Lee, Harper: To Kill a Mocking Bird

It was the annual outing to Portie again. Your assiduous correspondent arrived to find the early arrivers in full flow on the topic of why there might be astragals on one side of the house and not the other (answers on a postcard) and sampling a fine Bourgeuil – Les Cent Boisselées 2003 (just send us a crate if you feel so inclined. Or two…).

 Moving on to introducing “To Kill a Mockingbird”, the proposer said that he had been encouraged to read it by his wife and daughters, and had bought the 50th anniversary edition. However, he had subsequently found a copy given to him for his 21st birthday, and thought, but could not be certain, that he had read it in the past! The book linked with last month’s “The Color of Water” in its examination of race relations, and had received a fair degree of recent attention because of the 50th anniversary and because of Rich Hall’s programme “The Dirty South”.

 Harper Lee (1926- ) was born Nelle Harper Lee in Monroeville, Alabama. She was the daughter of a civil lawyer, who had on one occasion defended two negros in a murder trial and lost. Her sister Alice was a lawyer. Harper herself had studied some law at university, but did not like it. She found little in common with her fellow female students. She spent a summer at Oxford, but dropped out of her law studies on return, feeling that she wanted to be a writer. She struggled in New York for some years, working as a reservations clerk.

 However, she had made friends with the composer Michael Martin Brown and his wife, and they made her the remarkable Xmas present in 1956 of a year’s wages to allow her to concentrate on writing, and also helped to find her an agent. This allowed her to finish the manuscript by 1959, and the book was published in July 1960. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, and was adapted into the Oscar-winning film starring Gregory Peck in 1962. Lee described the film as “one of the best translations of a book to film ever made”. Peck’s grandson was named after her, and she remains close to Peck’s family.

 When a child her next door neighbours were the aunt and uncle of Truman Capote, and he spent a lot of time there. Capote became her best friend, and the character of Dill in her book was modelled on him. One of them was gifted a Remington typewriter, and they wrote stories together. There were not many other examples in literary history of two such major writers being childhood friends.

 She renewed her friendship with Capote when she went to work in New York. In Capote’s first novel “Other Voices, Other Rooms” (1948) there is a tomboy girl character, based on Harper Lee. Capote also said that in the first draft of his novel he had a character who, like Boo Radley, was a neighbour who left things in trees. This character, according to Capote, was based on a real life figure from their childhood.

 After completing her novel, Lee helped Capote with writing “In Cold Blood”. She was one of two people that the book was dedicated to, but she was hurt that no recognition was given to the part she had played in contributing to the book. Despite that, their friendship continued to the end of Capote’s life. But while he revelled in the limelight, she shunned it.

 Despite carrying out some work on a second novel and on a non-fiction book, Lee had not published another book, and continued to live a quiet private life in New York and Monroeville.

 The group were unanimous in their praise of their book. One survey had judged this was the best novel of the last century. While not perhaps going that far, we agreed this was a true classic – beautifully written, and also enjoyable despite its disconcerting subject matter. Her wry humour and good use of dialect also illuminated the novel with a warm tone. And what a brilliant title she had chosen.

 The main theme was of course race, but it was by no means the only theme. Another was that of a child coming to terms with the realities of the adult world. Also explored was the issue of how Atticus brought up his children as a single parent. And more broadly Lee was portraying the breadth of society in a small rural town in the South.

 The device of telling the story through the eyes of a six year old (even if one who seems knowing beyond her years) was brilliantly successful. It allowed a portrait to emerge of Atticus as a hero – a man of great integrity – with little sentimentality, as it also depicted his foibles from a child’s perspective. An interesting comment on Atticus from Rich Hall was that in reality he probably would have been lynched in the South of the fifties.

 The device of using the child narrator also effectively conveyed the view that racism was learnt from culture and not innate, and that children start with a sense of fair play. One of us remembered being brought up in a village where half the children were gypsies, and thinking nothing of playing with them all the time.

