Looking for Harper Lee
In the May 1997 issue of Southern Living, longtime Southern Living staffer and Monroeville, Alabama, native Mark Childress wrote this essay about a rare exchange with Harper Lee. According to Childress, “[To Kill a Mockingbird] moved me as no book had ever done. It made me want to learn how to make that kind of magic, to tell that kind of truth.” Childress has since gone on to write several books, including Tender, Crazy in Alabama, and One Mississippi. His tribute to Lee still resonates, especially today.
Looking for Harper Lee
By Mark Childress
With a sad smile I close the cover of To Kill a Mockingbird, a book I hold close to my heart. Every year or so I read it again to see if it’s as good as I remember and to remind myself why I wanted to become a writer. This is the book that did it for me, the first grown-up book I ever read, the one that has stayed with me longest.
I’ll never forget where I was that first time: on Miss Wanda Biggs’s front porch in Monroeville, Alabama, my hometown, a few doors down from the house where Nelle Harper Lee grew up. It was my particular luck to enter the world of Jean Louise Finch (better known as Scout), her brother Jem, father Atticus, the peculiar boy Dill from next door, the spooky shut-in Boo Radley, and all the good and bad people of Maycomb, Alabama, while I reclined in a porch swing on the street where it all happened. My family had moved away from Monroeville by that time, but we came back in the summers to visit Miss Wanda and Mister Fred and their dog Whizzy. The Biggses lived in a big old rambly house with rooms on both sides of a long dogtrot hallway and a deep, shady porch on the front.
Over supper, I heard the grown-ups talking about Nelle Harper Lee, who was by far the biggest celebrity Monroeville had ever produced. Her book spent 80 weeks on best-seller lists, won the Pulitzer Prize, and went on to become a first-rate Hollywood movie, which led to the biggest event in the history of Monroeville: the day Gregory Peck came to town. I asked Miss Wanda if she had a copy of the book I could read. She led me gravely to the glass-fronted case in the hall and handed over her copy of J. B. Lippincott’s first 1960 edition, inscribed in an open, ladylike hand: “To Wanda, love, Nelle.”
Tucked in the front cover was a black-and-white snapshot of Miss Wanda cheek-to-cheek with Gregory Peck at the LaSalle Hotel on Monroeville’s courthouse square. She asked me to take special care with the book, as it would be worth a lot of money some day.
I stretched out on the swing, my bare feet on the chain, rocking sideways, and read the opening sentence: “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”
Some hours later, I stumbled out of the swing, the closing lines ringing in my head: “He turned out the light and went into Jem’s room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.”
In those hours, I was transformed. Books had always been magical objects to me, but distant from my own experience. Authors were invisible wizards who swept me off to far places to work their spell on me. To Kill a Mockingbird was fiction, but it was real. It came from this place where I sat. It was written by a lady my parents actually knew, a lady who had signed her name in the book I held in my hands. It told a story about a childhood lived on this very street, in these houses, in that schoolyard back yonder. And not just a story —the most wonderful story I’d ever read. Certainly it seemed so to me at the time, and I’m not sure that I’ve changed my mind. The book moved me as no book had ever done. It made me want to learn how to make that kind of magic, to tell that kind of truth.
Thirty-seven years after its publication, the book moves me still. Many Americans consider it their favorite novel – a certified classic, 30 million copies in print, translated into 40 languages, assigned reading in nearly every high school in our land. What no one could have predicted was that To Kill a Mockingbird would become for the South of the 1960s what Uncle Tom’s Cabin was to the North a hundred years earlier: a novel to change minds and arouse consciences. I believe that Harper Lee’s story did more to alter Southern attitudes about race than any other work of art in this century. How did the author work this miracle? To Kill a Mockingbird is simple enough on the surface, but no one in the story is completely good and no one wholly evil. Through the funny little girl narrator, Scout, Harper Lee gives us at first a lovely, affectionate picture of growing up in the vanished world of small-town Alabama in the 1930s. Then, after meticulously building this fond portrait, she proceeds to undermine it, revealing a rottenness, the social lies, beneath the genteel surface.
When Jem declares that there are four kinds of folks in this world, Scout counters that there’s really just one. Then Jem asks the unanswerable question: “If there’s just one kind of folks, why can’t they get along with each other? If they’re all alike, why do they go out of their way to despise each other? Scout…I think I’m beginning to understand why Boo Radley’s stayed shut up in the house all this time…it’s because he wants to stay inside.” Some critics found the book's combination of darkness and light too strong, but it is precisely the contrast of separate worlds that gives the novel its immense power and made it a huge and immediate hit with so many readers, including me.
Ever since that day in Miss Wanda’s swing, I have cherished an unrealistic ambition to meet Harper Lee, to thank her in person for writing that marvelous book. My search, though, has yielded little but facts. The youngest of four children, she grew up in Depression-era Monroeville and followed her attorney father’s footsteps to law school at the University of Alabama, though she never practiced law. Nelle Lee spent the 1950s in New York, working for Eastern Airlines and honing a collection of stories, one of which, upon a literary agent’s suggestion, she expanded into her prize-winning novel.
Monroeville has always taken it for granted that the events she describes are based on her life. Miss Wanda pointed out to me the house where the real-life Boo Radley lived and the tree where he hid his trinkets for Scout and Jem — as if they were real children, not fictional characters. Certainly the character Dill was based on the young Truman Capote, who spent childhood summers in Monroeville and remained fast friends with Nelle Lee until his death.
After the astounding success of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee retreated into a public silence that has endured to this day. People are sometimes surprised to learn that she is alive and well. At 71 years old, she divides her time between Monroeville and an apartment on the Upper East Side of New York City. She is one of America’s great literary recluses, refusing all interviews, resisting all honors, declining all approaches. Aside from the novel and a couple of essays on love and Christmas she wrote for magazines in the early 1960s, Harper Lee has never published another word. As invisible to her fans as Boo Radley was to the people of Maycomb, she seems to want only to be left alone.
For a while, when I was a reporter for newspapers and this magazine, I joined the crowd of people trying to break through her wall of silence. I learned that a friend of a friend was in touch with her and wrote what I thought was a very nice letter, asking if she’d grant me a few minutes on the phone or submit to an interview in writing. In a few weeks my letter came back with “Hell No” printed in green ink across the top.
Some years later, though, when I wrote a novel of my own, I mailed a copy to Miss Alice Lee, Nelle’s older sister. (Miss Alice had done some legal work for my father when we lived in Monroeville, and I shamelessly traded on that connection.) I tried to explain in my letter just how much To Kill a Mockingbird meant to me, how it had inspired me to write my own book.
One day a white envelope landed in my mailbox, addressed in the same open, feminine hand I remembered from the autographed copy at Miss Wanda’s house. A four-page handwritten letter from Nelle Harper Lee, it brought kind words about my own work. Her voice, clear and warm and familiar, rose up like a lovely perfume from the pages. I’ll never receive a letter that gives me more pleasure.
That was when I gave up trying to meet Harper Lee. I decided she had given me a gift greater than she would ever know, and if she wanted to be alone, that was her right. I think I’m beginning to understand why she stayed locked up inside her life all these years. She wrote a book that was better than anybody else’s book, and never saw the need to publish another. I think she wanted to stay inside.