“Listen, you fool”



                                           Listen, you fool:

This is how Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, starts her letter to Robert E. Bell, and what a wonderful way to start a letter it is!

She admonishes herself for waiting an entire year after his novel’s publication (he wrote The Butterfly Tree in 1959) to write and tell him how much she admires his book.

“To tell you that it was poetry from the first word to the last, not even excepting that hideous printers’ error on about page 42”

all photos by readinginterrupted.com, Letter in Morgan Library & Museum

all photos by readinginterrupted.com, Letter in Morgan Library & Museum


She goes so far as to invite him to New York to visit her. “When in the hell are you coming up here? Now. I insist.”


I can identify with her need to work in a quiet environment and wanting to rip the phone off the wall at times (“I yanked the phone off of the wall the other night; it had rung 18 times that day.”)


Nelle (her first name and the one she uses to sign the letter) certainly knows how to write a great letter.

This is another gem from The Morgan Library’s collection. They periodically change what they put on display, and I was delighted to find her letter there this past weekend. I’ve never read The Butterfly Tree so I will, of course, be picking it up – with a recommendation like this, how could I not?



72 thoughts on ““Listen, you fool”

  1. I also love this way of starting a letter….”listen you fool….” It is genius and totally catches your attention….
    I would like to read this book too…

    • Haha, yes, the ‘come here to NYC NOW!’ could be read as a bit creepy if taken out of context. That fine line between being a fan and being a stalker 🙂

  2. Letizia. You have the most wonderful post! As a child I read her one and only published book and fell for Scout, head over heels. I, along with countless others, wish she would have published more novels. She certainly has a way with words.

    • She really does have her own style! I read that she wrote another book – at least a draft of one- but never felt comfortable publishing it.

      But one book is fine too- especially such a fine one!

  3. Okay. I am totally ashamed now. I have never read To Kill a Mockingbird but will get it out of the library forthwith. I think I will get out The Butterfly Tree at the same time and see what she’s talking about. Arggggggh…too many books, too little, um, well, just call me a fool. 🙂 Love the letter.

    • I always find pearls like this at The Morgan. This one was in a big display box with other letters so I almost walked by it until the start of it caught my eye. I’m glad it did, Claire!

  4. OK, am I the only one who read that as a letter to Robert E. Lee, and thinking calling him a fool isn’t going to end well?

  5. Nelle was a complicated person and never finished a second novel, but she said what she thought. Love that letter and her boldness and complete honesty to a person she had never met but completely knew through his writing. Great post, Letizia. Now I must add The Butterfly Tree to my list.

    • You’re right, how great to be so bold and honest in one’s praise to someone you’ve never met. I wonder if they did meet in the end. I will have to do some research.

  6. I’m thinking someone should do a one person show, reading all the great letters from one writer to another. Record the show, then put it up on YouTube as a tutorial in letter writing. What do you think?

    • I would love to know more as well. Doing a bit more research, I saw that the Morgan library has a few more letters by Harper Lee to Bell so it seems that they did have an ongoing correspondence.

  7. What a creative share, Letizia!! I love how she strikes up attention with those opening words, using them in a playful way — truly genius (both the letter and your idea to use it for this post). Hugs.

  8. I remember reading and re-reading “To Kill a Mockingbird.” And then I read it again a couple of years ago when my son was completing a book report. Now, I have an audiobook – the reader is absolutely delightful with a joyous and lilting accent.

    We forget that every word we write, whether in a letter, post, book report, business letter, bears our mark. Writing is letting our voice speak long after the words have been written. I have been going through my dad’s letters and have come across his love letters to my mother. His voice comes forward with us.

    By the way, I heard once that Picasso always paid for his grocery bills with a cheque (check) rather than cash. People would keep the cheque because his signature was worth more than the cost of the purchased goods. Now, whether that is true or not, it does speak to the nature of the written word.

    Another wonderful post.

    • How lovely to revisit To Kill a Mockingbird in so many ways. I imagine that it’s a good book to listen to as well.

      I love letters. I have a pile of letters from family and friends that I cherish. It’s important to keep writing them as well, perhaps more so today as they are rarer. It must be wonderful to reread your father’s letters – to hear his voice in that way.

  9. What a wonderful post this is Letizia, I found reading Harper Lee’s letter absolutely fascinating. I love how you took us through it, giving us a very personal insight into her thoughts at the time. I just love the opener: ‘Listen, you fool”. Priceless. I shall remember that 😉 And I have never heard of The Butterfly Tree but like you, I would love to read it now. Especially as it was written in the same year of my birth 😉

  10. I shall be following your example and picking up both of these books as it appears these days that I am sadly under read. History and words…the best combination since shoes and socks.

  11. Looks like you’ve started a Butterfly Tree craze Letizia! To kill a mockingbird is one of the books that had the most influence on me – it was the first book I read at school that I actually loved and Harper Lee is fascinating for many reasons. What a great letter especially for one who professes shyness!

    • I’d love to think I started a Butterfly Tree craze, haha! But the credit really goes to the Morgan Library.

      You make such a good point. Lee, who claims to be so shy, is so bold in this letter. What an intriguing person indeed!

    • Well, I can’t help but feel flattered. I’m so curious to read Bell’s novel and will try not to approach it with overly high expectations because that’s never a good way to start a book.

  12. That was an awesome way to start a letter. It feels like something I would do… but with my close friends, definitely not a famous writer, haha. I love that it’s type-written! Oh I would love to get my hands on one of those…

  13. Last year I attended a series of Saturday classes on American Women Writers, and the one I most enjoyed was–get this–titled “Listen, You Fool” about Harper Lee. It studied phrases from this letter and applied them to various people and struggles and joys in her life, including a very interesting application to her friendship with Truman Capote (Dill, in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD). Your post was an excellent commentary on the letter, Letizia, and you would have made a wonderful addition to the presenters of the series.

    • What a wonderful theme for a class; I love the idea! I was inspired by the Morgan Library’s description of the letter which pointed out many of the fascinating parts of the letter.

      The series you attended must have been so interesting overall, to include a class such as this one.

  14. Pingback: The Butterfly Tree – Robert E. Bell (Lippincott, 1959) | ratfab

Comments are always welcome!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s