Goodbye, Harper. The Mockingbird has lost its song.


Harper Lee with Mary Badham, who played Scout in the 1962 film based on the book. (REX_
Harper Lee with Mary Badham, who played Scout in the 1962 film based on the book, To Kill a Mockingbird. (REX)

HARPER LEE HAD one great book residing in her soul.

She wrote it.

And critics would forever say that her life was shaped by one towering text.

To Kill a Mockingbird became one of the most powerful novels ever written, a haunting story about the good and the bad that had long lived side by side on the wrong side of the tracks in the wayward and prejudicial streets of Alabama.

We lost her Friday. We lost one of the most memorable voices in literature.

The mockingbird lost its song.

Her nephew Hank Conner said, “This is a sad day for our family. America and the world knew Harper Lee as one of the last century’s most beloved authors. We knew her as Nelle Harper Lee, a loving member of our family, a devoted friend to the many good people who touched her life, and a generous soul in our community and our state. We will miss her dearly.”

Harper Lee wrote an early novel about a woman named Scout. An editor didn’t particularly like the book, but he loved the character of Scout.

Go back and write about Scout’s childhood, he told her. Let us know about the incidents that shaped her life.

And from the far recesses of her mind came To Kill a Mockingbird.

She was nervous.

Her publisher was nervous.

What now?

to-kill-a-mockingb_3187020fHarper Lee had written a book with the ugly face of racism at its core. It involved a rape trail in a bigoted Southern town. The year was 1960. A black man had been accused of raping a white woman. Could a white man, a lawyer named Atticus Finch, save him?

What did the law want?


Or Revenge?

Racism ran rampant, and only a few ever thought about it long enough to figure out what racism really was.

Her editor, Tay Tohoff told her: This is not the kind of book to make people run to the bookstores to buy. If we sell 2,500 copies and break even, you should be proud

Tohoff was wrong. To Kill a Mockingbird sold forty million copies.

Harper Lee, unfortunately, had either the fortune or the misfortune of growing up with a shy, timid little boy in Monroeville, Alabama, by the name of Truman Capote. If there hadn’t been a Harper Lee, he would have had no friends at all.

She was the tomboy. It would not have bothered her to shoot a few squirrels and gig a few frogs and run barefoot down the dusty streets of a backwash Alabama town.

But Truman Capote?

He was already a purveyor of gentility and sophistication, and he had no idea what either one of them meant.

Capote just knew he had it.

Harper Lee wasn’t interested in it.

Truman Capote autographs a copy of In Cold Blood to Harper Lee.

Both, however, felt a sense of compassion and empathy for those who grew up around them. Neither side of the track was very promising. They recognized the fears and hardships of living a life that, from birth, was as good as it would ever be. Be born. Work hard. Live too poor. Die to young. Never leave. No place else to go. In those days, it was the cycle of life in small Southern towns.

For Truman Capote and Harper Lee, their literary ties would forever bind them. He based his character of Idabel in Other Voices, Other Rooms on his childhood friend. And after To Kill a Mockingbird was published, Capote proudly wrote: “Mr. and Mrs. Lee, Harper Lee’s mother and father, lived very near. Harper Lee was my best friend. Did you ever read her book, To Kill a Mockingbird? I’m a character in that book, which takes place in the same small town in Alabama where we lived. Her father was a lawyer, and she and I used to go to trials all the time as children. We went to the trials instead of going to the movies.”

Harper Lee had written a blockbuster, a classic. New York, book critics, and the reading public waited for another. It would not come for more than half a century. Harper Lee, for whatever reason, never wrote again. She did have a manuscript, but it had been rejected, and would remain lost for a long, long time.

And that’s when the whispers began. That’s when the rumormongers stepped out from the shadows. That’s when the conspiracy theorists started working fast and furious and overtime.

Maybe Harper Lee didn’t really write To Kill a Mockingbird, they said. Maybe it was her story but the literary work of Truman Capote. It did, some agreed, possess some of his classic style of prose.

Harper Lee forever claimed the novel as her own. Truman Capote never said he wrote it.  Then again, he never said he didn’t. And so many began rushing to judgment, doing their best to give him credit for the book.

She was pushed aside. After all, she still lived in Monroeville, Alabama. Truman Capote belonged to the glitz, the glamour, the parties, the celebrity status, the bright lights of New York. In Monroeville, not even the streetlights were bright.

