“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—-Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it” – Harper Lee quote from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.
“Shoot all the blue jays if you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” – from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.
In the Saturday, February 20, 2016 issue of the Los Angeles Times, they printed a lengthy obituary of a very well-known author, Harper Lee, who passed away at the age of 89. I was a huge fan of her 1960 novel “TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD”
Until Charles Shields wrote “MOCKINGBIRD, A PORTRAIT OF HARPER LEE” published in 2006 by Henry Holt and Company, too not much was known about Harper Lee, who remained a very private person for most of her life.
Despite this, she endured “a punishing promotional tour” to promote the film “TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD”, starring Gregory Peck in 1962.
One writer noted that “TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD” published in 1960 at dawn of the civil-rights struggle has been called the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of its day.
Like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic, MOCKINGBIRD is built around the depredations visited on a black man in the South, Tom Robinson, who is defended against a trumped-up rape charge by a white lawyer named Atticus Finch.
The novel won the Pulitzer Prize and sold over 30 million copies in dozens of languages. In fact, it has not been out of print since it was first published and has been required reading in many high schools.
Shortly after TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was published, it was picked up by the Book-of-the-Month-Club and the Literary Club and a condensed version appeared in Reader’s Digest magazine.
“Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I’d have the facts” – from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.
The following year, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD won the Pulitzer Prize as well as several other literary awards. Horton Foote wrote a screenplay based on the novel and used the same title for the 1962 film adaptation. Lee visited the set during filming and gave a lot of interviews to support the project.
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD earned eight Academy Award nominations; the movie version won three awards, including best actor for Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Finch. The character is said to have been based on Lee’s father.
In 2007, President George W. Bush presented Lee with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her “outstanding contribution to America’s literary tradition”, at a ceremony at the White House
(I am noting that she never refused attendance for events such as the Presidential Medal of Freedom; after reading articles on Google and the lengthy article that appeared in the L.A. Times on February 20, 2016, I don’t think Lee was against luncheons with her friends of family or friends—I concluded that she just got fed up with reporters and as a rule refused all requests for interviews).
In 2007, also, Lee suffered a stroke and struggled with various ongoing health problems including hearing loss and limited vision and problems with short-term memory.
After the stroke, Lee moved into an assisted living facility in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. Using a magnifying device to read, necessary for her macular degeneration, Lee was able to keep up with reading. Her sister once said that “books are the things she cares about”.
In 2013 Lee filed a lawsuit in a federal court against literary agent Samuel Pinkus charging that in 2007 Pinkus engaged in a scheme to dupe her out of the coyright TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, later diverting royalties from the work.
In September 2013, a settlement was reached in the lawsuit.
In 2014, Lee allowed TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD to be released as an e-book; she signed a deal with HarperCollins to release TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD as an e-book and digital audio editions. But, Lee explained (for which I wholeheartedly understand) that she was “Still old fashioned. I love dusty old books and libraries…” She said she was amazed and humbled that MOCKINGBIRD has survived this long.
While TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was the first novel Lee had published, it wasn’t the first one she wrote. Her first novel, GO SET A WATCHMAN had been submitted to a publisher in 1957. When the novel wasn’t accepted, Lee’s editor asked her to revise the story and make her main character, Scout, a child. Lee worked on the story for two years and it eventually became TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD.
For decades, Lee shunned requests for interviews and claimed she was finished with writing—so that when HarperCollins announced in early 2015 that they planned to publish a new Harper Lee novel, they received a mixed bag of responses—from delight to dismay. The title of the “new” novel, GO SET A WATCHMAN was actually written years earlier and was discovered by Lee’s lawyer in Harper’s safe-deposit box.
With reports that 88-year old Lee suffered failing health, questions arose about the publication of the novel. Lee issued a statement that she was “alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions to WATCHMAN”. Alabama officials investigated and found no evidence that she was a victim to coercion.
Controversy aside, WATCHMAN broke pre-sale records for publishing house HarperCollins and was on target to become one of the fastest selling literary works in history.
Harper Lee (whose first name was actually Nelle) passed away in her sleep on February 19, 2016, at the age of 89, in an assisted living facility in Monroeville, Alabama.
“People generally see what they look for and hear what they listen for” – from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.
And finally, she wrote, in MOCKINGBIRD, “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what”.
I was going on twenty years old when TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD” was published. There was a reason why it resonated with me, personally, as a human being. I don’t think I ever suffered from any racial feelings or beliefs.
When I was about fifteen years old, I wrote a short fictional story called THE STORY OF GLENDA. Glenda was a young woman whose father was a black man and her mother was a white woman. I would type my stories one page at a time, single spaced—and then share them with childhood girlfriends and high school classmates who all waited with bated breath for the next installment.
About the time Lee was writing TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, I was writing short stories trying to change the racial beliefs of people with whom I came in contact. I didn’t know or come in contact with any African Americans throughout my childhood or adolescence.
God is good; fourteen years ago, my biracial grandson was born. He is the light of our lives.
Harper Lee also wrote “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience”.
–Sandra Lee Smith