Conspiracies & Crap: Who Really Wrote 'To Kill A Mockingbird', Nelle Harper Lee, Or Truman Capote?
Though many books are published in the U.S. every year a scant few of them ever make it to the status of classic American literature. Of these well-known classics, even fewer are authored by women. It makes it all the more infuriating that one of the greatest American classics of all time to be written by a woman is often theorized as being written by her much more famous literary friend, who is a man. Can misogyny be blamed for this wild theory? Or was it simply just lies concocted by a literary friend and rival out of jealousy that gave life to the conspiracy?
Wikipedia states that Nelle Harper Lee, a descendant of General Robert E. Lee, was born on April 28, 1926. She was the youngest of four children, with her two sisters being much older than her. Her brother was close enough in age with her to play with in childhood, though. Growing up during the Great Depression in Monroeville, Alabama, Nelle was shaped and molded by the environment around her. She saw the racism faced by the Black community in her hometown every single day and thought it to be wrong. It would be her experiences growing up in the Deep South in the 1930s that would partly inspire her novel, To Kill A Mockingbird. The other half of her inspiration came from the infamous trial of the Scottsboro Boys, who were wrongfully accused of raping a white woman near Nelle's hometown in 1936. It would be Nelle's father, a respected and well-known lawyer in Monroeville, that would represent these boys.
Nelle's mother was a house wife and her father and a long resume of careers that he'd been quite successful at. He was a former newspaper editor, and a businessman on top of being a lawyer. He even kept a seat warm on the Alabama State Legislature from 1926 to 1938.
Her path crossed with that of the literary great, Truman Capote, when the two were only children. His parents were newly divorced when Truman was sent to live with relatives in Monroeville at the age of two. He found that Nelle lived nearby and the pair became inseparable. In later life Truman would speak of how they would attend trials together instead of seeing movies. Since Nelle's father was a prominent lawyer in town, they would often watch his defense of those sitting in the defendant's chair. For the next four to five years following his parents' divorce, Truman remained in Monreville by the side of his closest friend. Even after he began his life on the move, Truman came back every summer to visit from 1928 to 1934. Their friendship would endure well into their adulthood, though.
Nelle developed her undeniable love of literature while attending Monroe County High School. It was her teacher, Gladys Watson, that was partly responsible for her finding her true passion. Gladys would go on to become her mentor as well. When she graduated in 1944, Nelle attended what was then an all-female school. She went to the all-girl Huntingdon College for only a year before transferring to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. There, she studied law for several years. Much to her father's disappointment, she left school with only a semester left before graduation.
While she was still a student at the university, Nelle publicly flexed her literary muscles for the first time when she wrote for the school's paper, The Crimson White. She also wrote for a humor magazine known as Rammer Jammer. In 1948, she attended a summer school program at Oxford University in England, "European Civilization in the Twentieth Century." Her father funded the trip in the hopes that it would reignite her interest in the study of law, but it did not.
By the time Nelle published To Kill A Mockingbird, Truman Capote had already made a name for himself as an author. His first book, Other Voices, Other Rooms, had been published in 1948 to great acclaim. Though he denied the parallels, the book has often been referred to as semi-autobiographical. The main character is clearly based on himself, and he even admitted to basing the character, Idabel, on his childhood friend from Alabama. Between the time that he published his first novel and Nelle published hers, Truman had also released other books, such as Breakfast At Tiffany's.
Nelle Harper Lee's masterpiece was published in 1960. It was a classic as well as a controversy for the time in which it was published. The civil rights movement was ramping up at that time and those opposing the movement were not among those praising her novel. Segregationists were very critical of the book that would go on to be banned in schools all over the country. Nelle wrote a letter to an editor in response to an attempt made by a Richmond, Virginia area school board to ban her book as "immoral literature."
The plot as well as the characters in her novel are loosely based on real people and events. The main character, Scout, is very clearly based on a young Nelle. A tomboy that always has her best friend, Dill Harris, close by, one can clearly see that the book is written about the overt racism that Nelle and Truman witnessed as children. Partly based on the events of the Scottsboro Boys' accusations and trial, this book is a deep, dark look at the racist world of the Deep South of the 1930s as seen through the innocent eyes of children.
Truman Capote was an openly gay writer in a time when it was still illegal to be gay. Once he launched into success on the publication of his books, he also managed to launch himself right into the center of New York's socialites. He was found to be an amusing little man, with his small stature and big personality. His high-pitched voice and strange vocal mannerisms became one of the things he was most well known for. The other was his penchant for gossip with the girls, which he was storing up for a book he never published as it turns out. As a writer, it comes as little surprise that he also liked to tell fish tales, exaggerating and embellishing all of his stories. His eccentric yet charismatic personality was purely magnetic. Those in the most elite of circles were intrigued and drawn in by him.
