Remembering Harper Lee
Author: Victoria Brownworth
February 22, 2016
When news broke on Feb. 19 that Harper Lee had died, exactly two months shy of her 90th birthday, one editor of mine asked, “Does this mean we can finally say Scout is a lesbian?”
Yes, I answered him, I think we can.
I think we can acknowledge that one of the most lasting legacies left by Harper Lee was this: one of America’s most enduring and beloved literary characters, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, main character of To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman, was indeed a lesbian and her mere presence on the page was an imprimatur for us. Scout is the girl who despises dresses, gets into fights, feels suffocated by being indoors and yearns to have the kind of freedom her older brother has to roam at will, responsible to no one.
Scout is the lesbian prototype many of us yearned for as kids and her friend Dill is the quietly gay boy she befriends and protects. She is the girl who claps back long before that was even a thought for girls. Scout is the girl who rejects femininity but not femaleness. Scout is the girl who doesn’t want to be in a dress herself, but is enamored of femmes with their lipstick and nail polish and pretty dresses.
Is Scout a lesbian? Yes, yes she is.
There are those who will argue against this assertion about Scout. Some literary historians have devoted their lives and theses to the deconstruction of To Kill a Mockingbird and they each have their own agendas invested in that deconstruction.
Yet for those of us who grew up reading To Kill a Mockingbird in junior high, the shock of recognition cannot be dismissed. Sure, we’d had some glimmer a couple of years earlier as we read old Nancy Drew novels, repackaged for a new generation of 1960s girls. My mother had given me a dozen of hers when I was home sick from school in 4th grade and I had blitzed through them in a few days, thrilled by the three “girls” who were risking their lives and solving crimes all without the aid of boys or men. It would be a decade or so before I would realize that the girl named George was a lesbian and the femme Bess was her lover and that Nancy was in heteronormative limbo between her fondness for Ned (was it ever more than that?) and her primary love–her work of solving crimes.
But when I was assigned To Kill a Mockingbird in junior high, that was something different. The six-year-old Scout was so similar to the six-year-old I had been, was so androgynous and gender-non-conforming at a time before those words were in common parlance, was such a mirror of who I was, that she became a kind of touchstone. Here was a book–a famous book that even the nuns thought we should read–that had a girl like me in it.
Scout came with a permission slip to be her.
As they say: Priceless.
And so when I saw Harper Lee had died, I felt as if a family member had passed. Lee was the maiden aunt who had modeled quiet gender-non-conformity for us for decades. She had written that novel and revealed Scout to us. She had lived her utterly un-heterosexual life in quiet seclusion in Monroeville, Alabama, in America’s deepest, most Bible-belted, most homophobic South. She had spent time in New York City in her 20s and 30s and had gone to literary parties and been on TV and sat set-side as her best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was made into an Oscar-winning box office hit. She had been best friends with the flamingly, flamboyantly gay Truman Capote, who appears in To Kill a Mockingbird as Dill Harris, the strange, fey boy who spends his summers in fictional Maycomb, the stand-in for Monroeville, playing with Scout and her older brother Jem.
Scout explains, “Thus we came to know Dill as a pocket Merlin, whose head teemed with eccentric plans, strange longings, and quaint fancies.”
That sounds like the Capote we came to know.
Harper Lee had been both incredibly “normal,” living her simple Monroeville life and an iconoclast, breaking out of the racist, sexist, homophobic environment in which she lived.
Lee wrote, “Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”
Was she not speaking about her own life?
A year ago, the literary world was set aflutter as news that another novel by the reclusive Lee had been discovered after her older sister Alice died a few months earlier. HarperCollins published Go Set a Watchman on Bastille Day 2015 to much fanfare. Though some (myself included) argued the book, an unwieldy sequel (though written before To Kill a Mockingbird) to Lee’s iconic novel, should not have been published, the book sold over a million copies within a few weeks of its publication and, with a first printing of two million books, was the most pre-ordered book in HarperCollins publishing history.
There were myriad mysteries about the book, including allegations of fraud against both Lee’s attorney, Tonja B. Carter, and Samuel Pinkus, Lee’s literary agent, both of whom have differing stories about how the manuscript was discovered.
