"For Harper Lee, [To Kill a Mockingbird] rolled out beautifully, it sold beautifully, it took on a life of its own, and its success had very little to do with the fact that she had to be out selling it. The book stood for itself. It would be nice to have that kind of a culture today, but we don't anymore." - Adriana Trigiani in Scout, Atticus, and Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird
After the first day of Writing Literary Criticism in the Digital Age, I knew exactly what I would do for my final project, and it would be the most exciting BYU had ever seen. The 50th anniversary of the publication of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird had just passed and I wanted to talk to this celebrated author. I would compose such an enthralling and complimentary letter that when Nelle, as her friends call her, opened her mailbox she would weep then offer to fly me down to Monroeville, Alabama, where we would sit and talk for hours about her novel. Or, worst-case scenario, at least we would visit pleasantly over the phone.
It never happened. Firstly, I’m not a brilliant writer. Secondly, after some snooping (a.k.a. Google-ing) I discovered that Harper Lee has not granted an interview since 1964 (a mere four years after publication) nor published anything since Mockingbird (“About the Author”). I was stunned and disappointed, then curious. Lee wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel on her first try, a beloved novel that spent 88 consecutive weeks on bestseller lists, then abruptly dropped out of public view (“About the Author”). Why? My further search garnered intriguing results. In her final interview, Lee admitted that the attention was unexpected, overwhelming, and almost “frightening” (Madden 162). Alice and friend Reverend Thomas Lane Butts have said that the exploitation of her words and works, specifically misrepresented interviews and autographed books, was disheartening (Murphy 71, 128). Even more intriguing, however, were accusations that To Kill a Mockingbird was in fact the work of renowned author and Lee’s longtime childhood friend and colleague, Truman Capote.
In 2003, Archulus Persons, Capote’s father, claimed to Ben Windham that “almost all” of Mockingbird was written by Capote (Windham 5). Of course Alice, Lee’s close friends, and the majority of Mockingbird scholars and readers plead otherwise (Block, Windham 5). But because neither Lee nor Capote has explicitly said otherwise, a few diehard Capote fans still believe. Though today greatly outnumbered, these believers have pushed their opinions into the spotlight, posting on blogs and forums across the internet.
Mysteriousness, absence, and incomplete stories generate rumors; and few have told this tale more clearly than Lee herself. Arthur Radley, known to Jem, Scout, and Dill as Boo, had not been sighted since Scout could remember. It is unknown whether it was by force or will, but Boo rarely, if ever, appeared outside the Radley Place, and certainly never in broad daylight. Never having heard anything different, Scout believed Jem characterized Boo “reasonably”: “[He] was about six-and-a-half feet tall, judging from his tracks; he dined on raw squirrels and any cats he could catch, that's why his hands were blood-stained.... There was a long jagged scar that ran across his face; what teeth he had were yellow and rotten; his eyes popped, and he drooled most of the time” (Lee 14). The children’s playacting was based on half-true stories, and much of their entertainment came from “the idea of making Boo Radley come out” (Lee 43, 9).
Very little time or creativity is needed to twist a story or description into a slightly less factual one, and it takes even less time to proliferate through a well-connected community. The children knew only enough of the stories and descriptions which Miss Maudie believed to be “three-fourths colored folks and one-fourth Stephanie Crawford,” the town gossip (Lee 51). Jem, Scout, and Dill took for truth what they had heard, regardless of the source. They did not know what Boo Radley actually did or looked like, but because of “facts” circulating around their little town by those who were actively engaged in continuous conversation with their neighbors, the children did not know where to get the real facts, likely did not recognize that their perceptions were skewed.
The same can be said for literature readers on the Internet today. Just as Boo Radley’s history, appearance, and even personality were formulated in the minds of many by rapidly-spreading gossip in a tight-knit town like Maycomb, authors who fail to enter with a strong presence into the digital world (where information spreads even more rapidly) leave the door ajar for active members of the public to push in and create their presence for them.
When readers turn to the Internet to find out more about a book or an author, they most often Google it or try the most obvious domain name, usually the author’s name or the book title (Krozser 16, 18). Type Harperlee.com into the address bar and a fan-based website with this disclaimer appears: “Please note that harperlee.com is a private website, unaffiliated with Harper Lee or her representatives. Her reps cannot be reached through this site and we cannot forward messages to them.” Something similar appears under the domain name harperlee.org.
I echo bestselling author Adriana Trigiani who considers our digital age culture as one which rarely supports authors who are not marketing themselves (Murphy 184). No longer can authors release a book and go into hiding as Harper Lee did. Now it is necessary for authors to “participate in the conversation” about their work and make participation for readers easy, entertaining, and informative (Hyatt “7 Ways”). The Internet is an impressive, relatively new medium that is evolving daily, and as a result authors must also evolve. Buddying up to readers is now not simply a supplement to an author’s marketing scheme; it is a necessity.
Works Cited (unfinished)
Block, Melissa. “Letter Puts End to Persistent ‘Mockingbird’ Rumor.” National Public Radio. Web. 5 June 2011.
HarperLee.com. “Contact Us.”
Hyatt, Michael. “7 Ways to Build your Author Brand Online.”
-- . “Why Every Author Needs a Powerful Online Presence.”
Krozser, Kassia and Kirk Biglione. “Building Author Web Presence.” Web. 2 June 2011.
Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. Print.
Madden, Kerry. Harper Lee: A Twentieth Century Life. Print.
Murphy, Mary McDonagh. Scout, Atticus, and Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird. Print.
“To Kill a Mockingbird: About the Author.” National Endowment for the Arts: The Big Read. Web. 5 June 2011.
Windham, Ben. “Southern Lights: An Encounter with Harper Lee.” Web. 5 June 2011.
Alyssa Rutter is a Brigham Young University sophomore studying English and editing. She is a musician, a reader, a family enthusiast, and a lover of all things beautiful.
Feedback is much appreciated. To get you started… Here are some questions:
How’s the title?
Do you think the writing is too “bloggy,” or not “academic” enough?
What didn’t flow like it should?
Anything confusing? Did it work to not pull everything together until more towards the end?
How do you cite forums and blog comments?
Would it be helpful to have headings, such as Harper Lee, Boo Radley, and The Importance of an Authorial Online Presence?
I can edit this piece until Wednesday, June 8.]