In a time when fauxlebrities tweet every time they change their handbag, here’s a heartwarming tidbit: An octogenarian novelist made international headlines in June by feeding some ducks. (Take that, Kardashians.)
That Harper Lee isn’t just any novelist, and “To Kill a Mockingbird” not just any book can be seen by the headlines across England, the US, and Canada – mostly variants on “Harper Lee Speaks” – as a result of her “interview” with Britain’s Mail newspaper. (The interview consisted in its entirety of her thanking a reporter for a box of chocolates and a mention of the waterfowl-nourishment expedition.)
“To Kill a Mockingbird,” which turns 50 on July 11, remains a crowning achievement, and its narrator, Scout Finch, one of the most beloved tomboys in American literature. (You could argue whether she or Jo March deserves first place, but I couldn’t imagine my childhood without either.)
“By any measure, it is an astonishing phenomenon,” writes Mary McDonagh Murphy in her new book Scout, Atticus & Boo. “An instant best seller, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, a screen adaptation ranked one of the best of all time. Fifty years after its publication, it sells nearly a million copies every year – hundreds of thousands more than The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, or Of Mice and Men, American classics that also are staples of high school classrooms. No other twentieth-century American novel is more widely read. Even British librarians, who were polled in 2006 and asked, “Which book should every adult read before they die?” voted To Kill a Mockingbird number one. The Bible was number two.”
Or, as Oprah Winfrey, who tried but failed to get Lee to come on her TV show, put it, “I think it is our national novel.”
To celebrate the 50th anniversary, Emmy-winner Murphy interviewed residents of Monroeville, Ala., which became Maycomb in the novel, as well as famous people who have said their lives were changed by reading the book. Interviewees include Winfrey, novelist Wally Lamb (who wrote the foreword), Tom Brokaw, Scott Turow, and Mary Badham, who played Scout in the Academy Award-winning movie. There also will be a documentary.
Lee’s first novel was also her last, which has only added to the “Mockingbird” mystique.
“It was like being hit over the head and knocked out cold,” Lee said in a 1964 interview (one of the last she ever gave). “You see, I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird.... I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of reviewers, but at the same time I sort of hoped that maybe someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick merciful death I’d expected.”
Needless to say, the press-shy Lee did not sit for Murphy, but the book is worth the purchase price alone for its interview with her older sister, Alice Finch Lee. At 98, Lee still practices real estate law every day at the offices of Barrett, Bugg & Lee, although she now pairs tennis shoes with her suits. In addition to reminiscing about her mother and father, Lee recalls her youngest sister’s childhood friendship with writer Truman Capote. Lee lays the end of that friendship squarely at the feet of Capote, who she says was jealous of the success of “Mockingbird.”
Capote comes up a lot in interviews – naysayers claim he helped write “Mockingbird,” which is ironic, because Lee actually did help him write “In Cold Blood.” So does abolitionist novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe – with “Mockingbird” holding the place of honor for the civil rights era that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” occupied during the Civil War – and another famously reclusive writer, J.D. Salinger. (“Recluse” always seemed a little unfair to apply to Lee, who’s hardly a hermit living on a mountain. She just doesn’t like talking to reporters – at all, ever, even if they bring her chocolate.)
Not surprisingly, many of those interviewed are writers. Pulitzer Prize winners Rick Bragg and Richard Russo offer lovely interviews, while James Patterson says that “To Kill a Mockingbird” was one of only two books he was assigned in high school that he actually liked. (“The Catcher in the Rye” was the other one.)
Best First Read Ever goes to novelist Mark Childress: “The first time I read To Kill a Mockingbird I was in Monroeville, Alabama. It was two doors down from Nelle Harper Lee’s house. And I was on the porch of Miss Wanda Biggs’s house.... I was about nine years old, and she said, ‘I think it’s time for you to read this.’ She put it in my hands, and it was a first edition signed to her that I’m sure I spilled Coca-Cola on, and every other thing.... Every few hours she would wander out and say, ‘Now you see that stump over there? That’s the tree where Boo hid the presents for the children. Did you get to the part yet about the school? If you go down this little pathway, that is where the school is.’ ”
“Scout, Atticus & Boo” is a lovely celebration of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” And if, in the end, many of the interviews boil down to: This is a really, really good book... well, they’re right.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.