Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Harper Lee and Other People: A Stylometric Diagnosis

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Harper Lee and Other People: A Stylometric Diagnosis

Article excerpt

There are few books with as enduring a grasp on the American mind and heart as Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Cherished by readers worldwide, the novel also continues to be the subject of extensive academic interest. (1) The sheer sales figures speak volumes about the book: Harper Collins boasts that more than thirty million copies of To Kill a Mockingbird were sold over the years and that it has been translated into forty languages (Cavoto 418). The enduring popularity of the novel has been sensational in itself, but the film adaptation redoubled its success. The movie diminished the role of Scout and the story of the children, focusing more attention on Oscar-winning Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, (2) a character often controversially idealized as a paragon of morality and a respectful champion of the oppressed.

But the matter at hand is not only considering the book in comparison to the movie. Harper Lee, a writer who delivered a compelling portrayal of her southern hometown, was in the spotlight, to some extent exactly because of her attempts to remain out of it. A number of biographical or semi-biographical publications on To Kill a Mockingbird 'prove that the story surrounding Lee's writing of the novel has a life of its own, interwoven with the cultural functioning of the book. Her troubled friendship with Truman Capote; her relationship with her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, upon whom the character of Atticus Finch is largely modeled; her reclusiveness after the astounding success of her debut--all these elements have attracted the interest of the general public almost as much as the fictional story she authored.

When news of the pending publication of the second novel by Harper Lee was released in July 2015, the nation's fascination with To Kill a Mockingbird was reignited on a massive scale. Generations of readers who grew up with a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird in their hands and the image of Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in their minds eagerly looked forward to learning what happened to Scout later in her life. It was clear that Go Seta Watchman was not a sequel, but the initial version of Lee's debut book, whose plot is set later in the timeline than To Kill a Mockingbird; nonetheless, the majority of readers would find it hard not to read as the continuation of their favorite book and not to despair over the metamorphosis of Atticus from broad-minded to bigoted.

With the publication of Go Set a Watchman, notorious doubts and reservations concerning the book resurfaced, among them those attributing credit for Harper Lee's writing to Truman Capote, her lifelong friend and an acclaimed writer. While the question of Lee's authorship of To Kill A Mockingbird has been established by both legal and stylometric means and reported in the media (Gamerman D5), the controversy has shown the need to study in detail the possible affinities between the two most famous inhabitants of Monroeville, Alabama.

The aim of this study is not to question the authorship of Go Set A Watchman, To Kill A Mockingbird, or In Cold Blood 'using quantitative methods of attribution. This matter has already been discussed elsewhere (Eder and Rybicki "Go Set"). Rather, one goal is to complement literary history with stylometry and biography with statistics; the other is to discuss the various quantitative results that make too much sense in time-proven hermeneutic interpretations to be discarded as coincidences. This article seeks to answer a question of greater import than gossip with more or less implausible attribution, namely: How, if at all, is the common background of the two writers visible in the way they use language throughout their respective careers?

"Tru" & "Nelle"

The troubled relationship between Truman Capote and Harper Lee is widely discussed by both authors' biographers (Shields; Clarke), but the two authors also famously commemorated each other in their fiction. …

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