Teri Wilson
February 20, 2016 3:33 pm
Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla

This week, we learned of the passing of legendary author Harper Lee. Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird, first published in 1960, is considered by many to be one of the greatest American novels of all time. Although she was one of America’s most highly regarded authors, for most of her life, Lee shied away from publicity. In the wake of her immensely successful novel and the beloved movie adaptation, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, Lee settled down in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, with her sister Alice and regularly declined requests for interviews.

But that didn’t stop people from trying. One of those journalists who pursued a sit-down with Lee was Assocatied Press writer Allen G. Breed. Back in 2005, Breed was working on a special project about the South. He writes in The Washington Post, “I was working on a project about whether ‘Southernness’ was an outdated notion in our mobile culture, and was looking for regional icons to share their thoughts. One of the first names that popped into my mind was Harper Lee.”

Lee, of course, hailed from Alabama and spent the majority of her life there. To Kill a Mockingbird is considered a Southern Gothic work and is a bittersweet portrayal of compassion amid racism and inequality in the Deep South. Breed was well aware that Lee did not grant interviews, but he wrote Lee a letter (in care of her sister, an attorney who acted as her advisor) on the off-chance she might agree to chat with him. He included some clippings of articles he’d written. Breed says, “It was the height of wishful thinking. I didn’t really expect a reply.”

Lee did reply to Breed’s request, though. She sent him a very nice handwritten note, which he’s now sharing in Lee’s memory. According to Breed, the letter reads:

Dear Mr. Breed:

“Thank you for your kind letter and its enclosures. You show much talent as a non-fiction writer!” she wrote in a clear script that sloped somewhat down to the right.

“I simply don’t give interviews — I gave all my publisher and the movie people asked me to give long ago (before you were born), and that was it. However, if I ever decide to give another, you will be near the top of the waiting list!”

There was a brief postscript on the backside of the page.

“My eyesight is failing, and I must look sideways to write,” it read, “so please forgive the slant!”

Whoa. As far as rejections go, this one is pretty amazing.

Lee never did change her mind, and for the most part, kept quietly to herself until her death this week at the age of 89. Last year, when her original draft of Mockingbird (before editorial changes were made, making it the masterpiece we all know and love) was published as a new novel under the title Go Set a Watchman, she released a brief statement, saying, “I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.” Those were her last public words.

How does Breed feel about the letter that Lee wrote him over a decade ago, now that she’s passed away?

He says, “I like a scoop as much as the next reporter. But the idea of prying into Lee’s life always felt a bit like killing a mockingbird — the bird you leave alone because all it does is sing…I’m kind of glad she resisted. And, in that slanted-script letter, at least I have something else to remember her by.”

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