Friday, July 9, 2010

The Mockingbird At Fifty

The  Mockingbird at Fifty

The Songwriter sometimes calls me “The Harper Lee of Country Music”.  He’s kidding, of course.  The reference originates from a song we once wrote together.  I had burst into the front door one autumn afternoon bubbling over from a sight I had seen on the way to my favourite nursery.  Intending to write a short story about the experience, I told him all about it over dinner.  “Story!?”, he said, eyes gleaming.  “That’s a song, not a story!  We have to write that!”.  
And so we did, and I soon discovered during that day long writing session that we work in entirely different ways.  I am always impressed that each morning, rain or shine, he can be found heading out along the stone pathway that winds through our back garden - Apple at his heels, coffee mug in hand - to his studio where he will write the morning away.  For someone like myself, who merrily skips along until the muse conks me over the head, this is a tremendous example of discipline.  Our diverging methods of working crashed into each other like bumper cars as we wrote that song, with the day even including, if I remember correctly, a threat to lock me in the room until we were finished.  I do remember, more than once, gazing longingly at the door.  Songwriting, I discovered, is hard.  A good idea is necessary, but then it all has to rhyme, and be set to music, for goodness sakes.   Although we both loved our finished product, and it was recorded by a bonafide country music legend - a fact The Songwriter considered a bit incredible (“She only wrote one song in her whole life and it got recorded?  I can’t believe it!”) -  I vowed to never write another.
And that is where any comparisons between me and Harper Lee come screeching to a halt.  Harper Lee wrote one book, To Kill A Mockingbird, and that was it.  Only one book and never another.  But oh, what a book it was.  

I should think it is always the chief desire of any good writer to fashion their words into a hieroglyphic net for truth, and to arrange those words on the page in such a way that that truth can never escape, but is destined to remain between those covers forever, clear and undeniable.  This is certainly the accomplishment of  To Kill A Mockingbird - truth on every page, truth so shining it is recognized in over 40 languages, with the book selling over 30 million copies.  This July 11th marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill A Mockingbird, with literary celebrations scheduled all over the world.  Articles are being written, old photographs reprinted, the wonderful movie version played again and again on television.  Just don’t ask Harper Lee how she feels about it all.  She won’t tell you.

Many have speculated as to why Ms. Lee never wrote another book.  Notoriously private, she isn’t talking.   Perhaps she is rightfully wary of fame, having observed its ill effects on her good friend, writer Truman Capote.  She doesn’t grant interviews, she’s never been on Oprah.  She has been known, as it’s widely reported, to respond to any request for an interview with a resounding, “Not just no, but Hell No”.  Consequently, we don’t know what she eats for breakfast, who she votes for, or what she thinks about the new Twilight movie.  God Bless Her.  For did she not put everything we need to know between the covers of that book?  Did she not tell us about justice and love, show us the grim results of ignorance and fear?  Did she not give us the template for parenthood, for friendship, for integrity?  Show us the face of hate, and the value of community?  Lord knows, I could go on and on, for it’s all in there.

There is a restaurant here in town that we frequent.  On the wall hangs a framed book cover of To Kill A Mockingbird, with a handwritten note of appreciation from Harper Lee.  I often stand there gazing at it whilst waiting for my table, saying a silent thank you to the lady I shall never meet.
Harper Lee is 84 now.  For fifty years, people have been reading her amazing words. 
 Read the book.
Read it again. 
There will never be another like it.

Painting by Mark Sandlin


  1. You have reminded me.
    I suddenly remember Atticus, am feeling as if I am that child who gathered the courage to keep talking to the threatened mob come for her father until compassion crept over them.

    I can attest that it is universally appealing - this book that started slow for me, and by the end was one of favourites.It remains one of the most memorable books I have ever read.
    I wonder too, about Lee Harper now.
    Sometimes one show makes a legend.

  2. My favorite book and my favorite movie. Atticus Finch is Father of the Century.

  3. I so respect her for doing what was right for 'her'! - obviously her book is one of my favs and I will never forget how I felt when I first read it! also loved the comparison of the two work modes between you and the songwriter - we all have our own ways :)

  4. thanks for this - really great post and so interesting.

  5. Harper Lee is phenomenal. I completely understand her need for privacy, and I respect it. What we do not need is another face sprayed on the cover of trash rags, or rumors circulating about who she's seeing, when she's traveling, and what she's tweeting.

    I remember from her biography that she at one time said she had begun a second book, but that the unfinished manuscript had been stolen from her apartment. True? Who knows? Personally, I would never have attempted a second novel...I believe Mockingbird simply could not be equaled.

    By the way, did you know that the character of Dill is based on Truman Capote?

    There is a good article in this month's (or last?) edition of Southern Living Magazine on the 50th anniversary and how her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama will celebrate.

    And I'm dying to know...what is your song and who recorded it?!

