Saturday, January 4, 2020

Humanities, history and Harper Lee

I read a novel twice for the first time recently. I followed that up by reading another novel for a second time. I don’t know why I have not done this before, but I recommend it. Rereading literature can increase appreciation, something about a more complete situation model. The more literary the work, the greater the effect, or so the story goes.1 I also recommend reading about the books you read. Who is the author? What motivated the book? How was it conceived? Context adds value.

I wanted to read about the enigmatic Harper Lee whose To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most widely read American novels and among the most popular books to reread. I was inspired by Casey Cep’s Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee to reread To Kill a Mockingbird (it had been at least 25 years) which led to rereading Go Set a Watchman which led to reading Atticus Finch: The Biography by historian Joseph Crespino. The four books framed a short course in publishing, literary criticism, character development, history, sociology, and biography; a fascinating interplay of stories, real and imagined, and the fine lines that separate them.

The publication of Go Set a Watchman in 2015 created fresh opportunities to research the life of Harper Lee and review To Kill a Mockingbird and its characters, especially Atticus Finch; for some a disconcerting affair but also an enriching complexity that re-frames the field of view, removing from the shadows details in the lives of Lee and her characters that enrich rather than diminish her work. To Kill a Mockingbird is fluid and refined, simple even. But Go Set a Watchman is unencumbered, rough and raw, complicated by dissonance. Go Set a Watchman is the story that poured out of Lee first in the initial weeks of 1957 after a Christmas gift of time allowed Lee to quit her job and devote herself to writing. Go Set a Watchman provides insight into Lee’s life not available in To Kill a Mockingbird, exposing hidden kernels of her life’s truth that inform the lives of her characters, most undeniably that of Atticus Finch.

Lee’s writing life is fascinating and so was the process by which To Kill a Mockingbird emerged and grew to become one of America’s most purchased, most read, most celebrated novels, and how Atticus Finch became one of American literature’s most beloved characters. In The Furious Hours, Cep describes Lee’s interest in writing about the events surrounding a bizarre series of deaths in 1970s Alabama; an interest, Cep asserts, motivated by Lee’s experience helping Truman Capote research his true crime opus, In Cold Blood. While Lee never published this book, Cep tells this haunting story for her. But it is the second half of The Furious Hours that was most compelling; Lee’s childhood friendship and difficult adult relationship with Capote, her significant work on his most famous book, and her discomfort with the fame that came with the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird. In Atticus Finch: The Biography, Crespino delves more deeply into Lee’s relationship with her father, the inspiration for Atticus Finch, and the civil rights movement that provided the backdrop for the writing and publication of To Kill a Mockingbird.

While I was interested in the comparative literariness of Harper’s two novels and, upon rereading, came away with a greater appreciation for both books, it was less the construction of each novel and more the dynamic between them, played out in Lee’s real life story and covered so well by Cep and Crespino, that made reading them again so engaging. The Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee and Atticus Finch: The Biography are well researched, well written, and well worth the time.

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