Harper Lee and Gregory Peck during filming of Mockingbird.
As someone who named her son Atticus, most people instantly know I feel strongly about the book To Kill a Mockingbird. This week I have received emails from friends letting me know about various events being held to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publication of the book. So I felt it was appropriate that I say a few words about the book and what it has meant to me.
Growing up my father did not watch TV very much apart from the nightly news at 11:00. In fact, he watched it so seldom, I have clear memories of the few things he did watch. Here are the few things I can remember him watching-- an episode of Star Trek that my (future film critic)brother dragged him in to the basement to see; Wizard of Oz--I sat on his lap during the scary parts; an episode of Petticoat Junction that my mom wanted to see because of a wedding (was that Bobbi Joe or Betty Joe?); the end of the football game that was famously interrupted by Heidi; the moonlanding; and To Kill a Mockingbird. I new instantly by the tone of voice he used when my mother told him it would be on that night that it was a very special movie indeed. I was only 8 or 9 and not surprisingly the movie did not hold my interest.
A few years later, at the age of 11 during one of those locust-like summer readings binges in which I ravaged my parents' library (and you know just what I'm talking about)I read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time. I loved it instantly. I did not know exactly what rape was but I had an inkling and the themes of racial injustice, personal bravery, and loss of innocence, resonated with me. I was completely taken with the hero and father-figure Atticus Finch and have throughout my life continued to ask myself "What would Atticus do?" in times of moral dilemma. Quite recently an acquaintance mentioned that she had done that too and I suppose we are not the only two on the planet who have held Atticus in such high esteem.
I have never read To Kill a Mockingbird for a class, ironically. I have read it at least three times through but more often I pick it up and read a passage here and there. It never fails to delight--the story, the phrasing, the place and time, and above all the characters. So memorable you can recall them all easily, Jem and Scout, Miss Maudie, Boo Radley....and many more you could name too I'm sure but above all Atticus.
Over the years I have read quite a bit about the book and how it came to be. For those of you who enjoyed the book but perhaps haven't delved in to the topic as deeply, I offer some trivia:
-The character Dill is based on Harper Lee's next-door neighbor, Truman Capote who did indeed come spend the summers with his aunt. His parents were horribly neglectful--father had abandoned them and mother was, for all practical purposes, a hooker who left him locked in hotel rooms while she went out to the bar. Some claim it is Truman Capote who really wrote To Kill a Mockingbird but there is scant evidence of that. Some also surmise that it is really Harper Lee who wrote the only good book Truman Capote published, In Cold Blood but that probably is not the case either. To be sure Harper Lee helped him research the book as no one in Holcomb, Kansas where the murders occurred wanted to talk to the pompous sissy boy from New York City. I can understand how they were good friends as children but often wonder how she put up with such a pretentious ass when she lived in New York. Maybe she didn't very well--they had a falling out at some point and were not speaking to each other when he died at 59 after drinking himself to death.
-Harper Lee was in her early 20's when she dropped out of law school and moved to New York to write. After struggling a few years with the age-old dilemma of trying to earn a living and finding time to write she was given a generous Christmas gift from friends--a year's salary and direction to quit working and write. She did and at the end of her year she had her masterpiece.
-Harper Lee hobnobbed with the New York glitterati for a few years. Helped Truman with his book and then seems to have had enough. She retired at a young age back to Monroeville Alabama and remains there, now in her mid-80's. She does not do interviews and as far as I know will have nothing at all to do with any of the anniversary events including the Monroeville County Presents: Celebration Weekend for To Kill a Mockingbird which, by the way, begins today.
-To Kill a Mockingbird is the only book she ever wrote. This makes a lot of people crazy (and some point to it as evidence that she did not even write it to begin with). But it doesn't bother me a bit. Why should she write another book after writing something so wonderful AND making sure it was turned respectfully into a weighty movie? Isn't that enough? I say thank you Ms. Lee for the gift and enjoy your peace and quiet.
Next up: On naming a kid Atticus and excerpts from the letter I have from Harper Lee!