Friday, June 6, 2008
Posted by Alan Childress
That writer would be Nelle Harper Lee -- we southerners tend to go by our middle names, or by two names [President Clinton should have been Billy Jeff]. And the lawyer would be Atticus Finch. If you have another nomination of greatest literary lawyer that comes close, bring it on, in comments. But your efforts to get the author to discuss Atticus, Jem, or Boo will fail. She allows the words she has already written to speak for themselves. My brother Mark Childress once joined the quixotic crowd trying to snag the interview, and wrote in Looking for Harper Lee:
I learned that a friend of a friend was in touch with her and wrote what I thought was a very nice letter, asking if she'd grant me a few minutes on the phone or submit to an interview in writing. In a few weeks my letter came back with "Hell No" printed in green ink across the top.
Some years later, though, when I wrote a novel of my own, I mailed a copy to Miss Alice Lee, Nelle's older sister. (Miss Alice had done some legal work for my father when we lived in Monroeville, and I shamelessly traded on that connection.) I tried to explain in my letter just how much To Kill a Mockingbird meant to me, how it had inspired me to write my own book.
One day a white envelope landed in my mailbox, addressed in the same open, feminine hand I remembered from the autographed copy at Miss Wanda's house. A four-page handwritten letter from Nelle Harper Lee, it brought kind words about my own work. Her voice, clear and warm and familiar, rose up like a lovely perfume from the pages. I'll never receive a letter that gives me more pleasure.
That was when I gave up trying to meet Harper Lee.
Meanwhile, her earliest writings do live on, digitized, thanks to the special library collections of the University of Alabama (a great university, educator of Harper Lee, Mark, and me [and Forrest Gump]). The library has posted on some of the author's pre-novelist humor-mag musings while she was a law student. The post was picked up and expanded on by Drexel's Dan Filler over at The Faculty Lounge (HatTip to ATL).
Her plans at the time? The school paper Crimson White quoted her: "As for literary aspirations she says, 'I shall probably write a book some day. They all do.' " Dan sums up, "Surely an understatement for the ages."
Maybe Entertainment Tonight has an inside source in the Lee household to get an update.