According to the New York Times, Alabama investigators had looked into at least one anonymous complaint that Lee: “infirm, largely deaf and visually impaired, may have been manipulated into publishing her debut manuscript.”
But it was reported that after interviews were done with Lee at the assisted living facility where she was living when HarperCollins announced publication of the novel, investigators decided Lee had indeed consented to publishing the book.
Lee had not given an interview since 1964, yet there she was, the talk of the publishing world at 89. Carter issued a simple statement from the recluse at the time about the manuscript, saying, “I hadn’t realized it had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it.”
Go Set a Watchman is not a good novel. It’s jejune in sections, rambles in many, needed a strong edit which it did not receive.
But what it does do for those of us who loved Scout, is bring her to adulthood. A decidedly lesbian adulthood.
To Kill a Mockingbird ranks 67th on the Publishing Triangle’s list of “The 100 Best Lesbian and Gay Novels,” a list studded with classics of the lesbian and gay literary canon. No lesbian or gay reader of Lee’s iconic novel came away from the book without feeling that there was someone else like him or her, be it Scout or Dill. These two were markedly different from the young protagonists we were used to reading in the years before LGBT fiction for young adults existed. Scout was the courageous and rugged tomboy who never wore dresses and kept her hair short–like Lee herself. Dill was the timid and fey boy who didn’t like to get dirty and preferred to be led than to lead.
Scout was the girl who told us, on being forced to wear a dress, “I felt the starched walls of a pink cotton penitentiary closing in on me, and for the second time in my life I thought of running away. Immediately.”
Scout was always getting into fights, as girls like Scout do, and Atticus forbids her to fight anymore. “After my bout with Cecil Jacobs when I committed myself to a policy of cowardice, word got around that Scout Finch wouldn’t fight any more, her daddy wouldn’t let her. This was not entirely correct: I wouldn’t fight publicly for Atticus, but the family was private ground. I would fight anyone from a third cousin upwards tooth and nail. Francis Hancock, for example, knew that.”
Being female was always complicated for Scout because she associated it with sitting back and being an observer, rather than an actor. But like Frankie in Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding, Scout’s associations with black women give her a keener sense of women as actors, rather than those acted upon. “[Calpurnia] seemed glad to see me when I appeared in the kitchen, and by watching her I began to think there was some skill involved in being a girl.”
The mysteries of femaleness both attract and repel Scout as both a child and a young woman when she reappears in Go Set a Watchman. We see her evaluating women: not as one of them, but as their admirers, as, well, a lesbian might perceive them. When Scout thinks this, how could it be anything but the musings of a lesbian-to-be? “Ladies in bunches always filled me with vague apprehension and a firm desire to be elsewhere, but this feeling was what Aunt Alexandra called being ‘spoiled.’ The ladies were cool in fragile pastel prints: most of them were heavily powdered but unrouged; the only lipstick in the room was Tangee Natural. Cutex Natural sparkled on their fingernails, but some of the younger ladies wore Rose. They smelled heavenly. I sat quietly, having conquered my hands by tightly gripping the arms of the chair, and waited for someone to speak to me.”
The best part of Go Set a Watchman for me is seeing the grown-up 26-year-old Scout as she returns from New York to Maycomb. The six-year-old tomboy is now a character straight out of an Ann Bannon novel–presenting as a young lesbian in 1950s America. (The novel was written in 1957.)
As Scout prepares to get off the train she has ridden from New York City to Maycomb, Alabama (I’ve ridden that Southern Crescent; it’s an amazing ride), she dons clothes like the Scout we know: “When she dressed, she put on her Maycomb clothes: gray slacks, a black sleeveless blouse, white socks, and loafers. Although it was four hours away, she could hear her aunt’s sniff of disapproval.”
No doubt, her aunt would be disapproving: Scout dresses like every lesbian in pulp fiction of the time. Scout could have come home from New York as Beebo Brinker. Certainly this is how we see Scout, 20 years older than when we last saw her.
How much of Lee is in Scout? Was Lee herself a lesbian? Rumors abound to this day, but no tell-all of years spent as the hidden lesbian lover of Harper Lee exist.
Maddeningly, we can’t know for sure how intermingled were Scout and Lee and in most cases I dislike women’s writing being depicted as autobiographical, although sometimes it is.
