Harper Lee, beloved of many a reader for her 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, is when compared to many contemporary writers shrouded in mystery. To date To Kill a Mockingbird is her only published novel; she gave her last formal interview in 1960 and has consistently shunned both the limelight and literary examination for decades. Although she is reputed to be a prolific letter writer few examples of her personal correspondence have come to public attention.
But as Lee’s friends, contemporaries and correspondents begin to die (Nelle Harper Lee was born in 1926) some few of her letters are creeping out. Following the death her close friend, the New York architect Harold Caufield, some of her letters to Caufield were sold privately to a rare book dealer, Erij DuRon. DuRon in turn sold them in 2011 to the Californian retired trial lawyer and book collector, Paul Kennerson. The largest set of Lee’s letters to come to market to date comprised 13 examples, written by Lee to a fan, Don Salter. Salter sold them through an on line auction in 2011. Lee’s biographer, Charles J Shields, is reported as comparing the rarity of her private correspondence coming to market to that of ‘a meteor hitting the earth’. So six letters offered at Christie’s New York this week are a rare treasure for the Lee fan and book collector alike, offering revealing insight into one of the 20th century’s most beloved and least known authors. Christie’s described them as “deep and unguarded correspondence”. In one, Lee tells of her shock and delight at the reception of To Kill a Mockingbird: “We were surprised, stunned & dazed by the Princeton Review,” she wrote. “I haven’t recovered my voice on the subject enough to say anything.” In another, of more downbeat tone, she tells of struggles to write. In others she reveals her conflicted feelings towards her hometown, and her adoration for her father, A C Lee, who was the model for Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch.
The collection of letters, apparently written to Caufield between 1956 and 1961 (some are undated) when she was writing To Kill a Mockingbird and the soon to be published Go Set a Watchman, had a pre-sale estimate of between $150,000 and $250,000. Bidding started at $80,000 but failed to top $90,000 and the letters remained unsold.
The auction seemed ideally timed to attract buyers, amidst heightened in interest in Lee’s life and works triggered by publication of Marja Miller’s controversial biographical insight, Life with Harper Lee last year and just about a month before the much-anticipated publication of Lee’s second novel Go Set a Watchman. One wonders whether potential buyers were deterred by sense that Lee herself would not have wished her private correspondence to offered for sale in the first place. Michael Morrison, a representative of Lee’s publisher, HarperCollins, is reported as doubting that Lee would happy to hear her letters were being sold.
A spokeswoman for Christie’s said that the letters might be re-offered at auction at a later date or could remain with the seller, Paul Kennerson.