Harper Lee's Rich Legacy for Writers

Masterpieces are masterpieces not because they are flawless
but because they've tapped into something essential to us all--
at the heart of who we are and how we live. Mark Childress
Photo by Linda Wilson, Copyright 2015.

Few authors have captured the imagination of so many as Harper Lee. Especially an author who has touched so many hearts--some 40 million--with one work: Lee's Pulitzer Prize and just-about-every-other-award-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Just last year 400,000 copies were purchased, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times.

My personal foray into the fascinating story not only of the novel itself, but of Lee's life and circumstances surrounding the writing of the novel, began with a spellbinding account on the PBS show, American Masters, "Harper Lee," transcribed here in order to paraphrase or quote the views of some of the most noteworthy authors and celebrities of our times. And media coverage of the much anticipated publication this month by Harper, a division of HarperCollins, of Lee's first novel, Go Set a Watchman; a must-read, according to Michele Miller, Correspondent on CBS, This Morning; which was written about a year before the first draft of Mockingbird and reportedly discovered recently among Harper Lee's archives.

What are some of the reasons for the enduring success of Lee's masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird, and what can writers glean for their own work?

Great Freedom from One Major Work
Born in 1926 in the small town of Monroeville, Alabama, Nelle Harper Lee met with rejection after rejection in 1957 when, at the age of 31, she searched for a home for her novel, then titled Atticus. Though at first blush the manuscript was said to have many things wrong with it, that it needed a lot of work and was really a series of short stories with dangling threads of a plot; acceptance came when editors at Lippincott Company recognized not only the work's promise, but this author's great potential. Up until then Lee's publishing credits consisted of several short stories that she wrote while supporting herself for eight years as an airline reservation agent.

Lee settled down to write revisions of Mockingbird with the help of her editor and financial support from good friends who were impressed by how perceptive the character sketches were of the people in her hometown of Monroeville. This revision process, which seemed long and hopeless at the time, went on with few distractions for two years.

How can our work be informed by this great author and her masterpiece? The PBS American Masters show turned to renowned celebrities and authors for what Mockingbird meant to them.
  • Oprah Winfrey (Producer: The Oprah Winfrey Show, 23 actress credits, magazine publisher): I wanted to be Scout. I was Scout. Mockingbird is one of the first books I wanted to encourage people to read.
  • Wally Lamb (I Know this Much is True): Mockingbird is the first book that captured me. It was exciting. I didn't realize literature could do that. I taught the book almost every year for 25 years while teaching high school: the students read the book because they wanted to, not because they had to. It cast the same spell for them as it did for me.
  • Adriana Trigiani (Big Stone Gap: A Novel): When I was 12 years old I found the book on the library's book mobile. As different as any Italian can be growing up in the small town of Big Stone Gap, Virginia, feeling like my family came from Pluto, it was the perfect time to read Mockingbird.
  • James McBride (Crazy in Alabama): I read a tattered copy in my home in Queens. Mockingbird is the first time a white writer discussed issues of racism that were complicated and sophisticated.
A Rich Legacy for Writers
  • Allan Gurganus (Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All): The narrator is a grown-up Scout, simultaneously adult looking back and child living in a small town. A difficult feat. Ask any writer: very tough.
  • James McBride: Part of why Lee is a great American writer: this child sees the world as an adult, through a child's eyes with an adult understanding.
  • Gregory Peck (played the defining role of his career and earned an Oscar as Atticus Finch in the film): Good and evil would never seem as fresh and terrifying as it does when seen through the eyes of a child. It is remarkable for a writer to capture the feelings of a child. Perhaps that's why one book in the last few years has been so warmly embraced by tens of millions of people.
  • Mark Childress (Crazy in Alabama): I lived two doors down from Lee's house. That is the reason I'm a writer.
  • Rosanne Cash (Singer-songwriter and author): What I got out of the book: The way you behave, whether people see you or not is central to becoming yourself. I remember that [intense] feeling of integrity and sense of conscience.
  • Lee Smith (The Lost Girls): Mockingbird still has a galvanizing effect on a young reader. It never ages; is as important today as it was then and remains as relevant today as it did the very day it was written. The characters are indelible for generations of readers.
  • Anna Quindlen (author, journalist and opinion columnist): I collected books about insurrectionary, outspoken, non-girly girls: Anne of Green Gables, Joan March in Little Women, and Scout. Scout is a scamp, irresistible, hysterically funny, smart, always has a comeback; always poking at boundaries of good taste and what's proper; doesn't have a mother, childhood in many ways is lonely; struggles how to be in the world.
  • Wally Lamb: The language and especially the voice and story take students on a smooth ride.
  • Student comments: Helps people see what it was really like. People talk and act differently but they are the same. Inspired me because it showed how one person can change the whole world.
  • Alice Lee (Harper Lee's sister): Nell was a gifted storyteller even as a child, with a vivid imagination. She would compose stories and type them up on a beat-up old Underwood typewriter.
  • Lee's Own Words: Lee said in her last interview in March, 1964, that she liked writing maybe too much. "I'm a slow worker, a steady worker. So many writers don't like to write. If they must do it, it's under the compulsion that makes any artist what he is. But, they don't really enjoy trying to turn a thought into a reasonable sentence. But I do. I like to write. Sometimes I'm afraid I like it too much because when I get into the work I don't want to leave it."
A final word
A terrific quote by Wally Lamb: [To write a novel] you start with who and what you know. You take a survey of the lay of the land that shaped you. You tell one lie that turns into a different lie and after a while those models become their own people rather than people you originally thought of. By telling lies you're trying to arrive at a deeper meaning.
Reinforced for me: Write what you know; make characters true to life; choose compelling subject matter; craft a great story; keep current societal trends in mind; love the process; be patient, writing as many revisions as it takes.

