Tuesday, February 17, 2015

It's a sin to kill a mockingbird

Inevitably, announcement of the forthcoming release of a "new" book by Harper Lee triggered a new interest in the author's life and work, along with the gossip that swirls about her to this day. By coincidence, our church's women's book club discussed the book this month. Friend Jean and I planned to go to the brown bag luncheon today, but I am stuck waiting for a furniture delivery. I packed Jean a lunch, but she decided we should just eat here and have our own discussion. So we did.
To Kill a Mockingbird, its themes and social significance have been so much discussed that it seems redundant to rehash it here. Jean said the one thing that stands out for her is the character of Atticus--a man well grounded, sure in his beliefs of right and wrong, willing to buck society for what he believes the truth to be. I think many people would choose him as their favorite character.
Author Harper Lee has become almost a legendary recluse--but a lot of that is just legend. I recently read The Mockingbird Next Door, by Marja Mills. Mills, a feature writer for the Chicago Daily Tribune, traveled to Monroeville, Alabama, in the futile hope of getting an interview with the famous author. Instead, she was thrilled to talk to Lee's older sister, Alice, then in her nineties. Before she left town, Harper (known as Nelle) sent word she'd like to meet. One thing led to another and to friendship with the end result that Mills lived next door to the sisters for a period of about eighteen months and came to know them, their friends, and their way of life. She ate with them in restaurants, visited in their homes, went on exploratory jaunts with them.
Nelle was not the recluse many envisioned--she was an active part of her community. And she lived part time in New York where she maintained an apartment. Mills' account of her time in Monroeville is memorable in the picture it paints of life in a small southern town and of the lives of the two sisters. Nelle was a bit eccentric, outspoken, but shy in public, reluctant to give interviews or talks. She was happy with her life, and when pressed about another book, I believe she let Miss Alice answer: "Why write another when you've hit your peak?" Mills wrote with the sisters' blessing, but there are hints that Harper Lee as dissatisfied with the final product.
Today Miss Alice is gone, living and practicing law until she was 103, and Nelle Harper Lee is in an assisted living facility, barely able to see and hear and some say her mind is failing. She is in her late eighties.
The puzzle is why, after all this time of adamant refusal about another book, did Harper Lee consent to publish what is essentially a first draft. The editor who rejected it requested the extensive rewrite which resulted in the published version of the book--after heavy editing. Harper Lee possessed uncanny insight into the ways of her town and the South and the ways of people in the era of her book, but she was essentially an amateur writer. The publisher of the new book, Go Set A Watchman, plans to publish it unedited. I think we should all be prepared for much repetitive material, but who among us doesn't intend to read the new book? There are the nasty rumors, of course, of money to be made by the publisher and the lawyer now handling Lee's affairs, and a suggestion that if Miss
Alice was still handling things there would be no new book.
I don't remember when I first read Mockingbird. It was published in the early sixties, when I was in graduate school, and whether I read it then or not, I can't be sure. I know I saw the movie...and it's one of the few that lives up to the book. Gregory Peck dominates in perhaps his best role ever. I watched it and reread the book a couple of  years ago in preparation for a panel discussion, and I remember being surprised at how different the cinematography was from what we're used to today. I hope no enterprising producer gets a notion to do an "updated" film. Gregory Peck is long gone, and I cannot imagine another Atticus.
If you haven't explored the original book, or Marja Mills book, or seen the movie, all are worth your time before Go Set a Watchman comes out.

Atticus to Jem: "Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird." All mockingbirds do is sing their hearts out for us.


Susan J Tweit said...

Thanks for the thoughtful piece, Judy. I'm not sure I'll buy Watchman. I think I'd rather read Mockingbird Next Door to get more of a sen of the sisters and their lives and the town of Monroe. I don't want to be disappointed by Watchman!

judyalter said...

Susan, I fully expect to be disappointed by Watchman, but I'll read it out of curiosity. I enjoyed Mockingbird Next Door, except I was left with a lingering feeling that the author was subtly saying, "Look who I got to hang out with!" Then again, she truly was respectful of the sisters and their privacy. It's all a fascinating story...and in many ways sad.

Kait said...

I have serious reservations about the 'new' book. Like you, I will read it out of curiosity, but in my heart of hearts, I wonder if Harper Lee isn't being exploited. I have no evidence of that, of course, but the thought is there. I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Gregory Peck in his later years. He was touring the country basically talking about his life - it happened that the night I saw him was his wife's birthday and he brought her out on stage and introduced her. From all I could glean, he was very much Atticus Finch. He also mentioned he had kept in touch with Jem and Scout. Neither pursued show biz and the relationships seemed quite close. Mockingbird is a masterpiece. A chocolate truffle in a world of Hershey's kisses. I think the movie was the same. Hopefully no one will decide it needs a remake.