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.