Sunday, April 28, 2013

She wrote a book and won a Pulitzer

The first book and, really, the only novel ever written by Harper Lee, has sold over 30,000,000 (thirty million) copies. It won her a Pulitzer Prize a mere year after it was first published.

In 1999, that same book, To Kill a Mockingbird was voted the most influential book of the 20th Century. Of the whole century!

The author of the century's most influential book, when asked in 2011 why she didn't follow it up with more best-sellers, replied, “I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again.”

What kind of book can do that? What did this woman, who studied literature and law at the same time, say in her book that she didn't need to repeat?
She believed in, but did not lecture or preach about, equality and justice. She believed in the lessons she had learned growing up, the same lessons Scout learned from Atticus Finch:

Harper Lee, born 1926
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Atticus giving Scout the crucial piece of moral advice that governs her development for the rest of the novel.

“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy...but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” This moral imperative, to protect the vulnerable, governs Atticus’s decision to take Tom’s case.

In a 1966 letter to a school board that wanted to ban To Kill a Mockingbird as "immoral" she offered to pay for any member of that school board to enroll in first grade, because of their problem with illiteracy.

“Recently I have received echoes...of (your) School Board's activities, (making) me wonder if any of its members can read. Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that To Kill a Mockingbird spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners,” she wrote to them.

There is much, so much, to be learned from a writer like Harper Lee:
1. Write about things you know well, and deeply believe.
2. Keep your writing simple.
3. Write so that everyone in the world can understand what you want to say.

I have spent 60 years not following these simple suggestions which I have extrapolated out of her famous book and out of Wikipedia's biography of Harper Lee.

I am a mere dilettante. I like to play with words, flex my once-hefty vocabulary, make my reader run to a dictionary. I love to play with rhyme and flow and symbolism. I might, and I use the word advisedly, some day finish the travel book which got this blog started in the first place. Or I might get distracted by a new pleasure or a new pain.

If, in 1960, when my brain was wide awake, flexible and capable of real learning and real thought, I had studied To Kill a Mockingbird, absorbed the lessons being taught by Harper Lee and her alter ego, Atticus Finch, I might have written a prize-winning book (not Pulitzer, but maybe some other prize). It isn't going to happen now, no matter how much I dream. 

For years I shrugged it off, saying "When I grow up, I'm going to be Dave Barry" who is younger than I am. A surefire line for a laugh. Duh.

I have learned a great deal from less than 24 hours of studying Harper Lee. Besides learning who I should have emulated, I know I should have used the lessons my father taught me. 

Thanks, Kerry, for choosing this amazing woman as our inspiration for Day 28 of our poem-a-day challenged at the Imaginary Garden with Real Toads. And thanks for saying "any style" because I had to choose prose.


Sherry Blue Sky said...

Huh. My comment disappeared. To Kill a Mockingbird had a profound effect on me, back in the day, and its message never gets old. What a writer Harper Lee was!

Kerry O'Connor said...

This is wonderful, Kay. Let's pass the message of this book forward, so that those who have not yet read it, will.

PS. The link you provided on RT took us to Dave Barry's wiki page. I removed it so you can link up again.

Jo said...

You know how I love to write and how I'm still learning (a lot from you) Kay, but UM- I've never read this book. I will download it this minute and get stuck into it shortly. Thanks for a wonderful post. (((Hugs))) Jo

Yamini MacLean said...

Hari OM
Am glad you chose prose for this Kay - it deserved the gravitas.

Never say never - but also being accepting of one's limitations is a good thing to face and I admire your self-reflection as a result of this exercise.

I read this book when I was 10 - and several times since. It bears revisiting once a decade. Like any text of depth, it offers more each time. Thanks for bringing it to notice. YAMxx

Leslie: said...

All grade 10 students in BC study this book and I have the pleasure of tutoring some of these students. Each time I do, I learn something more from Harper Lee's incredible book. Her message resounds today in the midst of all the world pandemonium and violence. I wish we could all just simply live in peace and love.

Jinksy said...

I've been encouraging others to read the book and see the film for years. For once both are true to each other, and that seldom occurs when a book is translated onto screen.

Sallie (FullTime-Life) said...

I don't read your literary posts very often Kay because I know my limitations! (I tried for a while to post about books I was reading and decided I couldn't do that AND read too. I wouldn't even dare try to actually WRITE!) But I love TKAM and of course have always been interested in Harper Lee and her story.... I'm so glad I took time to read your entry. The letter she wrote to the idiot school board is priceless.

Jennifer A. Jilks said...

That was an amazing book. I had to study it in high school.
I'm sure she's happy to be taking it easy now. I'm glad to be retired.

Susie Clevenger said...

Thank you for your reflections. There is always so much to learn about the world and oneself. I for so long thought my dreams were limited or were to never be. In fact, I didn't know how to dream for myself. I am learning I can. Again, thanks for sharing your heart in this piece. said...

Kay, I am glad you chose to focus on Harper Lee, the woman and writer, instead of writing off Mockingbird. Your mention of the school board was amazing; I'd never heard that story. And yes, this book is filled with virtue and value and the so=called "Christian ethic," although many folks would call that an oxymoron, since too many preachers and doe-eyed followers make it hard on the Christians who actually DO follow Jesus!!

Thanks again for this illuminating post. Amy
PS Making up for lost time, I've done three prompts in one post, gone all weekend!