I read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time when I was in the eighth grade. It was required reading for us that year, as it was—and continues to be—for most middle school students around the country. I remember liking it well enough, but beyond that, my memories of reading what was until recently Lee’s only novel are fuzzy, clouded by the haze of adolescence. I cannot recall supposing that Scout was a careful and clever observer of her small town’s social order, or that Atticus was anything other than a model man, lawyer, and all-around human being. I can’t remember being stirred emotionally by Boo’s misunderstood reclusiveness or by the tragic fate of Tom Robinson. I certainly don’t remember being at all attuned to the novel’s darker themes, its biting critique of the way that the South’s racial, class, and gender politics intersect and oppress. Despite being a voracious young reader, To Kill a Mockingbird was simply not at the top of my list of things that interested me. I was regrettably (and perhaps ironically) too preoccupied with the frivolities of girlhood; playfully experimenting with lip gloss and glittery eye shadows, fretting over whether or not the cute boy in class would return my affections, making plans to socialize with friends at the movie theatre, and other trivial minutiae that I mistook for a Serious and Important part of my coming-of-age consumed most of my thirteen-year-old brain space and left little room for Mockingbird.
I finally revisited Lee’s novel when I was in graduate school. At this point, I’d left behind the shimmery cosmetics of my youth (mostly) and was pursuing my studies in Southern literature. I felt compelled to give To Kill a Mockingbird another go, aware that my reading experience as a young girl would be vastly different than reading the novel as an adult. Though I anticipated that it would speak to me more this time around, I was not prepared for just how deeply and profoundly it would resonate. I saw now that Scout was not merely some winsome child narrator; she is a dissident voice who not only challenges Maycomb’s rigid class and racial divides, but who never lets her gender define her or dictate her interests. I’d at least taken note of Scout’s precocity when I was an eighth grader, but I was awed by how little Scout’s criticism of her social order had registered with me. Even more astonishing, though, was my newfound understanding of the novel’s other central female character, Mayella Ewell. The Mayella I recalled from my youth was a nefarious villain, but as an adult, I see that this is absolutely not the case. Mayella is not a villain, as we are all too often encouraged to see her, but an unfortunate victim who is violated over and over and over again: by her father, who definitely beats her and is most likely the one actually responsible for raping her; by Atticus in the courtroom, whose basic defense relies on the pernicious assumption that victims of rape are somehow “asking for it” (I think this also speaks to my shift in perception of Atticus); and by the very system of class, race, and gender politics that legitimate the place of Mayella’s “white trash” sexuality in Maycomb’s (and the South’s) white patriarchy. For the life of me, I can’t understand why in God’s name this is a book assigned to kids. Sure, it teaches readers about the dangers of racism and the importance of humanity in the face of injustice, but the novel is much darker and much more complex than that. To Kill a Mockingbird is equally concerned with the oppressive nature of gender roles and with how often gender, race, and class get tangled together inseparably. Inasmuch as it is a reflection on race relations, To Kill a Mockingbird is also a meditation on the violence on which gender roles are built in the South.
Harper Lee’s concern with the plight of women in the South was not limited to To Kill a Mockingbird. Much like Scout, she too rejected the rules of Southern womanhood. As a child growing up in the small town of Monroeville, Alabama, Lee (born Nelle Harper Lee in 1926) was “a fearsome stomach-puncher, foot-stomper, and hair-puller, who ‘could talk mean like a boy.’” She cut her hair short in the summer and loved to climb trees. She played tackle football and “tended to bully her friends, including the young Truman Capote” (who modeled a couple of his fictional characters on Lee, most notably Other Voices, Other Room’s Idabel Tompkins, who wants “so much to be a boy”). She continued to rebel against “the ‘pink cotton penitentiary’ of girlhood” as she grew up. In high school, she shirked the rituals of young Southern femininity: she didn’t fuss with her hair, wear make-up, or dress like the other girls at school. After graduating in 1944, she enrolled at Huntingdon College (formerly the Women’s College of Alabama). Here, Lee stood out like a sore thumb. She refused to abide by the school’s dress code. Instead of “the standard cardigan-and-pearls attire,” she opted to wear her brother’s old Army Corps bomber jacket. Lee also frequently used profane language (which Southern ladies should never even hear), and she smoked a pipe. Lee only made it one year at Huntingdon before she transferred to the University of Alabama, where she would study law as her father and sister had. In a surprising move, she joined the Chi Omega sorority. Once again, Lee—with her short hair, her “dun-colored outfits,” and her seeming disinterest in finding a husband while in college—didn’t fit in with the “Bama Belles” around her.
