and The Warped Soul. (The W.S. results in the most profit these days.) But no matter what kind of soul the budding writer has, it must be flaunted before the eyes of his readers The element of frustration is another MUST. If a person is not frustrated, what would he have to write about? He must love himself to an unbearable degree, curse God at regular intervals, be scorned by the one person he loves better than himself. Then he will have the material with which to produce the most provocative novel of the century.”
Lee also provides commentary on the trendy literary setting and theme of “small towns, preferably Southern villages” that opens up the dialogue for To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published 15 years later. “And he certainly must not omit his reflections upon the way justice is so casually administered by the crooked Judge in the broken down courthouse,” she writes. “Yes, it is to the writers advantage if he comes from such surroundings. He has a chance to expose to the public the immoral goings-on in an out-of-the way [sic] village, have himself hailed as the H.W. Beecher of the day, and instigate a movement which would do away with small towns forever.”
The “blonde young gentleman” with “a soft voice” that Lee describes in the first paragraphs of “Some Writers of Our Time” is, author Charles J. Shields speculates in his book Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, an early portrait of Truman Capote. Lee and Capote were childhood friends and neighbors in Monroeville. Lee was said to have viewed early iterations of Trumans first book, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), which he had been working on since 1944, a year before Lee wrote the essay.
Lee perceived fame as a burden and intrusion, and she eventually removed herself from the spotlight. In 2013, though, Lee became embroiled in a royalties battle with her agent, a lawsuit that was later settled. Lee seemed to foresee her own drama. In her description of a writer at that time in Rammer Jammer, Lee joked: “He sacrifices his virtue in order to give the great American public The Truth. And when he becomes a mere hulk of a man, unable to perform his literary chores, he is cast into oblivion. The public forgets him. But he wins out in the end. About ten years after his death someone will rediscover him, and his books will reach their zenith in sales. His name will be on everyones lips. But what good will this do him? The royalties will be divided equally between his cast-off mistresses, and they will wallow in his reflected glory. So let us forgive our budding literary genii for their lapses from the straight and narrow; theyre only sacrificing themselves for their art.”