Now on to the joy of listening to the audio version of Go Set a Watchman, ready and waiting on my desk. Like Lee's story in Mockingbird, my interest is everlasting.

Sources: Most of the information in this post was transcribed and paraphrased from The American Masters profile, "Harper Lee." Other sources include: "http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-et-jc-harper-lee-go-set-a-watchman-mockingbird-20150204-story.htmlhttp://www.newrepublic.com/article/122290/suspicious-story-behind-publication-go-set-watchman.

Linda Wilson, a former elementary teacher and ICL graduate, has published over 40 articles for adults and children and six short stories for children. Recently she completed Joyce Sweeney's online fiction and picture book courses. She is currently working on several projects for children. Follow Linda on  Facebook.


Debra Quarles said...

Great article. Loved the information, but also the insight you shared. Great quotes too!

Karen Cioffi said...

Linda, great post. It's so funny, I'm rereading "To Kill a Mockingbird." Her descriptions amaze me.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

Linda, this is just lovely!

Shirley Corder said...

Thanks for the insight, Linda. Dare I admit this in public? I have never read "To Kill a Mockinbird"! Maybe the time has come as the walrus said . . .

Unknown said...

Don't feel bad Shirley Corder, I think the last time I read it was in high school. I can't even remember much about the actual story or characters. But it is inspiring to read how influential it has been on so many people...makes me want to read it again as well.

Kathleen Moulton said...

I'm homeschooling my last child and he's entering 9th grade. I am going to have him read "To Kill a Mockingbird" this year.

Harper Lee captured the innocence of a child and gave us hope. It's a book that stays with you the rest of your life.

Thank-you for a great article, Linda. : )

Shirley Corder said...

Yes, maybe it's a project for us both, Marlene!

Mary Jo Guglielmo said...

To Kill a mockingbird touched so many lives. It's an all time classic, I'm not sure the sequel will be remembered in the same way.

Linda Wilson said...

Gee everyone, I didn't check "Notify Me" so I didn't see all these terrific comments until now! Thank you for writing! I'm finishing up listening to "Go Set a Watchman," the audio book narrated by Reese Witherspoon. I recommend the book and love the audio version with Reese Witherspoon's poignant interpretation. Harper Lee's vocabulary is topnotch and clever, vignettes in the story are entertaining; can't beat Lee's view of life as seen through the characters. It's been an enjoyable experience. I wouldn't have missed it, especially after how much I loved "Mockingbird." I'm glad so many of you are inspired to read "Mockingbird."

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