December 17, 2017
Harper Lee at Home
On this day in 1926 Harper Lee was born in Monroeville, Alabama. After the immediate and overwhelming success of To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Lee is known to have published only three short magazine articles, all in the early 60s, and she rarely broke the silence and anonymity into which she quickly retreated. Legions of readers, fans and homework-driven students continue to make the real or internet trip to Monroeville to see the old courthouse (now a museum), or to see the house where Lee grew up (gone, now a burger stand). From the little local gossip that the locals provided, we learn that she kept to her ordinary, small-town ways throughout her last years, until unable to do so - shopping at the Piggly Wiggly and having coffee at Hardee's. From one of her rare appearances in print, a 2006 letter written about her childhood for O, the Oprah Winfrey magazine, we learn that she eschewed modernity for her more familiar and traditional habits: "Now, 75 years later in an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods, and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books."
Whatever the quality of Go Set a Watchman, the posthumously-published prequel novel due, it perhaps should not come as a surprise. In interviews conducted in the mid-60s Lee certainly talked as if she planned to be a career writer:
I want to chronicle something that seems to be very quickly going down the drain. This is small-town middle-class life, as opposed to the Gothic, as opposed to Tobacco Road, as opposed to plantation life.... There is something universal in this little world, something decent to be said for it, and something to lament in its passing. In other words, all I want to be is the Jane Austen of south Alabama.
Lee did work on another big book, but it was as researcher for In Cold Blood, by childhood friend (and model for Dill), Truman Capote. Perhaps such a very different book took away Lee's ambition to chronicle the decent life; perhaps she thought that, in comparison, few would care to read about it. Perhaps there is a clue to her silence in "When Children Discover America," one of those three magazine articles. Here she concedes the importance of children touring the national historic sites, and then makes a case for not only living quietly in small-town America but for keeping quiet:
I would like to show children my own town, my own street, my own neighbors. I live on the corner. My next-door neighbor is a barber, and his wife owns a dress shop. My down-the-street neighbor has a grocery store, and my neighbor down the hill is a teacher. My neighbor to the rear is a doctor; behind him is a druggist. If children were visiting--from abroad or from other parts of the country -- they would have cookies and ice cream for them, and take them to the park with the lake and the swimming pool, and my cook, Mary, would make them an enormous cake covered with caramel frosting, and for dinner give them fresh vegetables from the garden and Southern chicken cooked right.
The same sort of idea - that children most need a home, and the confidence to make their way to and from it - is expressed in the last pages of To Kill a Mockingbird when Scout returns from walking Boo Radley to his porch:
And then we would let them alone....
The street lights were fuzzy from the fine rain that was falling. As I made my way home, I felt very old, but when I looked at the tip of my nose I could see fine misty beads, but looking cross-eyed made me dizzy so I quit. As I made my way home, I thought what a thing to tell Jem tomorrow. He'd be so mad he missed it he wouldn't speak to me for days. As I made my way home, I thought Jem and I would get grown but there wasn't much else left for us to learn, except possibly algebra.
I ran up the steps and into the house....