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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

(Nelle) Harper Lee (1926-2016)


American writer, famous for her race relations novel To Kill a Mockingbird, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. The book became an international bestseller and was adapted into screen in 1962. Lee was 34 when the work was published, and more than half a century it remained her only novel. "It’s better to be silent,” she once said, “than to be a fool."

"Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."

Harper Lee was born in Monroeville, Alabama. Her father was a former newspaper editor and proprietor, who had served as a state senator and practiced as a lawyer in Monroeville. One of her childhood friends was the  future writer Truman Capote, whom she defended against schoolboy attackers. They lived next door to each other. Lee's father gave them an old Underwood typewriter, with which the wrote original stories together.

While in high school, Lee preferred British writers; Jane Austen was her favorite. She once remarked that her ambition was to "become the Jane Austen of South Alabama." From 1945 to 1949, Lee studied law at the University of Alabama, and spent a year as an exchange student in Oxford University, Wellington Square. Six months before finishing her studies, she went to New York to pursue a literary career. During the 1950s, she worked as an airline reservation clerk with Eastern Air Lines and British Overseas Airways.

In 1959, Lee accompanied Capote to Holcombe, Kansas, as a research assistant for his classic 'non-fiction' novel In Cold Blood (1966). Capote dedicated the book to her, but she had to share his thanks with his longtime lover, Jack Dunphy. Eventually Capote's abuse of drugs and alcohol  broke  Lee's relationship with  him, but she attended Truman's funeral in Los Angeles. "Truman was a psychopath, honey," Lee said to Marja Mills, a journalist who became her neighbour in 2004.

To Kill a Mockingbird was Lee's first published novel. The book is set in Maycomb, Alabama, in the 1930s. Atticus Finch, a lawyer and a father, defends a black man, Tom Robinson, who is accused of raping a poor white girl, Mayella Ewell. The setting and several of the characters are drawn from life – Finch was the maiden name of Lee's mother, and the character of Dill was drawn from Capote, Lee's childhood friend. The trial itself has parallels to the infamous "Scottboro Trial," in which the charge was rape. In both, too, the defendants were African-American men and the accusers white women.

"But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal – there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court. It can be the Supreme Court of the United States of the humblest J.P. court in the land, or this honorable court which you serve. Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal." (Finch defending Tom Robinson)

The narrator is Finch's daughter, nicknamed Scout. She starts the story when she is six and relates many of her experiences, usual interests of a child, and events which break the sheltered world of childhood. Scout is an immensely intelligent and observant child; she sounds as though she could be 16. Her mother is dead and she tries to keep pace with her older brother Jem. He breaks his arm so badly that it heals shorter than the other. One day the children meet Dill, their new seven-year-old friend. They become interested in Boo Radley, a recluse man in his thirties. However, he is not the frightening person as they first had imagined. During the humorous and sad events Scout and Jem learn a lesson in good and evil, and compassion and justice. As Scout's narrative goes on, the reader realizes that she will never kill a mockingbird or become a racist. Scout tells her story in her own language, which is obviously that of a child, but she also analyzes people and their actions from the viewpoint of an already grown-up, mature person. There a lot of variations of the formula "as I look back on it now" in her speech. Scout's narration do not turn the novel into a children's book but lends it innocent truthfulness and simplicity.

The first plot tells the story of Boo Radley, who is generally considered deranged, and the second concerns Tom Robinson. A jury of twelve white men believe two whites and refuse to look past the color of man's skin. They convict Robinson of a crime, rape, he did not commit. Atticus, assigned to defend Tom, loses in court. Tom tries to escape and is shot dead. Bob Ewell, Mayella's father, is obviously guilty of beating her for making sexual advances toward Tom. Bob attacks Jem and Scout because Atticus has exposed his daughter and him as liars. The children are saved by Boo Radley. Bob Ewell is found dead with a knife in his side. Atticus and Calpurnia, the black cook, slowly take the position of the moral centre of the book. They are portrayed as pillars of society who do not share society's prejudices. The story emphasizes that the children are born with an instinct for justice and absorb prejudices in the socialization process. Tom is a scapegoat of society's prejudice and violence. "Mr. Finch, there's just some kind of men you have to shoot before you can say hidy to 'em. Even then, they ain't worth the bullet it takes to shoot 'em. Ewell 'as one of 'em."

