Her pal’s name was Truman Streckfus Persons, although you wouldn’t know him by that dreadful mouthful. She was Miss Nelle, a tomboy with no tolerance for tomfoolery. Eventually, a law school dropout, and then a determined, deliberate spinster. Together, they were BFFs who grew up side-by-side in wood-framed homes in the rural Monroeville, Ala., of the 1930s. Each was the other’s muse, for they were destined to be writers.
It was a bleak little town that had existed in the heart of the Creek Indian Nation before Andrew Jackson swiped it and nearly 20 million acres more from the tribe in 1814 and made all the adjoining acres part of the young Union.
Fifty years later, the Confederacy took the county from the Union in a fit of jurisdictional pique, but then had to surrender it to Lincoln in 1865.
Nothing much else of substance happened in Monroeville until young Mister Persons and Miss Nelle came along.
Nothing much important has happened there for the last 80 years that their lives did not touch profoundly in some way.
Persons did not stay that name for long. He eventually became Truman Capote, the bon vivant wordsmith of “In Cold Blood” and a cultural caricature in Andy Warhol’s zany circus of the 1960s. His author’s soul was drenched in the bourbon juleps of old Alabama. He’s gone now as are virtually all the literary giants of the older South. Their words endure, even if their physical realities do not.
F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda of Montgomery? Gone long ago. Faulkner of Oxford, Miss.? Sure. The great ladies of Southern literature all tend to other gardens now. Lillian Hellman, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and Margaret Mitchell. Yes, all absent.
As for Capote, he was never as famous as Miss Nelle Harper Lee.
You don’t remember her? Sure, you do. Harper Lee wrote “To Kill A Mockingbird,” one of the 10 most meaningful novels in American literature. Her kin knew her only as Nelle, or Miss Nelle if they had manners.
She wrote a book, but only one. And then no more.
Why, you might ask? Why would a writer capable of one great book not be capable of more? Perhaps the next ones might lack total grace and greatness, but they could be wonderful in their own particular ways. Why then would a writer of immense charm and insight not even try and allow for the risk of failure? That’s the eternal question at the heart of the Nelle Harper Lee mystery.
If you want the answer, you’ll have to ask her yourself, if you have the courage. She hasn’t gone anywhere. She lives. She’s still in Monroeville. But be careful if you approach her. She remains an 87-year-old tomboy with even less time or tolerance for tomfoolery.
The news that Harper Lee is alive is surprising to anyone who has not followed her life. We somehow think that great writers are like their great books. They remain close at hand in the library until we reach out to seek their wisdom. But they are there and available as all celebrities must be for our various uses. We demand their lives.
For those who slam the door sharply on the outside light, we think they must be dead, or else we would see them regularly on television or through their newer writings. Everyone famous lives their famous lives on the stage of fame. It’s the business of all celebrities to be at our command, as our attentions seem to be at theirs.
But, of course, that was never Harper Lee’s way. She was never at anyone’s command, though plenty have tried. Maybe she never cared about the world at all. Or maybe she cared too much.
It only seems as though she fell through the cracks of history. More likely, she spotted the crack in the floor and dove through it.
At the moment – the fall of 2013 – she is at war with her hometown. It’s an ugly, mean little spat because of the disparity in the two combatants.
Monroeville, Ala., is “the tired old town” of Maycomb that Lee used as the stage for her literary Everest, the redoubtable “To Kill A Mockingbird.”
Lee is a giant. Everyone knows that Lee and “The Bird,” as she has been known to call her book, are the only franchise of the little town of 7,000. It’s a two-hour drive from the state capital in Montgomery, and two hoots and a holler from the nearest interstate. It has one liquor store and 28 churches. The Tide Rolls there.
The old courthouse has been refurbished into a closer simulation of the movie courthouse where lawyer Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch tried unsuccessfully to save Tom Robinson from the casual death often visited upon Southern blacks in the 1930s.
Even 50 years after the Pulitzer-winning book and the Academy Award honored movie that followed, it seems superfluous to explain “Mockingbird” as if anyone does not know it, or needs an explanation of its basics. Does anyone need to be reminded that Melville’s great white whale is a metaphor for doomed obsession?
The War of Monroeville seems so needless, as if the armed camps don’t know what the preferred plotline should be. It should be: A charming Southern author of advanced years and deep cultural charm serves as the intellectual hostess of her even-more charming Southern town where she grew up. That’s the way the narrative is supposed to unfurl but, naturally, it doesn’t.
