Tuesday, June 13, 2006

A Literary Mystery

When I was in high school, we studied Harper Lee’s classic To Kill A Mockingbird. I recall the drama poured on the pages of this novel. Then later in college, I read another book at the recommendation of my journalism professor called In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. This nonfiction title was heralded as part of the wave of “new journalism” which used the storytelling techniques of fiction in a nonfiction book. At the time, it was quite the innovation but now is much more common place and a technique encouraged in most nonfiction books.  While I am familiar with both books, I never connected these two authors and the intersection of their life stories until I read the recent piece in The New Yorker about a new biography of Lee Harper called Mockingbird.

Harper Lee photoHere’s a couple of paragraphs from Thomas Mallon’s well-written article to show the connection of these authors, “Growing up, she had preferred tackle to touch football, and tended to bully her friends, including the young Truman Capote, who, during the late nineteen-twenties and the thirties, was fobbed off by his feckless mother on relatives who lived in Lee’s home town, Monroeville. He put her into his fiction at least twice—as Idabel Tompkins (“I want so much to be a boy”), in “Other Voices, Other Rooms,” and as Ann (Jumbo) Finchburg, in “The Thanksgiving Visitor.” Lee did the same for him in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” turning the boy Truman into Dill, an effeminate schemer with an enormous capacity for lying. One year, Lee’s father gave her and Truman a twenty-pound Underwood typewriter, which the two children managed to shift back and forth between their houses and use in the composition of collaborative fictions about the neighbors.”

“In 1959, when Capote asked Lee to accompany him to Kansas while he looked into the murder of the Clutter family, he was thirty-five and already famous, a sort of self-hatched Faberg´┐Ż egg—the author of high-gloss magazine journalism, some dankly suggestive Southern-gothic fiction, and the silvery “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Lee was just reaching the end of a decade-long literary struggle. After dropping out of the University of Alabama, in 1948, the year Capote published his first book, she had gone to New York to write one of her own, despite her father’s apparent belief that literary success was unlikely to favor Monroeville twice. In the city, she scrounged for change in parking meters and used an old wooden door for a writing desk. She spent most of the fifties living in Yorkville, on the Upper East Side, working as an airline ticket agent and failing to impress the other artistically ambitious Southerners she ran into. “Here was this dumpy girl from Monroeville,” one of them recalled years later. “We didn’t think she was up to much. She said she was writing a book, and that was that.””

That “book” turned out to be To Kill A Mockingbird which eventually sold over 30 million copies and won the 1961 Pulitzer prize. Mallon says in 1988 “was taught in 74 percent of the nation’s public schools” according to the National Council of Teachers of English.  Now anyone in publishing can tell you that broad teaching about a novel translates into a large number of book sales. Over the years, many people have tried to interview Harper Lee but have not been successful.

The literary mystery related to Harper Lee and it appears in the final paragraph of Mallon’s article, “The greatest mystery, of course, is why Lee never published a second novel, and whether she even got very far in writing one. Absent some late-life efflorescence, “To Kill a Mockingbird” will be it for her, despite a once professed desire to become “the Jane Austen of south Alabama” and a claim, in the years just after the novel’s publication, to be spending between six and twelve hours a day at her desk. As time went on, her editor grew impatient, and her agents became anxious. Eventually, they stopped asking.” The second novel has never been published.  It’s hard to publish something which has never been turned into the publisher.

3 Comment:

At 9:05 AM, Blogger Wandering Writer Left a note...

Wow. Thanks, Terry. I never would have put the two of them together.

At 12:04 PM, Blogger michelleu Left a note...

What is it they say, most writers really only have one story and they keep writing it over and over again, while some writers write their one story and are done? Margaret Mitchell was another Southerner who produced one major book and then covered up the typewriter.

My sons studied "To Kill a Mockingbird" at Punahou School in Hawaii--their eighth grade English teachers had them take the book apart chapter by chapter and write an essay on what purpose that chapter served in moving the story along. I've always envied them such a wonderful opportunity to examine what went into writing such a classic (Of course they never let me read their papers!).

It was lovely speaking with you on the phone the other day, Terry.

(Janet's assistant)

At 4:48 PM, Blogger Shelley L. MacKenzie Left a note...

What an interesting article. Thanks for sharing. I never knew that about the character Dill. Interesting.


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