Can we trust anything the new Harper Lee biography says?
July 24, 2014 | 12:31 pm
The publication of the controversial – and apparently unofficial, no matter what the author and publishers originally claimed – Harper Lee memoir has led to coverage in certain journals of all the nuggets on the celebrated author’s life that Marja Mills supposedly reveals. For example, Bookriot’s Dwight Garner shares the revelations that Ms. Lee has a regular booth at McDonald’s, where she goes for coffee,” and “eats takeout salads from Burger King on movie night.” Apparently saddened by the absence of more than “hints of a life of the mind,” he complains that “She feeds the town ducks daily, with seed corn from a plastic Cool Whip Free container, calling ‘Woo-hoo-HOO! Woo-hoo-HOO!’ Somehow learning all this is worse than it would be to learn that she steals money from a local orphanage.”
Well, really? I guess it depends how much of a literary snob you are. But wasn’t it flagged from the start that a book of this type, produced under these conditions, was never going to be a literary revelation. After all, insight into writers’ lives normally gains value from observation of their creative processes at work, and in Lee’s case, there simply is no act of creation to observe. Absent that, it’s more than likely that a memoir about her will be a collection of trivia.
But there is still the more important question of whether we can actually trust what the author wrote. According to Lee’s version – which I believe, despite her chronicler’s protests – Mills extracted a letter of consent from her aging sister under false pretenses. If this really is the basis that the whole memoir was done on, can you actually trust anything in it? Of course, that partly depends on whether you regard Lee’s Cool Whip Free habits as sensational enough to be worth lying about, or even repeating, but if Mills lied about an issue as fundamental as whether or not a 100-year old woman knowingly and while of sound mind signed a consent letter, who knows what else she might have lied about?