Harper Lee, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author Of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird,’ Dies At 89

 

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Harper Lee died quietly in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama February 19, 2016

I was greatly saddened to hear of the death of Nelle Harper Lee, arguably my favorite author of definitely my favorite book AND movie.  I still remember the very first time I saw To Kill a Mockingbird at our local drive-in, and how I sat spell-bound as the story unfolded. You see, I saw a lot of myself in Scout. I was a tomboy. I played the same way and experienced the same the things Scout, Jem, and Dill did. And like Scout, at an early age, I noticed the difference in how people were treated – and it bothered me. I lived in a small southern town and grew up with the same values as the Finch family. I was also witness to the values demonstrated by some of the less scrupulous town folk.  I grew up in the 50’s – but things weren’t so very different then…

To Kill a Mockingbird  has been acclaimed as one of the most important in American Literature. Gleaned from her own childhood memories, Harper Lee reveals the prejudice and injustice of Southern Society during that era.  It was once required reading for many middle and high school students as it focused on themes of racial injustice and traditional class and gender roles in the deep South during the 1930’s. It was quite controversial when first published for exploring these topics of taboo.

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While she insists the book is not an autobiography, the many parallels between Scout (the narrator and main character of the book) and Harper are very similar. This has been confirmed by author Truman Capote who grew up next door to the Lee’s and became Harper’s best friend and confidant. They must have been an odd pair for that era – Truman too soft for the boys and Harper too tough for the girls. They forged a friendship that lasted a lifetime – but had its ups and downs…more about that later.

“People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.”
― Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird begins at the end. The novel opens with the adult Jean Louise “Scout” Finch writing, “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”  By the time Jem finally gets around to breaking his arm, more than 250 pages later, most readers will have forgotten they were ever warned. This echoes the way the whole book unfolds-in no special hurry, with life-like indirection…where nothing happens all by itself.

                        The Radley House  –  Boo Radly was Robert Duvall’s first major role.

The two different story lines: the trial of a black man unjustly accused of raping a white woman and the saga of Boo Radley the ‘boogey man’ who lives down the street, slowly unfolds along parallel tracks that finally come together at the end.

To Kill a Mockingbird  depicts life in a small Southern town as seen through the eyes of “Scout,” a spirited six-year-old tomboy and carries us on an odyssey through the fires of prejudice and injustice in 1932 Alabama. The author of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee grew up in Monroeville, a small rural Alabama town that was very much like Scout’s hometown of Maycomb.

Monroeville, AL home of Harper Lee
Scout’s Maycomb, AL was actually Harper’s Monroeville, AL

Harper was the daughter of a progressive Southern lawyer, just like Atticus Finch, Scout’s father.  And, like Scout, Harper was a ‘spirited tomboy’ who grew up without her mother.

                                                            Scout, Atticus, and Jem

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what. – Atticus Finch”
― Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Truman Capote, was Harper’s next door neighbor as a child as well as her best friend. They must have been two odd ducks back then – Capote too soft for the boys, and Harper too tough for the girls. Her cussing was unconscious; she picked her clothes for their practicality; she had a quick wit and easy humor; Harper Lee did not seek other’s approval. “Her right to live as she pleased was not up for negotiation. It was nobody’s business.”

 

aTTICUS AND SCOUT
In 2003, Peck’s portrayal of Atticus Finch was deemed the Greatest Film Hero of the Century by the American Film Institute.

Harper Lee was not your typical southern girl. Like Scout, she was a tomboy. And like Scout’s father Atticus Finch, Harper’s own father encouraged his children to think for themselves and care about others. Born Nelle Harper Lee on April 28, 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama, Harper Lee was the youngest of 4 girls. Her mother suffered from mental illness and was absent from Harper’s life most of the time. Scout also grew up without a mother. Harper grew up thinking she would follow her father and her older sister Alice as an attorney.

                                         Harper Lee spent a lot of time on her front porch.

But in high school she developed an interest in English literature that never left her. She was in her junior year at Oxford University before she realized that writing, not the law, was her true calling. In 1949, at the age of 23, she packed her bags and left for NYC to pursue her dream. It was there that she reunited with Capote who was now a literary rising star. He introduced her to Broadway composer Michael Martin Brown and his wife Joy who gave her a great gift – time. Recognizing her talent, they offered to support her for a year and allow her to write full-time on her manuscript that was later to be called “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Up to that point, she had worked several jobs, barely making ends meet, with little time for writing…she accepted.

