Harper Lee & the beauty of one perfect story

Harper Lee died at the age of 89 on Friday.

I’d say we lost her, but we never had her. She was always very much her own. She was a rarity for her time and almost unheard of now: a celebrity who enjoyed her privacy.

Lee lived in Monroeville, Alabama—dying in the same city she was born. She declined almost all invitations to speak in public, be interviewed, or receive honorary degrees.

There are biographies and documentaries. None of them were written with Lee’s blessing or participation. In fact, after Marja Mills released her memoir, The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee, Lee issued a statement.

“Rest assured, as long as I am alive, any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood,” Lee said.

Because Lee chose not to tell her story, we are left with the stories she told.

She wrote one masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird, and helped Truman Capote research and write In Cold Blood.

She fiddled with follow-ups, both fiction and nonfiction, but eventually abandoned them all.

There’s some juvenilia—an article for Vogue; her “second” novel Go Set a Watchman (which, by most accounts, is an early draft of the superior Mockingbird)—but that’s it.

This is the second way in which she is a rara avis. She didn’t try to milk her success by publishing something that didn’t meet her standards.

In the end, she gave us very little besides To Kill a Mockingbird, but that was by design.

If you’re looking for a way to mourn Harper Lee, may I recommend reading or re-reading Mockingbird?

Let’s be grateful for the story she gave us and appreciate the vast gap between giving the world one perfect story and giving it none.

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