Friday, February 19, 2016

Remembering Harper Lee



Since author Harper Lee's death was announced this morning, the tributes have been flowing in from legions of fans from Apple's Remembering Harper LeeTim Cook (an Alabama native), to author John Green, to dozens of teachers and students paying homage to the woman and her work.  

Like everybody else, I always loved To Kill a Mockingbird, but I never particularly thought of it as a "political" book--at least not when I was a kid, a Northerner, who had precious little experience of the racist themes examined in it. To me, TKAM has always been a book about childhood, about innocence and its loss, about how great *and* awful it is to have to grow up. Add to that that I had Daddy issues that would have made Scout proud: i.e. my father, who was neither a lawyer nor an activist, was nonetheless the kind of enormous personality I revered. And Boo Radley--well, that's a name I evoke often even all these years later; to my family, it's a kind of shorthand for whatever weird neighbor-guy is fascinating and frightening us.    

As I grew up to become a passionate reader and sometime writer, I started to love the story behind the book as much as the book itself; I loved all the rumors that Harper Lee's best friend from childhood, Truman Capote, had actually written the book, or at least had a heavy hand in its creation. I eventually came to doubt the veracity of that rumor because, I understood, Capote and Lee were plenty estranged after the publication and Capote wasn't exactly shy about getting himself publicity. Surely he would have claimed credit if he could have!

Like many, I had mixed feelings about Go Set a Watchman. It clearly wasn't the book that Mockingbird was, but you could see the seeds of the beloved novel in it. And again, I was more interested in the backstory than the one on the page. It turns out that Alice Lee, Nelle Harper Lee's much older sister, was also a lawyer--as much a role model to the writer as the father, I suspect--and that she guarded her sister's legacy like the proverbial hawk. She always said there would be no new Harper Lee book. So it didn't escape my attention that it was very soon after Alice died--in 2014 at age 103!--that the new manuscript was "discovered" and published.

I never met Harper Lee, but I'm jealous of the several people I know who did--like the people at HarperCollins, like Mary Murphy, the creator of the wonderful Mockingbird documentary, Hey, Boo. I think I would have liked Nelle Harper Lee for being the proud, no-nonsense grown-up tomboy everybody says she was. I like to think she would have liked me. I know she said that adulation and attention frightened her, but I hope she would enjoy knowing how she thoroughly changed so many lives.



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