Intensely private, Lee only gave a few interviews in the years immediately after the 1960 publication of To Kill a Mockingbird and ceased giving them when she returned to Monroeville in 1964.
In his 2006 book, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, Charles Shields, Lee’s first biographer, explains that he was never able to interview the reclusive writer. Instead he compiled his biography as most literary historians do after an author has died: from bits and pieces of information gleaned from those who knew Lee.
As Janet Maslin wrote in her scathing review of Shields’ bio in the New York Times, “Mr. Shields pads his book with minutiae (in 1949 there were 630,000 manholes in New York City). He also prompts some sympathy. After all, as his bibliography reveals, he had precious little else to go on. All he drew on were histories of the South, critical ‘Mockingbird’ studies and material about Truman Capote, whose friendship with Ms. Lee was as catty as it was intense….It is all he can do to come up with answers to the three most frequently asked questions about Ms. Lee: Is she dead? Is she gay? What ever happened to Book No. 2? No, none of your business and none of your business: those are the best answers at which ‘Mockingbird’ arrives.”
As I said: Maddening.
Was she or wasn’t she? Do we need to know or can we simply presume? Is every woman who remains unmarried, wears pants, keeps her hair short and eschews make-up a lesbian? It seems somehow wrong to say yes, especially when women are stereotyped by heteronormative society all the time, and yet, how can we not want Lee to be a lesbian? Of course we do. We want that icon to be firmly, distinctly, out-of-the-literary-closet ours.
Here’s what we do know: Without Harper Lee we wouldn’t have Scout. And, perhaps just as importantly, without Harper Lee we might not have had Truman Capote.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout is Dill’s protectress. She is like a graphic novel heroine, swooping in to save him again and again, often just from himself and his own fears. Scout prods Dill to be less of an observer of the world around him and more of a participant.
Capote was both an observer and a participant–perhaps too much of the latter, in fact. But what he needed from his best friend over more than a decade was to be reeled in, to be sat in front of a typewriter and forced to do the work he was brilliant at. Prior to his groundbreaking book In Cold Blood, Capote had written myriad short stories, two novels, a play and the novella, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But it was for In Cold Blood he would always be known.
It was a book that many say should have received a co-author credit to Harper Lee and no one who knew the two of them believed Capote could have written the book without her.
The internecine friendship between Lee and Capote had begun in childhood and lasted in its best-friend state until the publication of In Cold Blood in 1965. After Capote’s book was released, their friendship strained. But while it was in full-flower, Lee was deeply invested in Capote’s work–as friend, confidante, help-mate, muse, and amanuensis.
The complexities of literary friendships cannot be understated: Melville and Hawthorne come immediately to mind and that friendship is perhaps most similar to that of Lee and Capote. Although he died 30 years before her and never completed another book after In Cold Blood, he received a level of fame she never did—nor appeared to want.
Were I writing a literary biography of her, however, much of it would involve the inextricable thread that wove those two together. Did she ever forgive him for excising her from the work she did on In Cold Blood? Another question that will forever remain unanswered, but which certainly demands to be asked, is, did the schism created between them by Capote refusing to acknowledge her work on In Cold Blood prevent either of them from writing again?
In Bennett Miller’s 2005 film Capote, Capote (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) is sitting with a scotch in his hand and talking about the writing of In Cold Blood with Lee (Catherine Keener). He’s describing his connection to one of the killers of the Clutter family in Kansas, Perry Smith, with whom he has fallen in love. He tells Lee, “It’s like Perry and I grew up in the same house, and one day, he went out the back door, and I went out the front.”
The question we never receive an answer for is from which door did Lee exit–or did she exit at all? Capote–with the consistent help of Lee–did indeed go out the front door. She didn’t just help him with In Cold Blood. But did this keep her from her own work?
Did it keep her from formalizing other stories in which Scout or women like Scout could feature? What no one has ever been able to understand is why there was never another book. Because as we now know, Go Set a Watchman came before To Kill a Mockingbird, not after.
In Miller’s film, we see a staid and workaholic Lee prodding Capote. In the Manhattan of the early 1960s, the two of them are literary lions. Lee has won the Pulitzer Prize and both of them have had books made into films–Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. How did they each arrive at such iconic places in American literature from tiny Monroeville?