Harper Lee and Producer Alan Pakula on Mockingbird set 1962
Harper Lee and Alan Pakula Producer on Mockingbird set 1962 

After completing her manuscript she worked alongside Capote, travelling with him and serving as his research assistant while he worked on his novel: “In Cold Blood”.  She was a great asset to Capote as Harper had a way of relating to small town life and the people who lived there that Capote did not. Her contributions to his work was invaluable and she gave him all her meticulous notes on the trial of the Cutter Family – the subject of his book.

 

By 1960 her book had been published and in 1961 it won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize among other literary awards. In 1962 Horton Foote wrote the film adaptation that went on to earn eight Academy Award nominations, winning four.


This did not please her lifelong friend Truman Capote who was quite jealous. To get even, in spite of her contributions to his novel, Truman did not give her any credit for her work and dedicated his novel, In Cold Blood to his lover instead.

Truman Capote

“They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions… but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
― Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper was hurt but forgave him for his betrayal. And why not? Her legacy was just beginning…in 1966 Lyndon Johnson appointed her to the National Council of Arts. In 2007 she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President G.W. Bush and in 2010 President Obama awarded her the National Medal of Arts. There were many other prestigious awards in between.

Harper Lee award from Bushthe Today, the book is just as  powerful as it was when first published in the 60’s. We understand what Harper Lee was trying to say about civil rights, prejudice, tolerance and courage it took to change society in the South during that time. We can appreciate the bravery, or maybe the audacity,  it took for her to say it in a time when women were just as suppressed as blacks.

Courtscene To Kill a Mockingbird
Courtroom scene from To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird has sold more than thirty million copies in eighteen languages. According to biographer Charles J. Shields, Lee was unprepared for the amount of personal attention associated with writing a bestseller. Ever since, she has led a quiet and guardedly private life. As Sheriff Tate says of Boo Radley, “draggin’ him with his shy ways into the limelight-to me, that’s a sin.”  So it would be with Harper Lee.

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Courthouse in Monroeville, AL was used in To Kill a Mockingbird 

Harper Lee once said she would never write another novel as she felt ,was enough…and  for me, it was.  Published in July 1960, the book was an international bestseller. Lee was awarded the Pulitzer Prize the following year.

For over 50 years To Kill a Mockingbird was Harper Lee’s one and only novel, or so we thought…

Last July, Go Set a Watchman, a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, was released. The highly anticipated novel was Lee’s second and final published book. The manuscript, thought to have been lost, was discovered in one of Lee’s safety deposit boxes by her lawyer Tonja Cater in 2011.

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Harper Lee at the release of Go Set a Watchman 

Lee’s failing health, including severe hearing and vision loss, led many to speculate that the author wasn’t competent enough to sign off on the publication of Go Set a Watchman, but the claims were ultimately determined  to be “unfounded.”

Go Set a Watchman revisits a now 26-year-old Scout, who encounters intolerance in her small Alabama hometown while visiting from New York. Readers — and Scout herself — are surprised to find that her father, regarded by many literary critics as a fictional crusader for racial justice, has a less-than-progressive stance on race issues. Atticus argues with Scout about civil rights, telling his daughter that “the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people” and that black people aren’t ready to vote.  How depressing to discover this Atticus is a racist!

But we must remember that Atticus can’t be worshipped. He can’t be a savior. He’s a character modeled after a man (in fact, modeled after Lee’s own father, who changed his opinion about race at a few different times in his life).

“But a man who has lived by truth—and you have believed in what he has lived—he does not leave you merely wary when he fails you, he leaves you with nothing.”
― Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman

The book received mostly negative reviews, as readers were shocked to find their once beloved civil rights-defending protagonist exposed as a “racist.” Many critics agreed the novel could have used several more rounds of edits, calling it “unfit for print” and a”mess.” Some said the “rough draft” was published only for the sake of constructing a”phony literary event.”

I tend to agree with these critics and am of the opinion that Harper Lee, if in her right state of mind, would not have published Go Set a Watchmen.  To Kill a Mockingbird was perfection and indeed, enough.

“As sure as time, history is repeating itself, and as sure as man is man, history is the last place he’ll look for his lessons.”
― Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman

I have a confession – This book I’ve been chomping the bit to read will have to wait a bit. Maybe months. Maybe even a year. I don’t know.

I’ll need to contemplate the quote which graces the back cover.

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I’ll set my own watchman.

Lee is pre-deceased by her parents, two sisters and one brother.

The author lived a private life. She never married or had children, and she rarely gave interviews.

“I want to do the best I can with the talent God gave me,” Lee said in 1964. “I would like to leave some record of the kind of life that existed in a very small world.”  In that, she succeeded.

Rest in peace dear lady and thank you for one of the most important books of my life.

“Atticus said to Jem one day, “I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. “Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
― Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

 

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