Sunday, February 21, 2016

Sidebar II: Harper Lee

Sidebar II:
Harper Lee

This Friday, a woman of 89 years old passed away. She was buried today in a private ceremony in her home town of Monroeville, Alabama with only few people in attendance. This is not because her passing was little noted or remarked but because of the private nature of the woman. Her birth name was Nelle Harper Lee, I and all of those who will read this I think, knew her simply as Harper Lee, the woman who wrote To Kill A Mockingbird. She was born in Monroeville in 1926 but like a lot of kids born in small towns did not stay. She left to seek her fortune in New York City and in 1957 turned in the manuscript for To Set A Watchmen. The editor who received it didn't care for the manuscript but in her own words “[T]he spark of the true writer flashed in every line", so she set about getting a book that she would like from Ms. Lee. That book took several years and if you'll excuse me being snobbish about it would be the only book Ms. Lee would write. That book, set in a small southern town set ablaze (metaphorically) by the accusation that a white woman had been raped and beaten by a black man, was released in July of 1960. It became an instant best seller, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961 and 39 years after it was published in the year of our Lord 1999 was voted best novel of the century in Library Journal (the largest trade publication for Librarians, which I frankly assume means most of the voters in the poll would have been Librarians). In 2006, British Librarians rated the book as one every adult should read. This book was as you well know “To Kill a Mockingbird”

"I never expected any sort of success with 'Mockingbird.'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 enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I'd expected." Harper Lee on To Kill a Mockingbird's success

While she would help childhood friend (and also famous writer) Truman Capote on some of his books, including the based on real life crime thriller “In Cold Blood.” She never wrote a book again, even “To Set a Watchmen” is based on the first draft that she wrote before Mockingbird but if you're only going to write one book, Mockingbird is a hell of a choice for that book. I like a lot of us I read the book in class in high school. Unlike a lot of things I did in high school, I'm actually grateful that they made us do it. I am not going to turn this into a review of Mockingbird, there is simply nothing that I can say that can add to what has already been discussed. That said I felt I should say something when the writer of something so amazing passes from us. I will talk a bit about how the book effected me, at the time I, being a rather dense high school student in a lot of ways had blithely assumed that racism was pretty much done in the United States. I was fairly sure that by the time I was 30 that racism would be something we read about in old books and saw in old movies. When you're done laughing your ass off, I will remind you I wasn't even old enough to drink yet at the time. So when we started reading the book, I was sure it was a nice book but with nothing really relevant to say to modern society. I was wrong (not just about the racism thing, although I was certainly wrong about that). Even laying aside the stone cold look at what racism does to people and the how those effects can cause incredible harm beyond even the immediate effects. There's the rather cutting look at class (no one gave a shit that Mayella Ewell was an abused child trapped in poverty and pain, until someone thought to blame a black man), and more... Frankly the book is a brutal look at society in some ways and all the more brutal in that this is not a polemic. We aren't told, look at how horrible these people are, they are racists and therefore evil. Instead we're shown people who range from good to indifferent, noble to at the very least trying, engaging in terrible behavior because of their beliefs in race, gender or class.

That's not what stayed with me though if we're going to be honest. It's the moment outside of the courtroom when Dill and Scout have fled due to Dill being upset and they are comforted by Dolphus Raymond, a white land owner who spurned white society to the point of living with and having children with a black woman (he didn't marry but that's because the book is set in the south during the depression, interracial marriage was illegal in the south at that time). The town has pretty much dismissed Raymond as a mangy drunk who doesn't know what he's doing. However we find out it's not booze he's drinking, but Coca Cola when he gives Dill some to drink to calm him down. He more or less just let's the town believe him to be a drunk so he can be left alone to live his life. That stuck with me for a lot of reasons, that I'll keep to myself but there you go. I

Harper Lee may have only written one book, compared to some writers who have written dozens, or even more... That might not seem like a lot. But sometimes? Sometimes... Sometimes one book is enough. We should all be so lucky has to leave something like “To Kill a Mockingbird” behind. Rest Well Ms. Lee and thank you.

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