He reveled in the limelight of his success. In this way he and his close friend were very different. Nelle didn't ride the high of her success like Truman, but her book was quite successful. More than anything her literary contemporary had ever published. In 1961, she won the Pulitzer Prize for her work, a feat that Truman never accomplished and some believe he was quite jealous about. She would also receive many accolades and honorary degrees as a result of her novel. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson even appointed her to the National Council on the Arts.
The wide publicity her book garnered wasn't exactly her cup of tea, though. Nelle was a very private person that didn't care for much attention. Until her death in 2016, she gave few interviews and hardly made any public appearances. She didn't much care for her novel being referred to as a "coming-of-age story" by interviewers. She felt that she had written something so much deeper, and she was right.
She helped with the film adaptation of her book and enjoyed every minute of the process. To Kill A Mockingbird was released in theaters in 1962 to much acclaim. The film would go on to win an Academy Award. Nelle was extremely happy with the way the movie turned out. She called it "one of the best translations of a book to film ever made."
In the early hours of November 15, 1959, The Clutter family was brutally murdered in their small, humble town of Holcomb, Kansas. The horrible and unthinkable tragedy provided an opportunity for Truman, who seemed to be blocked while writing another novel he intended to call Answered Prayers. He packed his bags and went to the very center of America with Nelle in tow to help him research the vicious crime. Truman worked hard on this book, pouring more of himself into the research and the writing than he ever thought possible. What resulted is a book that is still hailed by the true crime community to this day as the first true crime book. It also taxed Truman terribly to write this kind of content. To get so up-close-and-personal with actual evil and then write its story. It took something away from him.
The Clutter family's murder was immortalized in Truman's book, In Cold Blood, published in 1966. The book went on to be made into three film adaptations. The success of this book carried him higher than before. He even planned a big party for himself and all his success after the book's release known as the black and white ball. The whose-who of New York's high society was in attendance for the swankiest party of the century.
While Truman would go on to publish chapters out of Answered Prayers that he would wish like hell he hadn't, Nelle wouldn't publish anything else until July 2015. A sequel to her classic original novel, Go Set A Watchman didn't receive the same kind of praise that her first book did. While it ended up as widely panned, what it did manage to do was put to rest a long-held conspiracy. The conspiracy that Truman Capote was actually the author of To Kill A Mockingbird. Intellectual Takeout takes a look at this ridiculous theory to see if it held any water. Of course, it does not.
The very same year that Nelle published Go Set A Watchman, her new book was compared against her old one using a text analysis tool. For good measure, they also tested In Cold Blood. Using an algorithm, the novels were compared for heavy editing or outside influence. It was determined that Nelle Harper Lee was most definitely the author of the book she earned her Pulitzer Prize for. How did such a ridiculous theory become so prominent, though?
Many can merely look at the difference in style, tone, and structure in To Kill A Mockingbird over In Cold Blood to know that the same author did not write these two books. There have been some to buy into the story, though. Some may point at the 65 year gap between Nelle's only two published novels and say that this is evidence supporting the conspiracy. Truman had known much success with his many novels and plays. If she were a true writer, why hadn't she published more?
The fact of the matter is that she hadn't published more because she hadn't been ready to. Go Set A Watchman actually turned out to be an early draft of her first, widely successful novel. She had originally written it in the 1950s. Many ask why she didn't publish more work like her friend. The answer is simple. Nelle created her magnum opus in her first novel. Truman spent his entire life trying to accomplish his. He believed that Answered Prayers was going to be that book, until the chapters he published in Esquire came back to bite him.
When considering the theory of who wrote To Kill A Mockingbird no one really ponders the most obvious of questions. Why would Nelle, a person known to be extremely private, take credit for her friend's novel, knowing that it would at least lead to some kind of small publicity? Furthermore, why would Truman, a man known for loving fame and attention, relinquish a Pulitzer Prize winning novel when that very prize was all he ever coveted? The scenario makes no sense whatsoever. It makes less sense when one considers the letters that Truman are found to have written to friends, stating that he read Nelle's book and very much enjoyed it.
The most likely reason for this theory's conception is pure and simple jealousy. Truman himself, as well as friends of his, are said to have told others that he was heavily involved in the writing of his close friend's novel. While many may be shocked to hear that her oldest and dearest friend lied about having involvement in her award-winning novel, some weren't so much. Nelle's older sister, Alice, wasn't surprised at all to hear the rumors as she knew well how jealous Truman was of her sister's success. Alice blamed his envy for the ugly rumors that accused her sister of plagiarism. All Truman had ever sought in his life was a Pulitzer Prize won for his grand masterpiece, which he never accomplished. His childhood friend, however, had written one book and gone down in history.
Truman Capote died in bed on August 25, 1984. Nelle Harper Lee passed away on February 19, 2016, only seven months after the publication of her second and final novel. The pair had a friendship that spanned decades, but they drifted apart before Truman's death. There are no reports suggesting that they ever mended fences before his passing.
While many conspiracy theories seem to have no answer, or at not one that anyone is willing to give, this one wraps up neatly like a package. It's not as ugly as misogyny, or even as bland as misinformation. The green-eyed monster reared its ugly head and lied in this case.