By Alex Dalenberg

May 6, 2013

Here’s a contemporary legal drama with a touch of southern gothic. Harper Lee is suing her former literary agent for allegedly taking advantage of her failing eyesight and hearing to get the copyright of Lee’s one and only book — To Kill a Mockingbird — transferred to his company. Bloomberg has more here. To sum it up, Lee, 87, regained her copyright back, but it seems as though the agent continued to collect royalties into this year. The lawsuit is for damages.

But seriously, while it seems like this is the kind of thing that only happens to little old ladies in the movies, elder abuse is sadly quite common. I found that this story touched a  nerve with me, maybe because I, like millions of other people, read To Kill a Mockingbird as a high school sophomore.

Lee is something of a national treasure. President George W. Bush bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the nation’s highest civilian award — on her in 2007. And, of course, she’s famous for having written To Kill a Mockingbird and nothing else, staying more or less reticent since. She wrote a letter for Oprah’s magazine back in 2006, an exceedingly rare public pronouncement.

Otherwise, removed from the public eye, Lee very much feels like a historical character from the Civil Rights Era, until the rare moments when she captures the occasional headline by the fact that, yes, she’s still alive. It’s probably one of the reasons she remains uncontroversially, and near universally beloved. She never makes pronouncements on contemporary politics, rendering her safely nonpartisan. The same way politicians in both parties feel free to laud Dr. Martin Luther King, even though much of his progressive politics — for example, in support of organized labor — would doubtless be fiercely opposed even today. 

So I guess it’s an easy, high school essay-ish conclusion to come to (hey, that’s when I did most of my writing Lee) but in thinking about To Kill a Mockingbird again. It’s still not a safe text. And it’s still speaking today. For example, the state of Mississippi is slated to execute a black man tomorrow in spite of compelling evidence that has emerged since his original trial that he may be innocent. If nothing else, there is the shadow of a doubt. 

Lee may not have anything to say about that. But her book still does.

At any rate, Lee shouldn’t get be getting the shaft.