In Furious Hours, Casey Cep has uncovered a little-known event in the life of famed American writer Harper Lee.
Worst Writer’s Block Ever!
After writing To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Harper Lee famously struggled with her second book. While Go Set a Watchman (2015) was initially promoted as a sequel to her first novel, it was obvious to those with even a fleeting knowledge of Lee’s career that it was the first and very rough draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. Apart from those two books, Lee produced a smattering of brief essays, with her last missive an open letter to Oprah Winfrey.
And yet according to friends and family, Little Nelle Harper Lee was always writing, always pecking away at her typewriter. In Furious Hours, Casey Cep reveals that for several years Lee obsessively worked on a true-crime book about an African-American preacher named Willie Maxwell who purportedly murdered five family members for insurance money. With the aid of a clever lawyer and a disinterested society, Maxwell escaped justice for years, fomenting fear in the black community. But the Reverend’s crimes finally caught up with him one June day in 1977.
On that day, Maxwell attended the funeral of his latest victim, his own sixteen-year-old stepdaughter. As the attendees singled past the casket, an aggrieved relative named Robert Burns shot Maxwell dead. Burns was arrested on the spot by the deputies hired to work traffic at the funeral.
Upon reading of the case, Harper Lee caught the next train to Alabama for Burns’ murder trial, which she attended faithfully. And in a twist that a mystery writer can only envy, Robert Burns was acquitted–despite the hundreds of witnesses to the deadly act. The acquittal was due in no small part to his defense attorney. The same attorney who had previously defended the Reverend. This story had more legs than a centipede!
On the surface, Lee appears remarkably qualified to tell this story of Southern injustice. Along with her undeniable literary gifts, she was also the daughter of a lawyer who had come to within one semester of obtaining her law degree. After the year-long trial, Lee spent another year or two researching the complicated and intriguing case. With file cases stuffed with interviews and transcripts, months turned into years as she worked and reworked her material.
But her true-crime book never got written. It is telling that when her childhood frenemy Truman Capote dies, Lee finally gives up the project. Had she hoped to write a true-crime book that would rival Capote’s brilliant In Cold Blood? Whatever the answer, Lee took it to the grave. Leaving the rest of us to speculate.
At the end of the day, Cep doesn’t have any definitive answers as to why Lee couldn’t or wouldn’t write the book, though she leaves plenty of breadcrumbs that I’m more than willing to follow.
It’s important to remember that Lee was a daughter of the South and its peculiar and unequal system of justice, a system she evoked so effectively in the courtroom scenes in To Kill a Mockingbird. By setting Mockingbird during the Depression, Lee was able to ignore the civil rights movement, thus endowing her novel with the patina of age. In telling the reverend’s twisted story, she wouldn’t have that luxury.
True Crime or Real Fiction?
In my mystery Murder Comes to Elysium, a cold case from the sixties plays a pivotal role in the action. This fictional murder case bears a resemble to Willie Maxwell’s story in that the accused is a Black man. When writing about a Black man in a white justice system, the writer must deal with all the devils in that system. Most often, it’s not simply a question of guilt of innocence.
To write a fair book, Harper Lee would have had to face the harsh truth of the unequal and unjust nature of Southern justice for people of color. This was something she never did in life–or fiction. Although Lee lived during the heady days of the Civil Rights movement, she had virtually nothing to say about it. As she once famously quipped, “Well, it’s better to be silent than to be a fool.”
Perhaps. But there are always those times when a person must speak, or be damned with silence.
My guess is that the truth required to tell Willie Maxwell’s story was one truth too far for Harper Lee. In the end, she couldn’t risk tarnishing her idealized father or his literary doppelganger Atticus Finch. Both of whom were Southern lawyers, after all—participants in an oppressive system of so-called justice.
In a way, Harper Lee lived a life as shuttered and hidden as that of poor, blighted Boo Radley.