Harper Lee is not charming. Even at her least antagonistic, town natives have regarded her as a flinty curmudgeon with no patience for anything but her own personal interests which she chooses not to share with anyone. Flinty curmudgeons have a way of making others feel small and meaningless.
“The Bird” still sells nearly a million copies a year – it’s a venerated staple of high school literature classes - and has made Lee a millionaire. She does not spend any money openly, though she guards her literary legacy with a swarm of astute lawyers.
That brings us back to The War.
Her swarm of lawyers descended on the nonprofit museum in town that has elevated and sustained her book as the town’s spiritual cornerstone for decades. After expenses, the museum clears about $35,000 a year, but Lee demands they stop all use of her book, its characters, and related images. And then pay her. The town’s seal includes a cartoon image of a mockingbird.
“We all love Harper Lee here, but we don’t always like her,” admits Sandy Smith, the head of the Chamber of Commerce. “We don’t have any doubt that the town is known for her and Capote. People who don’t know her well think she’s a recluse. But she’s not really. She’s just very private. I sometimes think that she is not really the Scout character in her book as everything thinks. Maybe she’s Boo Radley.”
Lee prefers straight-cropped blonde bangs and long-tailed T-shirts as she shops at Walmart, and her minister and only known friend, the Rev. Dr. Thomas Lane Butts, drives her to cat-fishing jaunts in the nearby farm called Swampy Acres. She paid to build Butts’ church.
She dines early at David’s Catfish House. She likes the fish and hushpuppies and a glass of tea. She has been known to play golf at the country club alone. No one approaches. No one speaks to her.
In Monroeville, “The Bird” exerts the gravitational pull of a black hole. No one has any wish to escape from the collapsing star even if they knew how. Locals stage the book as a play every summer on the steps of the courthouse.
But the folks in Monroeville do wish Miss Nelle were a nicer person. Just a tad sweeter would be nice.
As for those few who know her best, they are the least likely to cast light on her existence or its motives. They guard the mystery.
If you knock on the front door of her dour little ranch house near downtown, she might answer the door and then slam it in your face. She’s done that. Or you might be met by her sister and now as are virtually all the literary giants of the older South. Their words endure, even if their physical realities do not.
No one else in Alabama talks much to Harper Lee, though she occasionally travels to New York on Mockingbird legacy business. She’s owned an apartment at East 82nd Street since 1967. She goes only by train and never flies, though she once worked in New York City as a ticket agent for Eastern Airlines. It was the only job she ever held.
Twenty thousand tourists slide into Monroeville every year, often hoping for one peek of her. Some even run to her door at night, knock, and flee as if Boo Radley lived there.
After the book and movie strode across the world stage, she wrote a few magazine articles and has made tense, quiet visits to award ceremonies to be honored. She wrote an essay for Oprah Winfrey’s magazine chastising modern shallowness. In response to a TV chat that suggested Lee was a withdrawn, hostile loner because she was a lesbian, she fired a one-sentence response. “I am not a lesbian,” Lee wrote. End of that discussion.
On the rare occasions of any known conversation, she has one absolute rule. She will not speak of the book. She will not speak of why it exists in solitary confinement. She might, on very rare unguarded moments of charm, exchange polite pleasantries.
Biographers have been left mostly to speculate about her motives and interview those close enough to her to have an opinion about her oddness, which has been sharpened because her sight and hearing are failing. But as for deeper insight, she is a jigsaw puzzle to which many of the key pieces are long missing and forever gone.
Smith, the chamber maven, believes there are more books and that Lee has hidden them until she dies. That would be like Harper Lee, she says.
Oddly enough, the most plausible explanation for Lee’s insistent hide-and-seek from the world is a fictional speech by actress Sandra Bullock (as Harper Lee) in the film “Infamous.”
The cinematic Lee laments the painfulness of “the process,” its raptures and anguish.
“America is not a place where the small gesture goes noticed,” the speech goes. “We’re not a country like France, where charm, something light or effervescent, can survive. We want everything you have and we want it as fast as you can turn it out. I read an interview with Frank Sinatra in which he said about Judy Garland, ‘Every time she sings, she dies a little.’ That’s how much she gave. That’s true for writers, too, who hope to create something lasting: they die a little getting it right. And then the book comes out and there’s a dinner and maybe they give you a prize. And then comes the inevitable and very American question: What’s next? But the next thing can be so hard because now you know what it demands.”
David Rutter is a frequent contributer to Quintessential Barrington.
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Quintessential America is a recurring series of stories reflecting American values and community achievement. Some will be big stories. Some will be small. They'll all be about Americans doing what we do best — sharing, helping, living.