Reclusive 'Mockingbird' author to be honoured at the White House

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Harper Lee, the reclusive author who has not published a book since To Kill A Mockingbird – which cemented her reputation in 1960 and won her a Pultizer Prize a year later – is to be honoured next month with America's highest civilian decoration, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The award casts a rare spotlight on the 81-year-old, who hardly ever appears in public and says next to nothing when she does. The White House said that her novel had made "an outstanding contribution to America's literary tradition". "At a critical moment in our history, her beautiful book, To Kill A Mockingbird, helped focus the nation on the turbulent struggle for equality," the citation added.

Lee will appear, at least in theory, at a White House ceremony on 5 November alongside other honorees including Francis Collins, who led the human genome project, Gary Becker, the Nobel economics laureate, and Henry Hyde, a former congressman who led the push to impeach President Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Whether Lee will turn up is another matter. She has granted just one interview in 33 years and made only one notable appearance outside her home state of Alabama – a ceremony at Los Angeles Public Library in 2005, at which the many words spoken in praise of the author were matched with almost none from her.

To Kill A Mockingbird – a story of racial injustice in the segregated Deep South, told from the dual viewpoints of a crusading lawyer and his wide-eyed children – is regularly voted one of America's favourite novels. Its status was only enhanced by the popularity of the 1962 film version, with Gregory Peck in a career-defining role. The novel is studied in more than 70 per cent of US high schools. In some ways, though, the White House is going against the grain of many academics who are unconvinced that the book's warm-heartedness is matched by a level of literary craftsmanship to warrant its stellar reputation.

The fact that Lee has never published again has led some critics to wonder whether the book's success was entirely due to Lee or the prowess of Tay Hohoff, her editor at the publishing house JB Lipincott.

Others have suggested that alcohol has played a role in Lee's subsequent writer's block.