Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Harper Lee: Treasure of the South, Gift to the World

Harper Lee in 2006
 (Birmingham News photo by Linda Stelter)
It has been 54 years since Harper Lee published To Kill a Mockingbird. In 2010, with the 50th anniversary of the book's publication, Harper Lee and her novel were the topic for many a publication.  BBC News Magazine published an article exploring why To Kill a Mockingbird continues to be so hugely popular in Great Britain. In publications almost as foreign to some of us in the South, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, and Smithsonian Magazine all featured articles  trying to explain the Harper Lee phenomenon.  Those articles were, respectively, The Courthouse Ring, What 'To Kill a Mockingbird' Isn't, and Harper Lee's Novel Achievement.

Every summer, Harper Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, hosts tourists from all over the world who come to see the town that inspired her novel, to visit the old courthouse, and to see the theatrical production of To Kill a Mockingbird, performed by local actors. I have never been go Monroeville, but two of my friends made the trek this summer to see the play. One day I'll make it over there. It is one of those things on my "bucket list" of things to do before I die.

Lee's novel is a perennial best-seller, and the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird is a cinematic work of art in itself. My main point in featuring Harper Lee is to share what two Southerners have said recently about Harper Lee. I am no expert on the renowned author, and certainly make no claims of any personal knowledge of her. I much prefer for you to hear what Wayne Flynt has said about why Harper Lee wrote only one novel, and to read what journalist John Archibald has written about what we may learn about Harper Lee from reading her novel.

A Most Graceful Dance 

Wayne Flynt, Professor Emeritus in the Department of History at Auburn University, is a widely sought after speaker and author of many books including Poor but Proud, and Keeping Faith: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives. He has visited with Harper Lee on numerous occasions and in a recorded interview offered his theory on why she only wrote one book.  An historian who is superbly nimble with statistics, Flynt readily calls to mind statistics which he sets to a graceful dance in celebration of To Kill a Mockingbird:

"Harper Lee, Bless her soul, has become Boo Radley"

John Archibald is a columnist for the Alabama Media Group whose work appears in The Birmingham News. He recently did an opinion piece which implores the public to stop trying to draw the reclusive author out, but rather to take a look into her writing to see who she is and to see the gifts she has given us:
There's so much talk about Harper Lee. Has the first lady of Alabama literature finally gone 'round the bend? Has she lost herself, holed up in that Monroeville world of hers? Has she simply put her trust in the wrong people?

Everybody wants to know, to draw her out into the sunlight. Was she suckered by a sweet-talking carpet-bagging biographer? Or was it Lee herself who did the suckering?

Stop it. Just stop it. Because if there's a story to be told about Harper Lee, Lee herself already told it better than anyone. In To Kill  A Mockingbird.  (Please continue reading Archibald’s essay here.)

A Realistic Hope

My guess is that the world will continue to be enthralled by Harper Lee’s one book, and that people will continue to make pilgrimages to Monroeville, Alabama to see the place and to touch the courthouse rails where a story for all the ages was born. For as long as we are enthralled, and as long as we look at that story of justice denied with a measure of hope in our hearts, we will be all the better for it. We will forever have Harper Lee to thank for a vision of a time in the past that is not the “one brief shining moment” of an idealistic Camelot. Neither is it sentimental nostalgia.  Instead, it is a look into ourselves to see why we live in the communities we have created, and how we can have hope that we can do better.

Photo: The photo of Harper Lee is by Linda Stetler and is from The Birmingham News file. It is a 2006  reception for her at the Alys Stephens Center in Birmingham, where she received a lifetime achievement award from The Birmingham Pledge


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