I just read about Harper Lee suing to have the copyright and royalties on “To Kill a Mockingbird” restored to her. She’s 87, dwells in an assisted-living facility, can’t see or hear well, and admits to “memory problems”. Since I don’t know Miz Lee and am not a lawyer, of course I can’t resist stubbornly trying to read between the lines of this news story. That’s my specialty, in case you hadn’t noticed. I’m probably better at reading between the lines than reading the lines themselves. The story does hit many of my topical touchstones; fame, greed, the eternal struggle between art and commerce, learning to deal with physical and mental entropy, and how current news can be, ummm, misleading.
Lee’s original literary agent was a man named Eugene Winick. He was her agent from the time the book was first published. When he became ill in 2002, his son-in-law Samuel Pinkus took over representation of some of Winick’s clients, including Lee. If all you read is the news stories or the complaint, you’ll readily believe Sam Pinkus is a con man out to steal from his own father-in-law and an old lady. The complaint alleges Pinkus set out to dupe Lee into signing over her copyright, which apparently she did in 2007. Lee says she has no recollection of having done it. A 2010 case on this matter resulted in Lee regaining the copyright after discharging him, but the new complaint accuses Pinkus of still collecting royalties, and of not responding to enquiries about it.
Maybe he isn’t taking proper care that Lee gets her share of the eggs from the golden goose, but Pinkus is no unqualified outsider. As an agent, he co-manages the literary estates of John Steinbeck, Sinclair Lewis, Sid Hoff (“Danny and the Dinosaur”), Robert McCloskey (“Make Way for Ducklings”) and Fred Gipson (“Old Yeller”), as well as having represented authors Mary Higgins Clark, Fred Dannen (“The Hit Men”), Gerald Posner (“Case Closed”) and Laura Childs (Tea Shop Mysteries). That he is a legitimate agent doesn’t mean he would never act unethically, but it indicates he would have much more to lose than Lee’s royalties if his reputation is tarnished.
To Kill a Mockingbird is the kind of intellectual property people will fight to own a piece of, and maybe do underhanded things to acquire. The spectacularly popular half-century old novel has had a positive influence on the lives of generations of readers. It is not daring in style nor particularly challenging in themes and ideas. It is an engaging narrative told in vivid, simple prose, with warmth and humor, about formative events in the life of a child in a small, southern town. It’s fictionalized autobiography, and it was published in the right place at the right time. The novel’s publication offered a portrait of racism at a point in our history when the country was more ready than usual to face it. Winning the Pulitzer Prize, and the popularity of the 1962 film adaptation, helped increase sales exponentially.
From 1949 to 1956 Nelle Harper Lee lived in New York, working day jobs while struggling to write. She got a Christmas present of a year’s wages from friends that allowed her to write full-time and complete a first draft of the book. When she initially showed it to publishers, it was a series of unconnected stories about a specific time and place. Two and ½ year’s worth of re-writing later, under the excellent guidance of Tay Hohoff at Lippincott, it became the unified novel published in 1960. Lee’s publishers warned her to expect only a few thousand copies would be sold. But it became an immediate hit, was licensed to Book of the Month club, and presented in edited form through Reader’s Digest. The novel has now sold more than 30 million copies in 18 languages and, in addition to showings of the film version, is often performed as a play in high schools and colleges. From time to time some ignorant martinet on a school board tries to have the book banned, a badge of honor for a work so beloved.
For all the pleasure it may give us to read a book so timely and satisfying, the enormity of its popularity killed the career of its author. She had been in the process of writing a second novel, but when Mockingbird was published she shelved it, wrote a few magazine articles and stopped writing entirely within a few years. Her only other significant contribution was assisting her friend Truman Capote prior to his publication of In Cold Blood, research and input done before Mockingbird was published.
Perhaps Lee didn’t have the interest, imagination or drive to keep trying to make up stories apart from that initial version of her own early experiences. Maybe she was afraid of never again being able to measure up to that first book. I don’t know. She has spent the rest of her life living off the success of her only novel, and she refused to talk with journalists about it for 50 years. Like J.D. Salinger, she found being famous an unpleasant experience. Now she’s falling apart, and courts will have to determine if others have conspired to steal her income stream, or if this is a case of dementia-based fear. I kind of hope the agent did it.