Friday, February 19, 2016

A Harper Lee Story

Harper Lee, the famous writer of To Kill a Mockingbird, has passed away at the age of 89. The book was a critical and commercial success, led to an equally successful movie, and has been read by high school students for at least the past fifty years. Among Southern novelists, she has few peers. It's astonishing that her reputation rests upon a single book. It made up her sole literary output until last year's critically panned sequel, Go Set a Watchman. Many believe that Harper Lee did not agree to its publication in sentiment. She might not have been mentally functional enough, due to advanced age, to prevent someone from cashing in on her name.

I met Harper Lee almost in passing. This was nearly a decade ago, in the auditorium of the Birmingham Public Library in Birmingham, Alabama. The occasion was meant to showcase the photography of the folklorist and author Katherine Tucker Windham. Largely unknown outside the South, Windham was considered a local legend. Both she and Harper Lee were Alabama born and bred, and apparently the two were friends from way back in the day. Turnout for the event was high, as was the enthusiasm.

The notoriously reclusive Lee had taken a special trip from her home in South Alabama. By this time, Lee was confined to a wheelchair and required constant care. It was clear that her health was in great decline and she would not last much longer. For most of the event, she sat obligingly, saying nothing to anyone. Her attendance had been deliberately unscheduled and unannounced in an effort to not draw too much attention. I was pushing an older man in a wheelchair, and the four of us shared a quiet elevator ride. I didn't even know who she was at first, and I wouldn't know until I observed the fawning behavior of the audience.

A young woman gushingly approached Harper Lee as the latter was wheeled down to the stage.

"You're such an inspiration! I want you to know how much your work means to me!"

Harper Lee, who had been previously sitting sullenly in silence, craned her neck upwards. Before that instant, she had not made eye contact with anyone. One might have made an incorrect assumption that she was deaf or mentally impaired.

As it turns out, Lee was her typically crabby, cranky self.

"I came here to support a friend, not to be idolized," she spat.

That was all she said or was going to say. The young woman, her feelings clearly hurt, quickly departed. After that, no one else dared ask her a question or to make any comment at all in her company. This was not atypical behavior for Harper Lee, who valued her privacy to such an obsessive degree that she was openly scornful of the hosanna-shouting public. A person more comfortable in the spotlight might have feasted on the idol worship, but not her.

Anyone who know much about Harper Lee will not be surprised by this anecdote. Fanatically protective of her public visibility, Lee lived the life of a shut-in on nobody's terms but her own. This made no difference to the millions of people touched by her novel. Southern liberals and reformers see her as their champion, as her words made a strong case for racial tolerance and Civil Rights. The virtuous lawyer Atticus Finch was her own creation, played by Gregory Peck in the acclaimed film that followed.

Adding any new and relevant critique to her work is almost impossible. Her novel has been dissected in a million different ways over the years. The book's deceiving simplicity makes it easy for adolescents to read and everyone to love. To Kill a Mockingbird was a seminal work and would have been a tough act to follow. Even so, the public clamored for more, even a slow trickle of short stories. Like J.D. Salinger, who is a contemporary of Lee, she became withdrawn and secretive. It was plain that she never courted, nor anticipated superstardom.

Now she has departed this earth for the afterlife, remaining a figure shrouded in mystery. Lee did it her way or no way at all. A sensitive soul could only have written such an idealistic and noble work. She disappointed many readers and adoring fans along the way. A particularly persistent rumor insisted that her close friend Truman Capote was the real author. Though one could make a case for it, the book's author is almost assuredly her. I wonder if we'll still be reading To Kill a Mockingbird for another fifty years.

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