'Mocking Bird Call': Newsweek's 1961 Profile of Harper Lee

Harper Lee
Harper Lee, pictured circa 1962. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Harper Lee's publisher announced Tuesday that the To Kill a Mockingbird author will finally publish a second novel. The book, titled Go Set a Watchman, was written in the mid-1950s but set aside for 60 years. Here's Newsweek's January 9, 1961 profile of the writer.

No book in years has commanded the kind of volunteer claque which is now pushing an unassuming first novel toward the best-seller list's summit. The success of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, a melting and witty treatment of a refreshingly undepraved Southern childhood, suggests a moral that may be worth the book's trade heed this year: To garner word-of-mouth publicity—most sacred phrase in the press agent's Book of Common Prayer—first of all, get yourself a book that people needn't feel ashamed to confess that they've read.

Readers have been evangelizing in Harper Lee's behalf ever since her manuscript, faulty and shapeless at the time, first started churning through the editorial mills of the house of Lippincott more than three years ago. While the author struggled to get it right—quitting her desk job with an overseas airline and hiving up in the traditional cold-water flat—her champions in the firm went around, she gratefully remembers, "screaming and yelling and hollering, 'The book may not sell 2,000 copies, but we love Nelle.'" Nelle, as they first named Miss Lee 34 years ago back home in Monroeville, Ala., has now made it up to her friends. The book, a selection of the Literary Guild and of the British Book Society, a Reader's Digest condensation, a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate for next month, has just topped the 30,000 sales mark.

In the flesh—too much of it, she believes—Harper Lee strongly calls to mind the impish tomboy who narrates her novel. There is a faint touch of gray in her Italian boy haircut and a heavy touch of Alabama in her accent ("If I hear a consonant, I look around").

Meet the Author

Sunk in a club chair in the lounge of New York's Algonquin Hotel the other day, she gave herself out as a "journeyman writer" by trade and a "Whig" by private conviction ("I believe in Catholic emancipation and the repeal of the Corn Laws"). Just then, somebody sighted Brendan Behan, Ireland's newest play-writing boy of the Western World, marching through the lobby. Harper Lee eagerly craned around. "I've always wanted to meet an author," she said.

Snowed under with fan letters, Harper Lee is stealing time from a new novel-in-progress to write careful answers. Her favorite letter, a little out of the mold, is a roasting from a crank in Oklahoma who heard she was guilty of writing a novel in which an innocent Negro is convicted of raping a moronic white woman. "In this day of mass rape of white women who are not morons," her accuser demanded, "why is it that you young Jewish authors seek to whitewash the situation?" Will this rate an answer, too? "Oh, yes," said the author—who is kin to Robert E. Lee. "I think I'll say, 'Dear Sir or Madam, somebody is using your name to write dirty letters. You should notify the FBI.' And I'm going to sign it, Harper Levy."