There’s a new book out about the life of Harper Lee, the famously reclusive author of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The author moved in next door to Lee, befriended her and her older sister and now is telling us how Lee has spent the past 50+ years since she left the literary spotlight. There is some controversy about whether it is truly an “authorized” biography, but that’s mostly a matter of legal technicality. The gist is that the author got to know the Lees well and was on the up-and-up about the project, so it is no hatchet job. It’s just a book.
Dwight Garner of the New York Times reviews it and he doesn’t like it. Which is cool. I can imagine not liking such a book either, as I have almost uniformly found the lives of the authors I admire either unpleasant or boring or both, and rare it is that my enjoyment of the author’s output is enhanced by knowing every detail of their life. I separate art from artist as much as possible.
But Garner doesn’t just criticize a book about an author’s life here. He criticizes the author’s life itself. And he does so in the most cringeworthy way possible:
“The Mockingbird Next Door” conjured mostly sad images in my mind. Ms. Lee has a regular booth at McDonald’s, where she goes for coffee. She eats takeout salads from Burger King on movie night. When she fishes, she uses wieners for bait. She feeds the town ducks daily, with seed corn from a plastic Cool Whip Free container, calling “Woo-hoo-HOO! Woo-hoo-HOO!” Somehow learning all this is worse than it would be to learn that she steals money from a local orphanage.
I agree this is sad. Truly, we would enjoy "To Kill a Mockingbird" more if we knew the author liked to stab idly at her smoked baby beets salad at The King Cole Bar at the St. Regis while trading bon mots with literary friends while making snobbish comments about the lives of people in flyover territory. But McDonald’s coffee! In Monroeville, Alabama! Heaven forfend. I guess I’m just crestfallen. Crestfallen that a woman whose claim to fame was writing about the true-to-life aspects of the world she inhabited as a girl lowered herself to live in the true-to-life aspects of the world she inhabited as an adult.
In other news, Garner is from Charleston, West Virginia and has written about his trips home for the Times in the past. Notably, there isn’t a lot about Gino’s Pizza and Go Mart in those accounts. Color me shocked.