Never-before-seen letters between Harper Lee and a close friend provide a fascinating insight into the famous novelist’s thoughts and life. The To Kill a Mockingbird author, who only ever wrote two novels was known for keeping a private life, has remained a mystery to most.
Now fans can see how the woman who wrote one of the world’s best-loved books felt about everything from friends and family to religion and politics.
Thirty-eight letters written by Lee to her friend Felice Itzkoff between 2005 and 2010 were auctioned this week, The Guardian reports. In a 2009 letter written on the day of President Barack Obama’s inauguration, Lee expressed her relief at the change Obama’s presidency signalled.
“On this Inauguration Day I count my blessings,” she wrote, adding that she thought of Gregory Peck, who played Atticus Finch in the film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird and “was a good friend of LBJ.” She said Peck once asked the former president: “‘Do you suppose we will live to see a black president?’ LBJ said: ‘No, but I wish her well.’”
Peck was a lifelong friend of Lee and a fellow advocate for racial equality, as was the film adaptations’ screenwriter, Horton Foote. In another letter, Lee compares Foote to her father. “I am so proud to say that he was my friend. I loved him with all my heart and shall miss him for as long as I am aware of anything. I never knew anybody like him except for my father, they had many traits in common.”
Lee modelled Atticus after her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, a lawyer who once defended two black men for a crime they did not commit, Charles Shield’s history Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee explains.
Lee also makes several references to her atheism in the correspondence with Itzkoff. In a 2009 Christmas card, she writes: “Don’t know if you celebrate Christmas, but it makes not a jot of difference to me. I am at heart a heathen. Much love, Harper.” Numerous mocking mentions of the Bible are also included. “My dear Friend of the beautiful face and beautiful hand: It is so Hebrews 13.8 here that I nearly go crazy from boredom, but I should not complain because things could be quite different. The truth is: I am crazy anyway,” she writes.
Allusions to her mental state are also prevalent in the later letters, which show Lee was aware of her suspected dementia. “I haven’t got bat sense – I blame drugs, but it’s probably senility … Everybody here is in dementia of some sort + I am no exception,” she wrote in 2008.
The letters fetched US$12,500 at the auction.