ALABAMA GOODBYE (Harper Lee, R.I.P.)

Harper Lee...Author of To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee, in her father's law office while visting her home town. (Photo by Donald Uhrbrock/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

In one of the few interviews she gave for public consumption before she ducked down the rabbit hole for good, the chain-smoking, Scotch-swilling, Methodist church lady, Nelle Harper Lee said what she really wanted to be was the Jane Austen of Southern Alabama. Austen being Austen and Alabama being Alabama, she was probably therefore doomed to be misunderstood, misinterpreted, misconstrued, misrepresented and misappropriated.

Nelle being Nelle, she was also bound to let it lie.

Her one great novel was immediately hijacked by the same style of do-goodism which had long since suffocated Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to within an inch of their respective lives. What those flawed masterpieces had done for slavery–provide balm for White America’s troubled soul–To Kill a Mockingbird would do for Jim Crow. It thus entered the small library of prickly pear texts that must have all their thorns pulled by journalistic-cum-academic discourse so they can serve a higher good.

The movie, fine as it was, didn’t help. The shaded, human-scale Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird disappeared immediately under Gregory Peck’s ruggedly handsome mien, never to return, which was most of why the not-entirely-detached version of him (Atticus, not Greg) who appeared last year in Lee’s prequel/sequel) caused such an odd mixture of consternation, dismissal and “say it ain’t so.”

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The small town lawyer shouldering a necessary, not particularly welcome, burden on the page, became a hero in a western, with a lonely courtroom replacing a dusty street. Watching the movie by itself, detached from the understanding of the source which has eluded the book’s admirers as frequently as its detractors, it’s actually hard to understand what the big deal with racism is. All the good white people in the movie are on Atticus’s side, after all–the Sheriff, the Judge, Miss Maudie (turned from a salty old broad familiar to every southern childhood into a cupcake familiar to no one outside of a movie set). From Hollywood’s version, you’d think Maycomb County was run by white trash, against whom lawyers and judges and sheriffs and such stood all but helpless.

And, of course, it is that vision which has stood–so much so that lots of people who have read the book over and over still write as though they can only see the movie in their head while those who have never read the book at all insist they don’t have to because the movie and the crit-illuminati have already told them everything they need to know. In the American imagination, the black people rising in the balcony for Atticus’s “stand up MIss Jean Louise. You’re father’s passin’.” moment are forever doing so over an empty courtroom, paying an homage unseen by anyone but his children.

It made for a great visual.

In the novel, Atticus leaves first, while the white people are still there.

All of them.

So it’s undeniably an homage, yes, but also an act of defiance, one Lee was far too skilled to draw a line under.

For those who ever get around to reading what’s there, instead of what they expect to find, the whole novel is like that: quiet, skilled, defiant. Like it was written by a sharp-minded lawyer’s girl, grown to womanhood, remembering.

It was meant to take the noise out of your head, draw a circle around a particular time and place, one which Lee herself felt deserved to be remembered.

She feared it wouldn’t be and not without reason.

It was vanishing as she spoke, in the sixties, though it could still be glimpsed when I moved to North Florida (a hundred and fifty miles from Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, with a state line between, and one county over, minus the state line, from where her father grew up). Within a decade of my arrival, the old black man who drove his mule-cart through town weekdays and the old white men who sat around in overalls and spat tobacco in the shade above the tiered-stone sidewalks in front of the drugstore nobody called a pharmacy would be gone from everything but memory.

For better and worse, that small town south, with it’s old men and soda fountains and lynching trees, has its own place in the American imagination. It’s a place that would not be nearly as well defined–for better or worse–if the Jane Austen of Southern Alabama had not captured it so well.

Believe me. I’m from here. My being born on Florida’s rocket-launching Space Coast was a fluke. Before that, my small-town southern roots went back a long way on both sides (on my father’s side, to the founding, of Tennessee anyway), and, once I was brought back, at thirteen, I never left. The world imagined by our famous Goths–Faulkner, O’Connor, Williams, McCullers–is hardly untrue. But it isn’t all there is. If anybody not from here wants to feel what it was once like–for better and worse–to actually live here, it’s Harper Lee’s novel that will tell you quicker than anything I know.

That might not be much of an achievement next to driving a spike in Jim Crow’s temple, which she also did. But it was what she set out to do, and, if she happened to become part of some grander design along the way, I’m no less grateful for small favors.

As to why she never wrote another book, I recommend Charles Sheilds’ fine biography, Mockingbird, which will likely remain definitive, for this and other insights. I’ll also state that I tend to disagree with his well-researched and delicately nuanced conclusions (which involve the usual sound reasons: an aversion to fame, a loss of confidence, deaths in her publishing team etc.).

One of the other things that happened when I moved to North Florida is that my father became a home missionary, responsible, among other things, for ministering to prisons, jails, reform schools and mental homes throughout the panhandle, which, in Florida, is where the state tends to build such things.

I did not go into a lot of “yards” with him. Just enough to know what the air in prison is like.

Let’s just say I do not consider it entirely coincidental that Nelle and her even more sensitive childhood friend, Truman Capote, were, even before TKAM was published, already collaborating on In Cold Blood.

He’d take credit for that….and, at least sometimes, To Kill a Mockingbird, too.

Most likely it was closer to being the other way around (Shields is very convincing on this score).

Either way, neither wrote anything of note again.

I don’t find that surprising.

Breathe prison air for more than five minutes and you learn one thing.

It isn’t only murderers who leave their souls on death row.

