I have written about Harper Lee in the past, about my favourite book, about the ‘new’ book. I won’t tread old ground. Here are just a few further thoughts on the day this great author died:
I first encountered To Kill A Mockingbird in high school. It is one of the few things I took with me from my English Literature days.
When our teacher read from the book, he would pronounce the name of the character ‘Scout’ as ‘Scoot’. One of the more vocal members of the class eventually expressed her irritation at this. The teacher appeared surprised. From that moment, Scout was always Scout.
I understood the reaction towards Go Set A Watchman. But for me, it wasn’t an issue. I treated it as a stand alone novel. As an early draft of To Kill A Mockingbird, it was no way a sequel.
Written before, but set after.
Scout was older. I was older.
I understood the high feelings about Atticus. Maybe it would help to see this Atticus as the melting pot from which the more familiar and beloved Atticus would emerge. Or to draw distinctions of perspective: in To Kill A Mockingbird, he is seen through the innocent, adoring but naive eyes of a young girl. In Watchman, he is judged through the eyes of a grown woman, returning to a small, southern town fresh from her experiences in the Big Smoke.
But, to me, these distinctions weren’t necessary. I was just thankful for something, anything, new, from Harper Lee.
I have never met anybody who called their son Atticus. But I do have a friend who called his daughter Scout. He is still happy with his choice.
Harper Lee, in a letter to Oprah Winfrey’s O magazine, discussing her love of books:
“[In] an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods, and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books. Instant information is not for me. I prefer to search library stacks because when I work to learn something, I remember it.
And, Oprah, can you imagine curling up in bed to read a computer? Weeping for Anna Karenina and being terrified by Hannibal Lecter, entering the heart of darkness with Mistah Kurtz, having Holden Caulfield ring you up—some things should happen on soft pages, not cold metal.”
In the post before last, I spoke of an against-the-odds moment of synchronicity when my ordered world was intruded upon by a casual coincidence. This morning, I said to my wife, almost in a throwaway comment: “I think the passing of Harper Lee is imminent. If it happens, I’m going to reread To Kill A Mockingbird, followed by Go Set A Watchman.”
I’d had no revelation. And, of course, she was of an age.
A few hours later, I finished reading Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. On Goodreads, I gave it five stars: Brilliant and disturbing. Capote’s masterpiece. Capote never really gave Lee proper credit for the work she did on behalf of that book.
Capote and Lee appear to have been polar opposites. He craved the limelight, she chose to shun it. I have read that Lee’s sister Alice said that his jealousy about his friend winning the Pulitzer Prize was one of the reasons they drifted apart.
After finishing his great novel, my intention was to watch the film Capote, about the two writer’s research on the Clutter murders. Then I heard the news.
My wife and I watched the movie tonight. Philip Seymour Hoffman was great as Capote, but on this poignant night Catherine Keener drew my attention as Lee. Another casual coincidence: on the day that Harper Lee died, I finished the last of Capote’s work I had yet to read. It was also the last work which had input from Lee.
I have always respected Harper Lee’s decision to walk away after that first book. It also frustrated the hell out of me. There were tantalising glimpses of works that could have been: a novel about someone hunting a deer. An In Cold Blood type account of real life murders, called The Reverend. Go ahead, google them, there are a few crumbs to gather up in speculation.
But Harper eventually said no. Or, as she replied to requests for interviews:
To Nelle Harper Lee: for what you did give us, I will always be grateful. R.I.P