The politest rejection letter ever received
By Allen G. Breed
RALEIGH — It was, without a doubt, the nicest rejection of my journalistic career.
I was working on a project about whether “Southernness” was an outdated notion in our mobile culture, and was looking for regional icons to share their thoughts. One of the first names that popped into my mind was Harper Lee.
The author of “To Kill a Mockingbird” hadn’t granted an interview in about four decades, but I figured it was worth a shot. So I crafted a letter and sent it off to Monroeville, Alabama, care of attorney Alice F. Lee — the author’s older sister and chief gatekeeper.
“I know you have had any number of journalistic suitors over the years,” I began, “but I hope you won’t mind one more.”
I told Lee about my project, and that she — as someone who’d divided her time between New York City and Monroeville — would be a perfect fit. I even included some of my favorite feature stories — as proof of my bona fides, I suppose.
It was the height of wishful thinking. I didn’t really expect a reply.
Nine days later, a letter arrived. It was postmarked in New York, but the return address was a post office box in Monroeville.
The note was brief.
“Dear Mr. Breed:
“Thank you for your kind letter and its enclosures. You show much talent as a non-fiction writer!” she wrote in a clear script that sloped somewhat down to the right.
“I simply don’t give interviews — I gave all my publisher and the movie people asked me to give long ago (before you were born), and that was it. However, if I ever decide to give another, you will be near the top of the waiting list!”
There was a brief postscript on the backside of the page.
“My eyesight is failing, and I must look sideways to write,” it read, “so please forgive the slant!”
Like so many, I was in junior high school when an English teacher introduced me to Southern lawyer Atticus Finch and his two children, Jem and Scout. We were assigned “Mockingbird,” William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” and S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders” all in the same year — a magical year which taught me that reading needn’t be a chore.
Growing up in a relatively integrated former mill town north of Boston, the fictional Maycomb, Alabama, was my first real exposure to the evils of segregation. The tale of Atticus’ quixotic defense of Tom Robinson — the disabled black handyman who finds himself charged with rape for having the audacity to feel sorry for a poor, abused white girl — left a lasting impression on me.
In my 28 years with The Associated Press, all of it spent in the South, I’ve met many characters who would have been right at home in Lee’s Maycomb.
And her May 2005 letter, brief as it was, fit with what I already sensed about her: There was gentility there, and the generosity of her decision to not only respond, but to offer a compliment, spoke volumes.
We live in a society that sets enormously high expectations for second acts — be they books or movies or music albums. And we can’t wait to pounce when they don’t live up to those expectations.
Harper Lee shrugged at such demands — in publishing and even public speaking.
“It’s like an owl at noon,” she reportedly told a friend after a rare engagement. “You’ll never see me do something like this again.”
And we didn’t.
In August of 2007, Lee was one of four people inducted into the Alabama Academy of Honor. When asked to address the audience, she responded simply: “Well, it’s better to be silent than to be a fool.”
In an age when people feel compelled to update their Facebook status constantly, Lee kept her thoughts to herself. Not a post, nor a tweet.
With the 2014 publication of “The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee,” it appeared that Lee’s resolve had softened. Then in February 2015, publisher Harper announced the pending release of her “Go Set a Watchman,” even including a rare statement from Lee: “I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.”
No, she did not talk with me. Yes, I would have gladly trumpeted an exclusive interview. But part of me was hoping that she’d stick to her guns and let the singular accomplishment of “Mockingbird” speak for itself.
We have this notion that our heroes — movie stars, athletes or authors — owe us more than just the fruits of their talents; that being a public figure means you are public property. Lee was able to keep her own counsel and, along with friends and relatives, protect her privacy.
I like a scoop as much as the next reporter. But the idea of prying into Lee’s life always felt a bit like killing a mockingbird — the bird you leave alone because all it does is sing.
I’m kind of glad she resisted. And, in that slanted-script letter, at least I have something else to remember her by.
Allen G. Breed is a national writer, based in Raleigh. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.