Lee did not continue her literary career, although she worked for years on a second novel and a book of nonfiction. "The Reverend," a true crime story, which she tried to write in her apartment on East 82nd Street in New York City and many other places, was never finished. Like J.D. Salinger, she decided to disappear from the public eye and didn't give interviews. From New York Lee returned to Monroeville, where lived with her sister Alice. She was no recluse, but participated in community activities, many related to her church President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed her to the National Council of Arts, where she only spoke when she had something to say.

Capote never tried to put a full stop to the rumors that he had written much of To Kill a Mockingbird. In 2007, Lee was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by George Bush. At the age of 88, Lee surprised the literary word by announcing that she will published in July 2015 her earlier novel, Go Set a Watchman, which she wrote before To Kill a Mockingbird but which has many of its cental characters.

This time the story was told in third person. Scout, who has began to use her legal name of Jean Louise, returns from New York to her her home town of Maycomb, which he sees through new eyes. Atticus, now 72, is brought down from the pedestal: he is not a moral hero, but turns out to be a racist. "For many readers, large stretches of Watchman will be like discovering an alternative version of The Catcher in the Rye in which JD Salinger casts the story of the adolescent Holden Caulfield as the dream of a paedophile Republican senator." (Mark Lawson in The Guardian, 13 July 2015)   The title of the book comes from the King James Bible: "For thus hath the Lord said unto me, 'Go set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth."

To Kill a Mockingbird has been translated into several languages. In 1966, the Hanover County School Board in Richmond, Virginia, ordered all kopies of the book removed from the county's school library shelves, labelling in as  "immoral literature". Referring to the activities of the board, Lee said that "what I've heard makes me wonder if any of its members can read." An illustrated English edition appeared in Moscow in 1977 for propaganda reasons. In the foreword Nadiya Matuzova, Dr.Philol., wrongly stated that "Harper Lee did not live to see her fiftieth birthday," but added rightly: "But her only, remarkable novel which continued the best traditions of the American authors who wrote about America's South – Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell and many others – will forever belong in the treasure of progressive American literature." Harper Lee died on February 19, 2016, at the age of 89.

For further reading: Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Joyce Milton, Tessa Krailing (paperback 1984); To Kill a Mockingbird Notes, ed. Eva Fitzwater ( 1984); Understanding To Kill a Mockingbird by Claudia Durst Johnson and Harper Lee (1994); You Can Go Home Again by Rebecca Lutterell Bailey (1993); Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, ed. Harold Bloom (1995); To Kill a Mockingbird: Threatening Boundaries by Claudia Durst Johnson (1995); Mockingbird. A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields (2006); The Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills (2014); Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep (2019) - Acclaimed authors who wrote only one novel during their lifetime: John Kennedy Toole (A Confederacy of Dunces, 1980); Walter M. Miller, Jr. (A Canticle for Leibowitz, 1959); Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man, 1952), J.D. Salinger (The Catcher In The Rye, 1951), Margaret Mitchell (Gone with the Wind, 1936) - About the film: For Harper Lee, the casting was precisely right – the studio had turned down Rock Hudson, who had discovered Lee's novel, and bought the rights for Gregory Peck. Before beginning of his work, Peck went to Alabama and met the real Atticus Finch, Lee's father Amasa Lee. In gratitude for his performance, Lee presented him with her father's own watch. Dill Harris, played by nine-year-old John Megna, was a character based on Lee's childhood friend Truman Capote. The film, produced by Universal Pictures, was released at the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. First Universal did not like it very much, but it was an immediate popular success.  To make the character of Atticus more prominent, the film was re-edited several times. - From Retakes: Behind the Scenes of 500 Classic Movies by John Eastman (1989) and Novels Into Films by John C. Tibbetts and James M. Welsh (1999) - All reviews were not positive: "To Kill a Mockingbird relates the Cult of Childhood to the Negro Problem with disastrous results. Before the intellectual confusion of the project is considered, it should be noted that this is not much of a movie even by purely formal standards." (Andrew Sarris, Village Voice, March 7, 1963)

Selected works:

  • To Kill A Mockingbird, 1961 (Pulitzer Prize in 1961)
    - Kuin surmaisi satakielen (suom. Maija Westerlund, 1961)
    Film 1962, dir. by Robert Mulligan, written by Horton Foote. Gregory Peck won finally Best Actor Oscar for his compassionate perfoarmance. The book was adapted into a play by Christopher Sergel and produced in England in 1987.
  • Go Set a Watchman, 2015
    - Kaikki taivaan linnut (suom. Kristiina Drews, 2015)

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