More intriguingly for those of us in the LGBT community, how did they each manage to be so utterly gay in the late 50s and early 60s when they came from Alabama where it’s still hard to be gay in 2016? For regardless of whether Lee was actually a lesbian, she certainly presented like one in the world. And as is still true today, looking like a lesbian is enough to get you fired.
Yet for Lee and Capote, New York allowed them to be openly whatever they were: Lee androgynous and Capote flamboyant.
Miller’s film mirrors the real life both Lee and Capote were leading after he began working on In Cold Blood. Lee is Capote’s constant, and only, companion. He tells her he can’t deal with people in Kansas where the Clutter family was murdered. He can’t interview them because it is 1961 and he is wildly, improbably even for Greenwich Village, gay. Lee–despite the lack of make-up and the short-short hair and the Capri pants–evinces normalcy. Lee creates a buffer between Capote and the people of Kansas. This was perhaps Lee’s greatest work–her unaccredited co-authoring of In Cold Blood, which changed the literary landscape and began a whole new style of non-fiction writing.
Without Lee, that book would not exist. In his fedora and long scarves, with his mincing speech and walk, Capote was himself the story, whereas Lee, the woman who had so perfectly evoked small-town American life in a novel that was a literary masterpiece and had won the most prestigious and coveted literary prize, was able to talk to the people of Kansas and record their observations on the mass murder in their midst in a way Capote never could.
One of the great injustices of Lee’s literary life is that she was indeed unaccredited on In Cold Blood. Her touch is everywhere in the book if one cares to look. Much as I love Capote–and In Cold Blood which was the template for so many writers of “the New Journalism” like myself–I feel rage for Lee, whose work under-girds the book and without which it could not have been written. How do we assess the true weight of her work versus his when she spent three years of her life on what would be known only as his project and for which she would receive not even a mention in the acknowledgments?
This couldn’t have happened now, in 2016. Emails and texts and phone logs would prevent it. Litigation would surely ensue. And while the volume of Capote’s work is significant, particularly compared with Lee’s, one cannot help but wonder if she would have been able to go on writing had she even received a “Truman Capote with Harper Lee” credit on In Cold Blood.
In her dissertation, “A Well-hidden Secret: Harper Lee’s Contributions to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood,” Tina Madison Peschock agrees with my assessment. As Peschock reveals, Lee conducted all but two of the interviews for the book–in other words, the vast majority of the work–and was in Kansas with Capote for the majority of the five years he was working on it–except, it seems, when she was promoting To Kill a Mockingbird and accepting the Pulitzer Prize.
Peschock writes, “By examining Lee’s and Capote’s research notes, and by juxtaposing both of the writers’ notes, one can see that Lee conducted a majority of the interviews with the townspeople, while Capote focused on Smith and Hickock.”
Peschock suggests that it was In Cold Blood that ended Lee’s writing career as well as Capote’s. She writes that her “exploration of both writers’ research notes [for In Cold Blood] shows what notes Lee recorded were used in Capote’s published book. Their notes not only reveal what research they conducted, but also reveal their personalities and show that the two had major creative differences […]. Because Capote did not acknowledge Lee properly, I suggest that this is one reason Lee stopped writing.”
In Miller’s film, Capote is never without Lee on his trips to Kansas; Lee is Capote’s calm, focused foil. They are almost like a couple, except they are not. This was true of them in real life, as well.
Until the publication of In Cold Blood elided Lee from the project.
When the buzz over Go Set a Watchman began last year, many of us hoped there would be that long-awaited coming out. After all, Joel Grey had just come out at 85, why not Harper Lee at 89? But it was not to be, and now we will never know. There are no more hidden stories to be revealed. There is the one, classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird and the second, sadly disappointing also-ran. But there is, for all posterity, Scout. There is Scout in chapter 15 of the novel, taking on a wild-eyed group of racists who want to lynch Tom Robinson.
There is, of course, suspension of disbelief here. We know in our heart of hearts that these men would have had no compunctions about knocking Scout to the ground, shooting Atticus and grabbing up Tom Robinson and lynching him. But for those of us who read To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout’s speech is a coming out speech. It’s where she declares herself as beholden to no one save her own ideas of what is right and what is wrong and where she chooses to out herself as the girl who will fight anything and anyone for what she believes in. Scout is a warrior in a long historic tradition of mythic female warriors and we cannot help but be won over by her bravery. We applaud her. We want to be her.