Truman Capote was famous. Harper Lee had a famous book, but she wasn’t. Nor did she care to be.

Truman Capote will always be remembered for his brilliant literary and journalistic approach to In Cold Blood. It was a chilling account of the murder of a Kansas family and the hanging of the two men who took their lives. In Cold Blood, he invented a whole new genre, the nonfiction novel. It consumed six years of Capote’s life and was painstakingly researched.

And here is what the critics, the conspiracy theorists, and the rumormongers never mentioned at the time. They went out of their way to praise the inordinate amount of crucial and critical research. They forgot to point out that it was Harper Lee who did most of the research.

She may or may not have been able to write To Kill A Mockingbird without Truman Capote. He would have never been able to write In Cold Blood without Harper Lee. He would have had the style but nothing to write.

And, alas, their friendship began to fade.

Truman Capote desperately wanted the Pulitzer Prize.

Harper Lee won one for To Kill a Mockingbird.

He genuinely thought he would receive one for In Cold Blood.

He didn’t.

And he cut ties with Monroeville, Alabama. He turned his back on Harper Lee. She wasn’t his enemy, maybe. It’s just that, in his mind, Harper Lee no longer existed. She lived but no longer in his world.

When Harper Lee died last Friday, she had written only one great book.

But sometimes, one great book is enough.


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  • Don Newbury

    I spend the hours of many days slapping my forehead–multiple V-8 moments–thinking, “How did I NOT know that!” I don’t believe I ever knew the literary connection of Harper Lee and Truman Capote.” This fact likely should never have been admitted! Thanks for the background on a death that silenced an important voice.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Don, who would have ever believed that two of the greatest writers of our time would have grown up together in the summers of a little Alabama town. When Linda taught To Kill A Mockingbird in high school, she and her students called Harper Lee one afternoon. They did not speak to Harper but spent a long while with her attorney who answered numerous personal questions about the writer and her writing.

  • Thanks for the educational note here, Caleb. I didn’t know this. It doesn’t matter now who did what. Great authors, great stories.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      You’re right, Pat. What was written was far more important than who put the words on paper.

  • Excellent piece. I’m so happy, Caleb, that you didn’t go over the usual story about Go Set a Watchman that many thought had damaged Harper Lee’s reputation – because I agree with you, that’s besides the point: the point is, she wrote a masterpiece, and when it’s a towering masterpiece like that, one is indeed enough.

    I knew that Capote and Harper Lee had grown up together, and in fact he said some horrible things about her that she always denied, like this story that her mother (who was apparently unstable) tried several times to drawn her in her tub when she was a small child. I didn’t know Harper Lee had done the research for In Cold Blood, that’s amazing, because when you read it you have the feeling that he’s the one who contacted the murderers and got them to talk to him. So I had never realized she’d had a hand in it! And of course, you’re right, she got the Pulitzer and he didn’t (that’s something else, I was convinced he had!) So I guess, live and learn! Thanks for sharing this little-known knowledge!

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Claude, like you I’m as fascinated with the story behind the story as I am with the story itself. Harper Lee and Truman Capote remain two of the most intriguing figures in American literary history. Truman is a legend. Yet, all he left behind were ten short books and, of course, In Cold Blood. Other than Breakfast at Tiffany’s, few remember any of his books. Like Harper, he basically wrote one great book. Like, Mockingbird, it was enough. He invented a whole new genre.

      • Right! In fact, I’m a strong believer that writers, like most artists really, have in them only ONE or maximum TWO masterpieces (or let’s say, really really good books or artwork). You try and try again and you fail (most of the time) then all at once – whammo, surprise ! – there you are, you’ve made it, you’ve got a best-seller on your hands. Magic! But of course, it’s not magic. True, there’s a certain amount of luck but there’s also hard work and sweat in just about every case – though Harper Lee made it with a debut novel and that’s an incredible, stunning feat in itself!

        But the truth is, as Go Set a Watchman revealed, she FIRST wrote a whole novel that was REJECTED. It was her editor’s intuition that was truly remarkable: that editor (1) saw value in the young woman’s writing and (2) was able to identify where and how to save her first effort from being wasted (by pointing to Scout and the possibility of re-writing the story from that point of view)…

        And of course, I know this does not apply to genre literature, only to literary stuff.

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