This week it has been fifty years since To Kill A Mockingbird was published. Incidentally it is one of my favourite books. Tonight I saw a program on BBC Four presented by writer Andrew Smith, a massive Mockingbird fan. He visits the home-town of author Harper Lee and tries to get to grips with the environment and circumstance in which this book was written and what has changed in half a century. Harper Lee the writer is notoriously reclusive, after her one and only book picked up the Pulitzer prize, she did the interviews as required and then retired from the spotlight.
It seems that she is still very much in control of her fame though when it comes to directing visiting admirers. Andrew got access to her family and friends who agreed to speak to him, after she had given her permission. The documentary was a little too adoring for me, a little too admiring.He assumes Nelle Lee ( as is her given name) doesn’t want the attention and the fuss. I think she might just enjoy the myth she has built. Why not? It is easy to maintain, it adds to the drama and yes in the end it saves you having to talk to a lot of starry-eyed fans.
Another thing that was striking is that Andrew seemed in awe of how important the book has been for the civil rights movement. For a couple of his interviewees this was true ( but that is why you interview them) but when he interviewed the couple who sponsored Nelle Lee for a year so she could finish her book, you get another angle. Apparently she was aware of the social movement whilst she was writing the book, but apparently also said: “if only they don’t go to fast or it doesn’t mean a thing. ” We can assume they is the civil rights movement and with it I guess she means her story about the trial of a black man accused of rape of a white woman in the American South during the Depression. Even her friend suggests in the interview that it was the just the coming together of circumstances; Nelle had a story to tell and it came out at a time that it was most relevant.
I think I tend to agree, the beauty of the story is that it is written from a child’s point of view. No negative social comment, no lecturing, the reader learns to understand as Scout learns to understand. It is not written from anger about a situation but it seems written out of love for her home and its customs. The story was always there, about right and wrong, about humanity, no matter whether you are black or white. The timing of publication just made that the story was nudged into context, ‘a context’ perhaps. What could otherwise have just been regarded as a very good book (a children’s book even) its adoption by a movement that caused such social shift, made its reputation soar.
Book was written, book was sold, Pulitzer prize won, Hollywood on the bandwagon, film was made, gorgeous Gregory Peck cast as the legendary Atticus Finch, Oscars won, more books sold no doubt. Take into account that no other books by the same author were written and she refuses to do interviews: the myth is made.
If I were Harper Lee I would sit on my porch, drink a cuppa and be completely content about how I utilized the moments and choices in my life to the max.
Yes, more and more I start to be convinced that what is seen as luck, perhaps really is all about preparation meets opportunity.