I have taught To Kill a Mockingbird for years. It’s a book I know well, a book I no longer think of as perfect, as I once did, but a book I still love deeply. Like The Member of the Wedding or The Catcher in the Rye, stories I read as a young girl, To Kill a Mockingbird is a book that situates my early, inchoate lesbianism for me: Scout, Frankie, Holden Caulfield–these were characters I knew as a young child. Books I read in a febrile state, but which touched something inside me that I wasn’t sure of, something I couldn’t articulate or define.
As I mourn not just the death of Harper Lee, but the death of knowing that passes with her, I am reminded of how important Scout was to my childhood self, how she told me something about myself. Lee and Capote have been inextricably connected for LGBT readers for decades. Capote said repeatedly that he was Dill in Lee’s novel and Lee never contradicted that assertion. To Kill a Mockingbird is an autobiographical novel–even the family’s name was borrowed from Lee’s mother. And Lee’s father, Amasa Coleman Lee, was, for a time, an attorney who had defended two black men accused of murdering a white storekeeper. But in a different twist on the case in Mockingbird, the men Amasa Lee defended, a father and son, were convicted and hanged, and their bodies mutilated. Lee’s father, deeply disturbed by the experience, never tried another criminal case after that, making him more like the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird than the Atticus of Go Set a Watchman. But the fact of that case makes Scout’s trouncing of the lynch mob all the more understandable. It’s what Lee wanted to do: take on the men who had murdered her father’s clients.
One of the first shocks of Go Set a Watchman for most readers will be the word “Negro” in the opening paragraph. It reminds you that you have gone back in time, back to a time before Negro was the polite word that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. revived, and before black was beautiful, and before you were supposed to say Afro-American, then African-American, and now black again.
The “unpainted Negro house” Lee mentions is a reminder that this is the segregated South, a place with a color line, and that Lee’s fame, the reason she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contribution to literature, is not just because To Kill a Mockingbird is a good, maybe even great, novel, but because it features a white savior of a black man at the beginning of the civil rights movement. When Lee was writing Go Set a Watchman and then To Kill a Mockingbird, Alabama was a flash point. Rosa Parks had sat on a seat at the front of the bus on December 1, 1955 in Montgomery, starting the city’s Bus Boycott, which lasted a year, engaged Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling segregated buses unconstitutional.
That was the world Harper Lee was writing in. The world Scout Finch was living in was the world Harper Lee grew up in. The novel is set during the Depression. Scout is just a few years younger than Lee would have been at that time. It’s a world in which some will find hard to imagine, in which to be black was still to be fully indentured to whites and the color line was always drawn in blood.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, the Otherness, the queerness, of Scout, Jem and Dill is established in part through their friendship with Boo Radley. But it is when the three go and sit in the “colored” balcony during Robinson’s trial that we know they are not normal white kids. They are Other–not black, but seen by blacks as skirting some undefined line. No one “mammies” them in the balcony. They are treated as their own persons, their own strange persons. And while Jem is the oldest, Scout is their leader.
And Scout is, even more than Atticus, the character we can never forget. Scout is the
girl who taught us all about Otherness and justice and the innocence of knowing right from wrong. Harper Lee is gone now–there will be no more novels found in long-buried boxes, nor final revelatory interviews. But there will always be Scout: brave, uncompromising, true to herself and to her beliefs.
I wish we had more books from Harper Lee. I wish the complicated nature of her friendship with Capote had not held her back from putting pen to paper again and again. But where Lee gave us a somewhat hyperbolic white savior in Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird and a tell-tale George Wallace-style segregationist in Go Set a Watchman, Scout is the character we can set our consciences by. She comes out of both books unscathed and, for lack of a better word, pure.
Lee told us things were not as they seemed and that was the overarching premise of To Kill a Mockingbird that turned it into one of America’s most iconic novels. But at its core is Scout. And she is always what she seem–a girl on a quest for truth and justice. As Scout says, “I know now what he was trying to do, but Atticus was only a man. It takes a woman to do that kind of work.”
So as we mourn the loss of Harper Lee, we celebrate the timelessness of Scout Finch. And are grateful.
Photo via Vulture