Nelle Harper Lee lived in the Chi Omega house for one year. Then, she moved into one of the women’s dormitories on campus. It was during this time that Lee “discovered another, far more suitable, group of companions”: they were writers, “the various editors, feature writers, proofreaders, and kibitzers who sling together” the University’s publications. Lee had always loved writing—when she was a child, her father gave her an Underwood typewriter that she and Truman Capote would share “and use in collaborative fictions about the neighborhood”—but it was while at the University of Alabama that she really began to hone her talent. She wrote for and eventually became editor of the school’s humor magazine, the Rammer Jammer, and with her father’s encouragement, she traveled abroad as an exchange student at Oxford University. While in England, she resolved that this, the first semester of her senior year, would be her last. She was going to drop out of school, move to New York, and become a writer.
It would take almost a decade and a considerable struggle, but finally, on July 11, 1960, Lee’s first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, was published. The book became a runaway success almost instantly. Early reviewers responded more than favorably to Lee’s novel, and Reader’s Digest selected it as “one of its Condensed Books.” A few weeks after its publication, To Kill a Mockingbird was listed in the top ten on The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune’s bestsellers lists. Praise for Mockingbird flooded in, and so did fan mail, calls for interviews, and demands for book signings. As sales of the book continued to rise, so did Lee’s celebrity. But Lee—never one to enjoy being the center of attention—quickly found that “the onrush of instant celebrity resulting from To Kill a Mockingbird imposed a tremendous strain she hadn’t expected.” Winning the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 1961, along with the enormous popularity of the 1962 Academy Award-winning film adaptation (starring Gregory Peck as Atticus), only increased Lee’s already overwhelming fame.
Slowly, Lee began to shrink away from the spotlight, ostensibly in order to work on a second novel. Years passed, and Lee—still living in New York—became almost reclusive. Sightings of her over the next several decades “were as infrequent as spotting a rare bird native to the South in New York’s Central Park.” Lee became increasingly private, refusing to make public appearances or give interviews. Even Oprah couldn’t get an interview. Though Lee managed to mostly stay out of public sight, she was never out of mind. And, “in the absence of firsthand information,” she became the subject of rumor and sometimes-prurient speculation. That Lee never married left many to wonder about her sexuality. This bothered her immensely. For someone “to speculate in print about whether she is gay just appalled her, embarrassed her”; said one of Lee’s friends, “[F]or someone who grew up in the time and the place that we did, it was really jarring to her. She didn’t grow up with things like they are now, where people discuss the most personal stuff on TV and all that.” When no second novel ever materialized, other rumors circulated that Lee wasn’t the true author of To Kill a Mockingbird, that her longtime friend Truman Capote had actually written it. (Sadly, this is the kind of criticism that too often befalls successful women writers.)
Over the years, Lee would also find herself at the center of some controversy. In 2007, Lee suffered a stroke that “left her wheelchair-bound, forgetful, and largely deaf and blind.” Because of her poor health, she was forced to move from New York to an assisted-living facility in her hometown of Monroeville. Around the same time that Lee moved back to Monroeville, a reporter from the Chicago Tribune, Marja Mills, moved in next door to Lee’s sister, Alice, and began working on the book that would become The Mockingbird Next Door. Despite Mills’ avowal that she had Lee’s “blessing” in writing the memoir—which describes the time Mills spent with the author and her sister, doing things like drinking coffee at McDonald’s or going to the laundromat—a “strongly-worded letter” Lee released following the memoir’s 2014 publication insists otherwise; in the letter, Lee claims, “[A]s long as I am alive any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood.” Still, Mills maintains that she had both the Lee sisters’ support throughout working on her project. Lee also made headlines in 2013 when she filed a lawsuit against her former agent, Samuel Pinkus, alleging that he “duped” her into handing over to him the copyright to To Kill a Mockingbird. The same year, Lee filed another lawsuit against the local Monroeville museum, accusing them of “exploiting her fame and the prestige of her Pulitzer-winning book without offering compensation.”
