City Paper is not for tourists
Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t the most accomplished of documentaries. It’s fawning, it’s repetitive, it unthinkably seeks the opinion of James Patterson, that book-factory hack, on one of America’s greatest writers. Still, it’s amiable enough, and if it’s been a while since you read Mockingbird, Mary Murphy’s biopic puts you pleasantly back in the classroom while imparting some information about how the reclusive Ms. Lee came to prominence—and then hid from it.
“I want to be the Jane Austen of South Alabama,” said Harper Lee in her final interview in March 1964, less than four years after the publication of her instant hit, when it was still fathomable she’d produce a lifetime of follow-ups. Though she’d conducted research for another novel and wrote essays—and even said in that 1964 interview that she actually liked the process of writing, unlike many authors—Lee would never publish a book, nor court any further attention from the press, again. Was it a personal issue or professional pressure?
Murphy’s handful of commentators suggest both. “People think she’s Scout,” says David Kipen, a former literature director of the National Endowment for the Arts. “She’s Boo Radley.” Oprah claims that Lee admitted as much herself when the Queen of All Media tried to woo her into doing an interview. (Refresher: Scout is the novel’s sassy young narrator. Boo is the town boogeyman/recluse.)
But those closer to Lee believe it was the pressure of delivering a brilliant sequel to a brilliant (and, the doc emphasizes, still relevant) novel that made the writer scamper into the shadows. “To start with a major work is automatically to put a damper on what you do from then on,” says a friend of Lee, one who gave her enough money to take a year off from her airline job to write Mockingbird. Her sister, Alice, who at 99 remarkably still practices law, agrees, imagining that Lee always thought, “I haven’t anywhere to go but down.” To judge by the experts-cum-fans interviewed here, seen thumbing through Mockingbird’s pages and reading passages in worshipful whispers, you get the impression that no one’s all that disappointed.