Friday, 19 February 2016

Godspeed Harper Lee

Harper Lee, author of the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, died today at the age of 89.

Harper Lee was born Nelle Harper Lee on April 28 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama. Her first name was her maternal grandmother's name (Ellen) spelled backwards. She did not use it on To Kill a Mockingbird out of fear that it would be mispronounced "Nellie". Her father was Amasa Coleman Lee, a prominent attorney who served in the  Alabama State Legislature from 1926 to 1938. She had an older sister, Alice, who would follow their father into law. Among her childhood friends was a young boy Truman Parsons, who would go on to become famous as writer Truman Capote. The character of Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird was based on him. In turn, Mr. Capote based the characters of Idabel Thompkins in the novel Other Voices, Other Rooms and Ann "Jumbo" Finchburg in the short story "The Thanksgiving Visitor" on Harper Lee.

Harper Lee attended Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama, where she wrote articles for the school newspaper and fiction for the school's literary magazine. After a year at Huntingdon College Miss Lee transferred to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. There she studied law with the intention of following her father and older sister into the field. She wrote for the school's newspaper, as well as the school's humour magazine, Rammer Jammer. She became editor in chief of Rammer Jammer in 1946. It was in her senior year that she spent a summer at Oxford University in England. It was while she was at Oxford that she decided to leave school to pursue a career as a writer.

It was then in 1949 that Harper Lee moved to New York City. She worked at a book store and then as a reservations agent, initially for Eastern Airlines and later for British Overseas Airways Corporation. It was on Christmas in 1956 that her friends Michael and Joy Brown presented her with a cheque that equalled a year's pay at the British Overseas Airways Corporation and told her to take a year off from her job and write whatever she wanted. Michael Brown was a lyricist whose work included the song Lizzie Borden from the Broadway production New Faces of 1952 and "Indoor Girl" in the musical House of Flowers. He had just made a good deal of money working on a musical fashion show for Esquire magazine.

Harper Lee wrote several short stories with which she was able to get an agent, Maurice Crain. Mr. Crain suggested that she try to write a novel. She began work on a novel titled Go Set a Watchman. She submitted it to J. B. Lippincott Company, who paid her an advance and assigned her to the editor Tay Hohoff. Miss Hohoff thought that Go Set a Watchman read more like a series of anecdotes than an actual novel . It was Tay Hohoff who guided Harper Lee for the next two years into transforming Go Set a Watchman into the novel we now know as To Kill a Mockingbird.

J. B. Lippincott Company did not expect To Kill a Mockingbird to sell well and even Harper Lee said, "I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers, but, at the same time I sort of hoped someone would like it well enough to give me encouragement." As it turned out, To Kill a Mockingbird became a phenomenal success. It topped best seller lists and was included in the Book-of-the-Month-Club.The classic film adaptation of the novel was released in 1962.

Following the completion of To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee accompanied Truman Capote to Holcomb, Kansas to research the murder of a farm family. Harper Lee helped with much of the research, interviewing investigators and local people. All of this work would eventually go into Truman Capote's book In Cold Blood. Unfortunately in the book Truman Capote only acknowledged Harper Lee's work with a short "thank you" on the book's dedication page.

Despite the success of To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee never wrote another book. She worked for a time on another novel titled The Long Goodbye, but she never finished it. In the mid-Eighties she became fascinated by murders committed by a serial killer and part-time preacher in Alexander City, Alabama. She did research into the crimes with the intent of writing a true crime book titled The Reverend. She would not finish it either.

For many years Harper Lee spent a solitary life in her hometown of Monroeville. It was last year that the manuscript Go Set a Watchman was published. The novel caused considerable controversy.  Some thought that because of her advanced age Harper Lee had been taken advantage of, and the Alabama authorities even investigated to see if she had been the victim of elder abuse. Ultimately, they concluded that she had not. Even more controversial was the portrayal of Atticus Finch, the protagonist of To Kill a Mockingbird. Counted as one of the greatest literary heroes of the 20th Century, in Go Set a Watchman Atticus Finch is a racist who has attended a Klan meeting and supports segregation. Many fans of the original novel were very upset. Regardless, Go Set a Watchman sold very well.

There can be no doubt that To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most successful novels of the 20th Century. It would go from being a bestseller in 1960 to a literary classic that is required reading in many high schools and universities. Much of the reason for the novel's success is that it captured a world that was largely fading by the time of the book's publication. Quite simply, To Kill a Mockingbird was a portrait of life in a small Southern town. It was a world that was rarely seen before in literature. Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind dealt with plantation life in a time and place in such a romanticised way that must have seemed far removed to most Southerners in the 20th Century. Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road was set in the present, but dealt with sharecroppers at opposite end of the class spectrum from the O'Haras of Gone with the Wind. To Kill a Mockingbird was one of the earliest novels to deal with middle class life in a small Southern town.

While Harper Lee painted a vivid picture of life in the Thirties in a small Alabama town, she also gave To Kill a Mockingbird several layers. At the centre of the novel is racial inequality and racial injustice. While much of the novel deals with small town life, much of it also centres upon a trial in which Atticus Finch must defend a black man accused of rape. The portrait of bigotry painted in To Kill a Mockingbird is not pretty and is not easy to read, but like the portrayal of small town life rings all too true.  

To Kill a Mockingbird not only dealt with race, but also class as well. Class plays a central role in To Kill a Mockingbird, with characters ranging from the upper class Dolphus Raymond to the middle class Finches to the lower class Ewells. To Kill a Mockingbird was sophisticated in its approach to class in the South in two ways. First was Atticus Finch's insistence that no one be judged according to their class. Quite simply, Harper Lee placed the person as an individual above their social standing. Second, while other works set in the South would generally attribute racism to only the poorest of whites, in To Kill a Mockingbird racism can be found in every social class. Quite simply for Harper Lee one's social class does not determine how good or bad a person may be or what they might believe.

Beyond the subjects of race and class To Kill a Mockingbird touched upon many other subjects, including the destruction of innocence, the nature of courage, and even traditional gender roles (as a tomboy Scout hardly conforms to traditional expectations of a little girl).  Ultimately To Kill a Mockingbird was a much more sophisticated novel than it might appear on the surface.

Given what she accomplished with To Kill a Mockingbird it is perhaps sad that Harper Lee did not write more books. While I rather doubt any other novels written by Harper Lee would have measured up to the success of To Kill a Mockingbird (very few novels ever have), it seems possible that she could have produced several classic novels. As it is, the fact that she produced a book of the quality of To Kill a Mockingbird is an accomplishment in and of itself.

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