 Another attractive feature of the novel was that Lee showed a capacity to understand why people in her small town behaved as they did. She was unreserved in condemning racism, but she showed the capacity for empathy of the great novelist in appreciating how it evolved.

 However, there was no ambiguity about her moral judgements:

 “As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t forget it – whenever a white man does that to a Blackman, no matter who he is, or how a fine family he comes from, that white man is trash.”

 Part of the force of that statement by Atticus comes from taking the phrase “white trash” and turning it from its normal derogatory connotations of poverty and class into a term of moral judgement.

 (Well indeed, I ventured, didn’t the Country and Western song also play on the meaning of “trash” in the line “I like my women just a little on the trashy side”? Alas this scintillating piece of linguistic criticism was left withering on the vine…).

 Although, continued another, there was a degree of inconsistency in Atticus insisting that Jem should have to face a trial but not Boo Radley.

 What about the structure of the novel? The line of plot certainly misled some, as they had feared a rather sentimental court victory for Atticus in defence of his black client, Tom Robinson, and the realism of the court outcome was appropriate. An early comment from a publisher had been that the draft book was more a collection of short stories than a novel, and one member felt that there was still an element of truth in this, in particular in not integrating the Boo Radley sub-plot with the themes of the rest of the novel. On the other hand, suggested one, the Boo Radley story also showed how it is possible to make quite unrealistic assumptions about other people.

We were greatly intrigued by the fact that Harper Lee had only published one book, and had dropped unpublished her subsequent efforts. Why should that be? Was she one of those writers who only really had one book in her, such as Margaret Mitchell? Or did she recognise that she was one of those writers whose first book was always going to be the best (in which class we identified various writers ranging from Salinger to Colin Currie)?

 Or was she simply too much of a perfectionist? After all in 1958 she had thrown five years of work on “To Kill a Mockingbird” into the snow until a call from her editor persuaded her to rescue the manuscript. And perhaps if she had published other less good novels set in New York she would have lost the identification with the South that was central to her persona as a writer. Indeed, speculated one (who claimed to have been a model for a character in a play), once someone was identified as a writer they might find people were unwilling to open up in front of them, which would limit their raw material.

 In any event, we hoped that she had not destroyed all her other manuscripts or left instructions for them to be destroyed on her death. But we feared she would have.

 Lee had wanted to be the “Jane Austen of the South”, and she had succeeded very well in this ambition. There were also strong echoes of Mark Twain in the novel. But despite these nineteenth century echoes, the approach to racial issues was surprisingly modern for a book published in 1960. It had to be remembered that the book was written before JFK had come to power, and before Martin Luther King had made his “I have a dream” speech. The book’s depiction of racism and of sex could when necessary be brutally realistic in its language.

 The book was also prescient. Thus Atticus said: 

 “There’s nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who’ll take advantage of a Negro’s ignorance. Don’t fool yourselves – it’s all adding up, and one of these days we’re going to pay the bill for it. I hope it’s not in your children’s time.”

 Was this, I ventured, a simple black and white tale?

 When those who had fallen off their chairs recovered from this minor faux pas, the view was that, at its heart, the book was indeed a kind of fable, which might help to account for its appeal to younger readers. However, there were elements of complexity too, such as in the character of Miss Maudie.

 Would the book have had any success in changing attitudes to racism? Probably not, we feared, with adult readers whose attitudes had already been formed, but it must be a powerful force for good with young readers, and was therefore a popular pedagogic tool.

 And were we being complacent in assuming we were all non-racists now? Some claimed everybody had a degree of racism within them. Or was that simply the thought police, and there was no satisfying them?

Well at least, we congratulated ourselves, we weren’t in the racist category of the Airdrie fan who turned up at matches in Nazi uniform, thereby attracting the first ASBO issued to a football fan in the UK.

 But steady on, riposted one, whose sympathies perhaps lay with the Diamonds, it’s not as if the whole club is like that! It’s not as if Airdrie United F.C. are putting pictures of the Wehrmacht on the front of their Matchday Programme!

 Oh, indeed not…