February 19, 2016
89-year-old Nell Harper Lee has died. “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the beloved Pulizter Prize classic of literature, was her only book.
A couple of years ago, her lawyer dug up some old writing and shoved it together for “Go Set A Watchman,” a seemingly different take on “Mockingbird,” with Atticus Finch portrayed as a racist. In fact, this was the story Lee intended.
“Watchman” was originally a book of short stories. These got molded into a novel with a decidedly different slant: seen through the eyes of “Scout” Finch, and with Atticus as an almost mythical hero. Whether Lee did the molding, or it was the doing of an editor (not Truman Capote), the result was enduring.
I briefly knew the great Horton Foote, the screenwriter of the film which starred Gregory Peck. I sat next to him at the Goodman Theatre one night as he took a cell phone call from his friend “Bobby” Duvall, Boo Radley. Foote was fast friends with Nell Harper Lee to his death.
I told Foote I could recite whole scenes from the screenplay, and he smiled and said, “You may begin.” I not only did a scene (ending with Scout’s line, “This was to be our longest night together”), I hummed the great music score. Mr. Foote embraced me.
I, for one, wish the “Watchman” melee had never happened. I have seen the effect on “Mockingbird” readers and “Mockingbird” film lovers, and this far outweighs the controversy.
Ms. Lee and Truman Capote knew each other as children. Capote was the model for Dill, the little boy who visits his aunt who lives next door to Scout and Jem. Ms. Lee traveled with Capote as he worked on the book “In Cold Blood.”
I read “Mockingbird” as a boy, when it was published in 1960. I was reading William Faulkner and Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor and taking it all in, and I fantasized about being a Southern writer. Later, the writing god Cormac McCarthy would eclipse them all.
Well, Nell Harper Lee, farewell. You left a mess in your wake, but I expect that is the fate of us all.