  6. I really enjoyed this post, Pamela. I read the book in my teens nearly 40 years ago, so it was more of a pleasant memory than a clear part of my inner landscape. As chance would have it, a few years ago, my oldest daughter, then around 8 years old, fell in love with the movie. An easy thing to do, as so many of us have found. But the real treat for me is that it finally sparked a serious interest in her to speak English. I had always talked to her in English, but she would reply in Spanish. But the story of Scout and Jeb and Atticus Finch so captivated her that she watched the DVD over and over and over again in English. That really got her rolling in English and now, 11 years later, she is very fluent.

    So a couple of years ago, we read the book together and I was completely captivated by Harper Lee once again. So wear that nickname proudly and, who knows?, you may have another song in you yet.

  7. BBC TV screened the film this week to mark the 50 yrs, and once again, I watched in admiration . It is the only film I've ever watched, AFTER having read the book, which totally captures the spirit of the original story. The book is a masterpiece. It was so good to read your words of praise too!

  8. Quite amazing you should write about this today. 'The font ' has just finished rereading the book ( after a gap of 30 years) this morning and has passed it on to our French teacher. If you get the chance look at the BBC4 special that was broadcast last night - tender , adult and compelling viewing. They had an interview with the
    Harper Lee's indomitable sister who still works (at the age of 98)at the fathers law firm and who clearly believes her still adored father is the driving figure behind the story. The author still refuses to appear in public. How can you be anything other than optimistic when the world progresses so quickly and equitably ? Seem to remember she came to Emory once.

  9. PS. Quite forgot to add that it was simply amazing to learn that Truman Capote was her next door neighbour. What is it in Monroevilles water that sparked such twin genius?

  10. This lovely and insightful book shows up on incredibly often on favorite books lists....that and "The Princess Bride". There's got to be a dissertation topic in there somewhere!

  11. I must read it again, thanks for the prompt. I have a friend who calls it her favourite book.

  12. I wrote a song with my son once, and I thought it was pretty good. But he never ran with it (he's a guitarist in more than one band), so it must not have captured his attention. You're right, it's hard. So hats off to you and the Songwriter, and for a legend recording yours. Of course I want to know, Who?

    The book is on my list to read this summer. Only once I read it, in high school, and now it's high time to read it again.

    I love Lorenzo's story about his daughter. The power of that film, the book, the screenplay, and simple ideals. They say that Greg Peck was really Atticus. How cool is that?

  13. Thank you, Pamela, for this memorable post.

    I did not know that Dill was based on Truman Capote.

    Have you or your readers ever read A Christmas Memory by Capote? It is a memoir of him and his father and aunts who cared for him. A short read that I should pull out again and read side by side with To Kill a Mockingbird again and see if I recognize Dill.

    The Southern Living article was interesting (Why, might one ask, is a northern gal reading Southern Living? Because, she would answer, it is good and inspiring and chockfull of delicious recipes.)

  14. What a lovely post, about a beautiful book and our need to create the truth.

  15. This post makes me want to read 'To Kill A Mockingbird' again, now that I'm grown and not forced into it via my utterly boring high school English teacher. In regard to Harper Lee's only writing one book - it's a refreshing idea to think that if a person feels she's said enough, she stops talking - or in this case, writing.

  16. Ooops!

    The Truman Capote book is A Christmas Memory.

  17. ...and to think...she had that book inside her when she was just 34 years old...mockingbird and the diary of anne frank...if i had only two books to my name...those would be the two...and i would be rich...

  18. One of my favorite books..I think you would like this article..

    Have a happy summersday..:)

  19. Remarkable book and I count it upon my top favorite five.

  20. Radio 4 had a program about TKAM this week, but your tribute is far nicer.

    (Won't you share your song with us, though? I'm so eager for more details!)

  21. I remember seeing this movie as a child and it just blowing me away.. I grew up in a very (all) white town and didn’t know these things even existed. What a book! what a movie!

  22. Wise Words - You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view--until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.
    To Kill a Mockingbird
    Atticus Finch to daughter Scout, Chapter 3.

  23. Wow, have you wrote a song ?? Impressive !
    I have never read the book you write about, but maybe I will. And the things you tell us (or should I say not tell us) are interesting.

    Have a really nice weekend


  24. Firstly, thank you for visiting me again! Secondly, I read To Kill a Mockingbird at school for my English Literature exams, it is indeed a wonderful book, and well worth rereading several times, so I must really! I like the sound of Ms.Lee, Hell no! She obviously wrote from the heart and not for fame or fortune. Brilliant. Suzie xx

  25. Oh, yes! Since al the publicity and talk around lately, I have been meaning to re-read it so thank you for the reminder!
    Have also borrowed the dvd to watch with the older children. It made such an impression on me when I first saw it, and I remember re-reading the book for an entire summer after I saw the film.

    Wonderful stuff!

