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Harper Lee letters offer candid takes on religion, family

April 2, 2018

FILE - In this Aug. 20, 2007, file photo, author Harper Lee smiles during a ceremony honoring the four new members of the Alabama Academy of Honor at the Capitol in Montgomery, Ala. Six letters donated to Emory University and being made public Monday, April 2, 2018, show the author lamenting the conservative values of her native Monroeville, Alabama, and longing to back in New York. They also reflect her deep compassion for her father, A.C. Lee, the basis for the famous fictional lawyer Atticus Finch. (AP Photo/Rob Carr, File)

NEW YORK (AP) — Around the same time “To Kill a Mockingbird” made Harper Lee a best-selling author and Pulitzer Prize winner, she was still fighting for creative control.

“I must say it’s increasingly difficult for magazine articles to be written any other way than a magazine editor standing over your shoulder telling you what to write. You know how well that sets with me,” the Monroeville, Alabama, native wrote to her New York friend Harold Caufield (affectionately referred to as “Darling Aitch”). The 1961 letter — the year after the book was published — told of Esquire’s turning down a piece she had been asked to write.

“I didn’t confirm to their Image (or the one they wish to project) of the South. My pastiche had some white people who were segregationists & at the same time loathed & hated the K.K.K. This was an axiomatic impossibility, according to Esquire! I wanted to say that according to those lights, nine-tenths of the South is an axiomatic impossibility.”

Lee’s letter is among six donated to Emory University by a California-based book collector and being made public Monday. The typed correspondence dates from the mid-1950s, when she began writing “Go Set a Watchman,” the precursor to “Mockingbird” that unexpectedly came out in 2015, through the early ’60s and the release of “Mockingbird.” They touch upon everything from politics and writing to religion and dating. They also describe her caring for her ailing father, Amasa Coleman (A.C) Lee, the lawyer and newspaper man who was the basis for one of literature’s most famous characters, Atticus Finch.

“This correspondence from Harper Lee provides wonderful insight into her life during the critical years when she wrote what would be her only two novels,” Joseph Crespino, an Emory professor and author of the upcoming “Atticus Finch: The Biography,” said in a statement. “They provide a window into her life and her views during a period of tumultuous change in southern political life.”

Lee died in 2016 at age 89. As Crespino writes in his book, she both revered and rebelled against her father, whose hallowed image formed by “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Gregory Peck’s performance in the 1962 film adaptation was upended by the portrait of Atticus as a stubborn reactionary in “Go Set a Watchman.” Harper Lee had argued with her father about the rising civil rights movement, but remained close to him. In the mid-’50s, she even moved from New York back to Monroeville after A.C. Lee fell ill.

“Daddy is sitting beside me at the kitchen table, fully clothed, and eating his four-o’clock meal. He gets around the house with a walking stick,” she writes to “Dearest H” in 1956. “While thinking of something to say to you I found myself staring at his handsome old face, and a sudden wave of panic flashed through me, which I think was an echo of the fear and desolation that filled me when he was nearly dead. It has been years since I have lived with him on a day-to-day basis, and these months with him have strengthened my attachment to him, if such is possible. If he gets along every day like he has this day, it won’t be long before I’ll be back with you.”

In another letter from 1956, she notes her amazement that she is capable of helping her father.

“Sugar, I guess we all somehow rise to occasions: I’ve done more things for him that I never remotely thought I’d be called on to do for anybody,” she writes. “But I suppose there’s truth in the adage that you don’t mind it if they’re yours. I sho’ don’t: you will discover that your Nelle Harper is a much less squeamish individual. But the one thing I don’t think I’ll get used to if I live to be 100 is a needle. They fed him through his veins for 10 days after he was stricken, and I gagged every time I saw him hooked up to that thing.”

Lee avoided the media for much of her life, but in private spoke her mind. She is candid and irreverent in her letters as she mocks religion, gets a kick out of Elvis Presley and knows well that she stands apart from her home community. In a letter dated “Sunday,” she expresses frustration that she can’t work on her books in Monroeville, and longs to be back in New York, where she has “a chair, a table and a typewriter, and no people.”

In one of her 1956 letters, she notes the romantic interest of a Presbyterian minister, but adds that she’s “just not up to it.”

“Besides, Presbyterian theology is about the gloomiest Protestant dogma I know of, and I don’t trust myself to keep my mouth shut: if I feel moved to express myself thereon, it will get out all over Monroeville that I am a member of the NAACP, which god forbid,” she writes. “They already suspect this to be fact anyway, because I said some strong words to one of our good Methodist brethren about my views on picture shows, dancing, dining, etc., — in short EVERYTHING but worshipping — in a Methodist church. I also told him it would be a good thing if the Methodists seceded again, which damns me.”

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