Sunday, January 24, 2016

An Appreciation of Harper Lee

No, I don't know her. I can't claim to have had a chat with her about writing, or about life as a child in the Jim Crow South; or have her critique of any books I may have written. She dogs my footsteps anyhow, this celebrated, enigmatic chronicler of the pinpoint in time when things were wrong and it was possible to make them partly right by exposing them with honesty and grace. Hers is the spirit of every writer.

If I knew her, I wouldn't refer to her as "Harper," anyway. She has always been called Nelle, which was her grandmother's name spelled backwards. Southerners sometimes do eccentric things like that. Harper is her middle name, which she was wise to use as sort of a nom de plume to separate people who knew her from people who had just read her book To Kill a Mockingbird.

The success of To Kill a Mockingbird was monumental on many levels. Her book brought the Gone With the Wind-type South up short, painting a true picture of that unjust system of legal justice that had been imbedded in the part of the country we both grew up in since the founding of our nation. No longer could we comfortably yearn for the glorious days of hoop skirts and dandies defending the honor of Southern womanhood. The picture she painted was real, recognizable,  contemporary, and not so pretty. The black race was no longer enslaved and compliant, as we had been told it once was. Even children could see and feel the stings of the falsity we were being spoon-fed. Lee's characters were innocent but swept up in a tide of misdeeds and deception. They observed, they questioned, and even though they may have found the answers wanting, they accepted the custom of racial segregation as they went about the business of growing up. Lee's matter-of-fact reportage from the viewpoint of children was unique, so unique that it reached the world and was an effective instrument in the arsenal of change.

The ability to expose injustice--and effect hearts and minds--through the force of one's art is the dream of every writer. Nelle surely hoped to do that as she laid out To Kill a Mockingbird, but, unlike many creative types, she was unassuming and introverted. She was a small town Southern girl, with a not-untypical childhood, with at least one book in her, and she needed to get that out. Friends subsidized her for a year, and she did the job she set out to do in that period of time.

Since the days when To Kill a Mockingbird came out her life changed totally, and her reticence has created as much of a firestorm of interest in her as its converse celebrity-seeking might have done. I was told by an intimate of the man who knew her in her early days that when the money and fame came, she had been so enthralled by it she had to clear herself away from its source (the whirl of Manhattan) in order to save herself. She moved from the mad rush she was getting in New York back to the quiet of Monroeville, shutting herself away from the press and establishing herself as an author of one book, living not technically as a recluse, but a person with a fetish for privacy that became a legend in itself.

This caused no end of speculation and wonder, particularly among Southern writers, most of whom enjoy spinning yarns in public places as much as facing the blank page. We who wrote solicited her support, and she was good about sending occasional letters to those writers she admired, but she seldom emerged from her cocoon of solitude except to accept the occasional award or perhaps to answer the well-crafted single question.

A bit of a cottage "mockingbird" industry has begun to grow up in Monroeville--and word is she is not happy about it.  A snoopy writer moved next door, befriended her and her sister Alice, and wrote a book about the two that Lee has gone public denying any knowledge of.

Twenty years ago, promoting the local courthouse museum, the town began an annual production of the stage version of To Kill a Mockingbird, rather like one of those passion plays on the story of Christ done in small towns. I was director and founder of Jubilee Fish Theater, an equity company in Point Clear, just a couple of hours away from Monroeville and some locals there saw me on television promoting an upcoming show. They got in touch with me to advise their young museum director on how to improve their production.

I went to Monroeville, met with Kathy, the museum director, and looked over the facility. They were putting on the play IN the courtroom, an awe-inspiring room that was used as the model for the set in the film version of Lee's book. I then had supper with the couple who invited me--I swear I believe the restaurant was named Radley's--and discovered that he was a carpenter and contractor. I asked him if he could build a few facades of houses with porches on the courthouse lawn,
My contribution to the show
for sets in the first act of the play. He said, "Sure." We then met with Kathy and I gave her my advice--expand the show, building outdoor sets for the first scenes, and then move the audience upstairs in the courthouse for the courtroom scenes. I also advised her to create a full-fledged amateur theatre group called The Mockingbird Players, putting on a season of plays each year, to better equip her actors for the stage. I volunteered to direct a play or two with them, maybe give acting classes, to launch them in the new venture. They didn't take me up on that, but they took the name The Mockingbird Players for the troop presenting the play, and have continued forward every year. To my knowledge, Harper Lee has never attended a production or sanctioned its existence.

Go Set a Watchman is a different book. It was the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird.  Go Set a Watchman features many of the characters we came to know in Mockingbird but it finds them at a different point in their lives. It is about Jean Louise Finch, who, in her 20s, goes home to confront her revered father Atticus Finch. Watchman is full of flashbacks to her childhood, some humorous, some sad. The first editor suggested that it was two books and that the book about the children was the most interesting. Lee rewrote it, focusing on the children, but gave the original manuscript to her sister. I think it is probably important to the lovers of To Kill a Mockingbird to read this book, and that probably Alice Lee thought so too or she wouldn't have saved it.
I've read it and for many reasons find it a better book than To Kill a Mockingbird. I shall review it and discuss the life and times, the books, and the context of Harper Lee's work in a presentation at The Book Cellar at Page & Palette Bookstore in Fairhope, Alabama, on February 16, at 6:30 P.M. I hope you can be there.


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