Finding personal letters by the reclusive author is "about as rare as a meteor hitting the earth," says her biographer

Advertisement
Image
Credit: Stephen Shugerman/Getty

Very little is known about the private life of Harper Lee, the reclusive literary giant who authored To Kill a Mockingbird, but that could change when a rare collection of six of her personal letters are auctioned at Christie’s on Friday.

The letters, which she wrote to her close friend, New York architect Harold Caufield, offer insight into Lee’s creative struggles, her political and religious beliefs, and her admiration for her father, A. C. Lee, who inspired the beloved character Atticus Finch, The New York Times reports.

After reading a rave review of her first and only novel to date, Lee, now 89, wrote in one letter, “We were surprised, stunned & dazed by the Princeton Review. I haven’t recovered my voice on the subject enough to say anything.”

In another less jubilant letter, she complained of having writer’s block.

The writings, estimated to be worth as much as $250,000, are of even more interest now, of course, as the literary world awaits the release of Lee’s second book, Go Set a Watchman, due out July 14.

The letters were written between 1956 and 1961, during the time Lee originally wrote her second novel, which features To Kill a Mockingbird‘s Scout as an adult woman.

“I thought it a pretty decent effort,” said a statement from Lee, who gave her last formal interview in the 1960s. “My editor, who was taken by the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, persuaded me to write a novel from the point of view of the young Scout.”

Though Lee is in fact a prolific letter writer, according to The New York Times, very little of her personal correspondence has been shared with the public.

The biographer Charles J. Shields, author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, said finding personal letters by Lee is “about as rare as a meteor hitting the earth.”

“They’re precious, because she published so little,” Mr. Shields says. “The downside is that it may break the seal on a lot of questions she doesn’t want answered. It’s going to cheapen her legacy if personal letters keep popping up all the time.”

“What we have in this archive is a deep and unguarded correspondence,” adds Tom Lecky, the head of Christie’s department of books and manuscripts. “She’s not putting on a persona.”