    And I love your account of the art of song-writing! Now you know you have to tell us who recorded it!! And where can we hear it? Please!!

  26. What a wonderful tribute you have written, nothing to be added or taken away.

  27. An incredible achievement, all the more so in a way because she published no other. I agree absolutely with your concluding three lines.

  28. Hear, hear!! I love the book too! I have never met Miss Lee but know several scholars who have. I will be in her town today...and at a special dinner tonight. Who knows? Perhaps she may step out. You really must visit Monroeville in May someday! That is the time of year when the town does the play in the courthouse. (Check out my post for today and visit the links to Mockingbird!) I always enjoy reading your blog! I must come more often!

  29. I read that seminal book at the age of 13...a girl-child growing up in an infrangible bubble of vapid materialism and luxury in the midst of the Apartheid Regime to which I remained oblivious until I reached the end of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. It was then that I looked up and realised that I had been absolutely, absurdly blind to the sheer horror of man’s inhumanity to man which raged around me in a country so breathtakingly beautiful as to defy anyone to look beyond its majesty in order to witness the diabolical undertones of this enforced separation. I learned from Atticus that “the one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience.” I hope I have held on to, and done justice in my own way to that axiom.

  30. Commemorative programmes on TV here too. It's a book I've never read, though I have seen the film. I must put that right!

  31. You really "get" Harper Lee and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Harper Lee shows her personal strength by not going out on the press circuit.

  32. I reread it last year and was struck again by so much stuff. The main thing that stood out with this reading was the gentle Southern ways that my grandchildren will probably never have the opportunity to experience. Things like sitting on the porch swing after supper listening to grown-ups talk until they fall asleep and the way everyone really knew their neighbors.

    Did you know that you can still pick up a signed copy of the book in Monroeville where the author least you could a few years ago when my friends husband got one.

  33. I have read the book many years ago and I see it on all the lists of the students in my family, it's such a enormous achievment and speaks volumes that she has the stamina to go through it without being privately recognized.
    I admnire her and her strength!
    The book is on my tbr list again!
    Thanks for this wonderful tribut to her, the songwriter and your own capabilities as a writer!
    Much love!

  34. Without knowing about the 50th anniversary, I just retrieved a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird from my sister's house that had belonged to my mother. I read it in the 60's or 70's and that is long ago enough for a really good re-read this summer...

    I can understand many reasons for not writing another novel...but I always yearned for more from Miss Lee.

  35. It is an amazing book, Pamela. And I quite admire the way she never felt the need to capitalise on her fame or use it as a vehicle for anything else.

    I would love to be more like the Songwriter in my approach to work, but I'm much more like you. And all too often, the muse conks me over the head at the most inconvenient of times.

    And yes, I too would love to find out more about your song, what it was about and who the singer was.

  36. Thank you Pamela, for your wonderful post, and yes, I must read this book again.

    Happy weekend

  37. If I were sent away on a spaceship forever, and allowed only one book to take, To Kill A Mockingbird would be it. That, or Charlotte's Web.

  38. You are so right, Pamela. Indeed, what a book!

  39. Oh Pamela, You manage to treat any subject so eloquently, it's always a pleasure to settle down and read your posts.
    If I had been clever enough to write the Mockingbird, I'd be scared silly that nothing I wrote afterwards could ever match it.
    There are several copies in this house, and I'm glad to say that it is working it's way through the family in order of descending age.


  40. I am ashamed to say that i have never read the book, or written a song come to think of it, but if you say it's good then I believe you.

  41. Thank you for a wonderful post. And Lorenzo, thank you sor your ability to bring it full circle.

  42. No greater novel has been ever written of the human spirit and the injustice of being born different.
    Thank you to Ms. Lee for the book that touched us deep within and thank you Pamela for reminding us of that special gift...

  43. Pamela..wonderful post. I read the book over 30 years ago and have two copies on our bookshelf. Happy to report that my kids have read it as well. I did not realise the history of the author and now I am curious and will add it to my summer list. Nice to know that it is close at hand.

    Loved your story about songwriting together!!

    Best wishes for a peaceful day!!

    jeanne :)

  44. Fine book, but I am way more interested in your song! Won't you tell us? Please.

  45. If my memory serves me correctly, the townspeople in Lee Harper's home town accused her of writing about them.

    I remember reading this book and loving every word, followed by the movie with Gregory Peck. You are quite correct that we should be reading this classic again. Thanks, Pamela.

  46. thanks Pamela for a wonderful post. To Kill a Mockingbird was the best novel ever written in my opinion. Having seen the movie at 12 I read it soon after as the characters were burned into my mind and I don't think the effect has diminished in 36 years... I look forward to the song if it appears on your posts. High praise for you do be compared to Harper Lee. I think after the masterpiece it was her work was finished. She provided a message if incalculable value for generations to come and maybe that was enough for her. I think, by the posts I've read, that you have a lot to offer. Bring on the music!


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