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Wherever she is now, enjoying her earned peace, I hope she’s found what she lost.

And that they have a better class of critics there.

STIRRING THE POT ONE LAST TIME (WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS…BUT WILL NEVER GET)

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(Mary Badham and Harper Lee on the set of To Kill a Mockingbird)

I’ve been reading To Kill A Mockingbird for forty years and tracking lit-crit theory on it for thirty. I’ve read volumes of praise and damnation in about equal measure. I’ve read what is likely to be Lee’s definitive biography (by Charles Shields and quite good). I’ve seen the movie ten or twelve times, most recently a couple of weeks back in Birmingham’s restored movie palace, the Alabama Theater, with an enthusiastic full house on Father’s Day.

I’ve read reams of speculation about Lee’s personal life, numerous theories on why the book is so popular and its author so reticent, seen the relevant documentaries about book, film and Lee herself.

I’ve read an awful lot about why she never published again (until this week, of course), including her own theories, which were mostly what you’d expect (pressure of expectations, nowhere to go but down, etc.) and mostly interesting because, even coming from her, they were clearly never more than theories.

One thing I’ve never read is anything remotely intelligent about the book itself.

That lack of intelligence–the willingness to let emotion rule every single mindset, for or against, over half a century, bridging every conceivable cultural or political divide–is par for the course when an enormously popular, era-defining book touches the Race Nerve.

If you can’t explain it, put gauze on it. Kick the can down the road. That’s the American way.

It happened with Uncle Tom’s Cabin (better to fight one of history’s bloodiest wars than get at the root of the problem). It happened with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (which was finally bound to be turned into a tract for Good-Liberals-Who-Love-Them-Some-Negroes-and-Rednecks, no matter how many times Huck sold Jim down the river). It happened with Gone With the Wind (an insider’s thorough damnation of Confederate folly which naturally became the lasting touchstone for Lost Cause nostalgia).

And it happened, most intensely of all, with To Kill a Mockingbird, a warning shot across the bow of the then-ascending Civil Rights movement. That movement crested with a series of legal victories that had begun with Brown vs. Board of Education, several years before Lee took an editor’s advice/command to heart and started revising the book now being released (Go Set a Watchman), and would end with Lyndon Johnson signing a Voting Rights Act and a Civil Rights Act which, between them, amounted to the Federal Government’s century-in-coming solemn promise to finally start enforcing the Fourteenth Amendment.

It’s a measure of both our collective reading comprehension and how little we expect of ourselves that Atticus Finch came to be regarded (by worshippers and skeptics alike) as “saintly.” Evidently, the mere presence of a conscience is enough to give a man such qualities, because the Atticus of the book certainly possesses no others that could be called extraordinary and, despite some previous reservations, after having finally seen the movie the way it was meant to be seen, I have to say, neither does Gregory Peck’s film Atticus.

It’s true that Peck’s Atticus is loftier than Lee’s original conception. He’s Gregory Peck. How could he not be? But the nuance he brought to the role is a lot more evident when his face is writ larger than life. Make him thirty feet tall and the human element emerges. The movie is, in every respect then, excellent. There’s a reason I’ve watched it a lot. A reason I was willing to drive five hours to finally see it the right way.

But the movie still misses the book’s essence. Narratively, it doesn’t change anything vital, but, in pursuing a necessarily streamlined narrative, it does leave something else out.

What it leaves out was defined in another context before the sixties were done.

What it leaves out are hearts and minds.

It’s hard to change the law, Harper Lee essentially said, over and over, as she gave matchless dimension to the small town Alabama she meant, in her own words, “to be the Jane Austen of.”

It’s a lot harder to change people.

That message went missing from fifty years of snark and praise.

It’s still missing.

Fifty million people read her “children’s book.” A few hundred literati took occasion, year by year, to sneer at it for its “obviousness” and simple-mindedness.

But I keep wondering.

If it was all so obvious and all so simple, how was it we failed so thoroughly to look under its New Testament message and heed its Old Testament warning?

I have no idea whether an aging, infirm Harper Lee knew what she was about when she approved the release of Go Set a Watchman (with what all the folks who misread the first novel for half a century are assuring us is a very different Atticus). I ordered the book today so I’ll find out soon enough whether it’s worth writing about.

But whatever its worth is, it won’t change the long-misidentified import of Mockingbird itself.

Fifty years ago, Harper Lee had a better handle on the future than any of her celebrated southern colleagues who have Library of America volumes dedicated to them.

Despite the disappointment she later expressed over the failure of the Civil Rights era to finally do much more than put yet another band aid on America’s festering wound, (a failure some of her friends have speculated was perhaps another reason for her writer’s block), she wasn’t really Atticus, looking up from his paper for a moment and wondering aloud if maybe some day we’d get it right, if maybe the trial he’d lost was a small stepping stone in the right direction.

She knew better.

She knew Atticus hadn’t changed a thing.

Then, of course, she had an advantage. Believe it or not, the writer always does.

She already knew the Atticus of Go Set a Watchman, a fact that seems to have been lost in the “what’s-this-now!” hornet’s nest the book’s fifty-something-years-in-coming release has now stirred up as we sit and watch some more cities burn.

And which kind of hornet’s nest might that be?

Oh, you know.

The kind the chain-smoking, whiskey-drinking, church-going Methodist lady from Monroeville always did such a fine job of avoiding herself.

What else are you gonna do, when you’re surrounded by the very fools who set the world on fire just so they could watch it burn?

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…Okay, I better quit now. Before I get all emotional.