Many have noted how strange it is that the now 89-year-old Lee, who so desperately wanted to live a quiet life away from the media machine, would be so publically litigious. The stir about Mills’ memoir and Lee's legal actions against her agent and Monroeville's museum have raised some eyebrows; these disputes have also raised questions about Lee’s state of mind, as well as concerns that those acting on behalf of the author are taking advantage of her. The recent announcement that her highly anticipated second novel, Go Set a Watchman, is forthcoming (scheduled to be released on July 14th) is similarly somewhat odd, considering that Lee “spent the majority of her life telling the media that she didn't want Go Set a Watchman to be published.” While news of Lee’s new novel has no doubt delighted fans across the world, it’s left some scratching their heads and wondering: Why would Nelle Harper Lee, after decades of avoiding the media and of sometimes wishing she’d never written To Kill a Mockingbird, release her second novel now? Megan Garber, in “Harper Lee: The Sadness of a Sequel,” offers possibly the best answer to this question:
Perhaps it really was as simple as a manuscript lost and recovered, serendipitously for all involved. Perhaps all those doubts Lee had previously expressed about the publication of a second novel were merely the results of the natural, but not invincible, anxiety that comes with that infamously fraught project. Perhaps Lee regretted having signed over her copyright of Mockingbird, and wanted something else she could call, in the fullest sense, truly hers. Perhaps Lee, approaching her 90s, figured that age will afford her what her attempts at a sheltered life could not: the easy relief of silence.
Perhaps she decided that she has not, after all, said all she has to say.
Or perhaps, having witnessed the rise of what Boris Kachka calls the “Mockingbird industrial complex” from afar, the writer wanted to bring a renewed kind of intimacy to her work. […]
Or perhaps Lee, alive but ill, is being treated the way so many deceased authors are: as ideas rather than people, as brands and businesses rather than messy collections of doubts and desires.
In many ways, Lee is much like Mockingbird’s feisty and independent Scout, but we forget that there is a tenderness and vulnerability to her as well. I see Lee as Mayella Ewell: an unfortunate victim of our society. Lee is a woman turned icon—more idea than person—exploited by our cultural tendencies toward voyeurism and our desire to expose the frailties of our celebrities, especially those we want to fit into a certain preconceived mold. Just as Mayella is manipulated to suit her community’s ulterior motives, “concerns” about Lee’s health or well-being often provide a self-serving justification for “journalistic” intrusiveness. Admittedly, there’s a part of me that feels guilty for writing this profile of her. I don’t want to be a complicit part of the “machine” that for Lee has often been such a hostile force. At the same time, I admire her and want to celebrate her, not only for what she’s achieved as a Southern woman writer, but as the flesh and blood reality of a remarkable woman.
 Shields, Charles J. Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. New York: Owl Books, 2007. Print. 32.
 Mallon, Thomas. “Big Bird.” The New Yorker. Condé Nast. 29 May 2006. Web. 12 Jun. 2015.
 Shields 39.
 Shields 76.
 Ibid, 84.
 Shields 91, 105.
 Ibid, 108.
 Ibid, 182.
 Ibid, 183.
 Ibid, 186.
 Ibid, 264.
 Mills, Marja. The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee. New York: Penguin, 2014. Print. 111.
 Kachka, Boris. “The Decline of Harper Lee.” Vulture. New York Media LLC. 3 Feb. 2015. Web. 17 Jun. 2015.
 Flood, Alison. “Harper Lee Says Claim That New Memoir Has Her Blessing is ‘a Falsehood.’” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited. 15 Jul. 2014. Web. 18 Jun. 2015.
 Seal, Mark. “To Steal a Mockingbird?” Vanity Fair. Condé Nast. Aug. 2013. Web. 18 Jun. 2015.
 Lewis, Paul. “Lawsuit Divides Town Which Inspired Classic Novel To Kill a Mockingbird.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited. 1 Nov. 2013. Web. 25 Jun. 2015.
 Garber, Megan. “Harper Lee: The Sadness of a Sequel.” The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group. 3 Feb. 2015. Web. 29 Jun. 2015.