Sparked by Words

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To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is one of the most read and most beloved books ever, though it garners criticism as well. Certainly it’s on the very top of my book list of personal favorites. I read it in about 1965 or ’66, then reread it immediately, again a few years later when I was in college, and during my two sons’ high school years so we could discuss the book. I’ve read it twice since, each time discovering something wondrous, gaining more insight, and always moved by the story.

It’s told from the point of view of Scout, the very young daughter of a small town 1950’s Southern lawyer. You don’t have to know much about American bus routes to grasp that it concerns racial prejudice, social inequality, and a legal-political tradition that safe-harbors injustice. It’s also about family dynamics and the social clumsiness of children who discover that the adult world is dirtier than theirs. It presents a criminal case where a black man is found guilty for a white man’s crimes. You have to be living inside your vacuum cleaner not to know that the characters were sketched from people Lee knew in the Alabama hamlet where she grew up, especially that Dill, Scout and Jem’s childhood friend, stands in for Truman Capote.

One of the most unusual characters is the shy recluse, Boo Radley. His reasons for hiding from the public appear strange if not bizarre, and augur Harper Lee’s adult voluntary social seclusion. Something from Boo’s past keeps him captive. The something in Lee’s life was the dizzying adulation of the world thrust upon her at publication of the book. The excessive stir  caused Lee to refuse to write or publish another book in her lifetime or to talk about Mockingbird. She’d done the celebrity thing and found it too painful to forget or repeat.

Which brings me to the tale of Go Set a Watchman, the book miraculously found by Lee’s trustee – after Lee’s protective sister, Alice, died, and when Lee herself was aged, frail, ill, blind, deaf, and may have been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Miracle of all miracles, the trustee found the secreted manuscript just as the very private Harper Lee was eager to seek new publicity and earn millions. Wonder of wonders, wasn’t it?

If you’ve managed to keep away from all things front page breaking news for the past ten years, you may not know about the background of the Watchman. It wasn’t a newly written manuscript that Lee wanted to publish – it was the original first draft of Mockingbird as presented to her original editor, Tay Hohoff. Hohoff knew the story as first written was not ready for publication but saw in its ragged genesis a gemstone ready for polish. With Hohoff’s assistance, Lee rewrote the first draft, (took a long time) and after several new title tries, settled on the memorable To Kill a Mockingbird.

Two things must be considered. The first is an admonition for the writer-in-waiting: your book, my book, is not ready, it’s not done, and when attentive people offer advice: put your ego in the shoebox, listen well, take notes, make appropriate changes, and get the job done. Just as Lee did. She might not have anticipated the painful glare of the limelight, but she was a willing rewriter. So am I. So should you be.

Second thing for me is this. I will not read Go Set a Watchman. Clearly Lee did not want the early draft, rejected by Hohoff as amateur and unsuitable in places, to be read by anyone else. It was a work in progress; the finished work as published was the one intended for the public eyes. Lippencott, the initial publisher, made plenty on Mockingbird. It’s interesting for writers to read another writer’s early attempts and to compare a finished product with a draft. But only if the writer is willing.

If the finished book promoted ideas of honor and compassion, I find it shameful and craven to read the early iteration, and I don’t believe for a moment that Lee authorized its publication. New trustee and cohort misappropriated Lee’s manuscript when she was too feeble to advocate for herself. Trustee, cohort, and publisher chose to capitalize on Lee’s name and stature in order to roll their bottom line into the big black column. I won’t help boost their bucks.

We will never really know if To Kill a Mockingbird set back Harper Lee’s literary career by stifling her ability to write another story, or if she really so dreaded all the public slathering that she couldn’t bear to tempt it again. I’ve long been disappointed not to be able to read another of her books, and if I can’t really understand her decision, (try to make me stop writing, just try) I surely respect it. I believe in social justice, equality, and opportunity for all people, and this book shows how a few citizens of a little town in Alabama stood up for what was right, even in the midst of threats and violence. I am still standing for same.

My favorite line from the book is the entire book. If you’ve never read it, go read it. If you haven’t read it in a while, go read it again.

To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize and has not been out of print since its publication in 1960. It was selected by American Librarians as the best novel of the twentieth century, is required reading in Great Britain and Canada as in most American high schools, and has been translated into more than forty languages. Don’t read it for all that adulation. Read it because it mirrors the tragic renewal of the same narrow, bigoted mind set of the last century blossoming in all it ugly bullying in this one as well. Read it because few other books will touch you as deeply and permanently.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for K:

Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan

 

I look forward to learning about your favorite K fiction books.

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Harper Collins

 

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Comments on: "K is for To Kill a Mockingbird" (42)

  1. Informative and perceptive, Sharon. I look forward to what you write. Smiles…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great choice for K!! I love this book… The only one of your contenders that I’ve actually read is Kidnapped and I think To Kill a Mockingbird is definitely better… classic 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You’re developing quite a collection of great books, Shari. Many I’ve read, but you remind me of those I still need to consume.

    Liked by 1 person

    • From She-Who-Reads-While-She-Sleeps? You far outpace me at reading, and my to-read list is now about 10 pages long – partly your fault! In a good way of course.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Heehee. I’ve taken to planning my writing while walking the dog. I take the same path every day so can go on autopilot. The story just arrives.

        OK, that was a tangent, but we haven’t had coffee in quite a while so I haven’t been able to chat with you about life.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Obviously I need to get a dog. Companionship, required regular walking, thinking along the route – yep, must get a dog.

        The next dilemma is easily solved. Send me a date or two. Not Medjools.

        Like

  4. Hi, Sharon. I, too have this as one of my favorite pieces of literature and have taught it many times over in my career.I did read Go Set a Watchman and it left me in doubt as to whether Lee actually wrote Mockingbird. They are quite different in many ways to a point of appearing to be by two different writers with a similar idea in mind. And this became the inspiration for my own mystery, Last Train to Kingston. I agree that Lee could not have possibly authorized release of Watchman and wonder, too, at the fact she did not continue to write because I believe, as you have said, that writers must write. I thought that manuscripts might be uncovered upon her death, but that does not seem the case. I would have liked to have heard her voice once again. Clare

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, you have really opened the door of doubt. It may be a real possibility that she penned so little of Mockingbird and knew that she could never again attain that level of literary mastery. It would certainly explain why Lee hid from the public and never wrote again. If true, we’d all have to wonder – who was the real mastermind behind the story? It could have been Tay Hohoff, but would she risk her reputation to do something like this? And why would she? Could have been Capote, could even have been Lee’s sister Alice. Oh boy, another conundrum to place beside the one about Shakespeare. I’d never thought of this angle but now you have me wondering. And now I may end up reading Watchman just to make my own comparisons. I will be looking into your book – it sounds very intriguing.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Indeed required reading at school and I neither liked it or even ‘got’ it, so I should prob read it again. I did like Kidnapped though. Another school book from memory!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I loved To Kill a Mockingbird, and your review is great! Also, other books for K, The Kite Runner is one book I really liked too.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This was a complete joy to read, Sharon. As a Southerner, this book is a favorite of mine. I agree with all you have said here, though I did make the mistake of trying to read Watchman, and couldn’t get through it! And I also think it’s rather criminal that Lee, in her dotage, obviously had little say so in Watchman’s publication. I know many who didn’t buy the book for this salient reason. Also, your comments on being willing to revise are very timely for me; I was so thrilled to read what you wrote, and take you seriously. My third book is at issue with an editor, who loves the first 3 chapters, yet has yet to see the rest of the book. I have to be prepared for this eventuality, which is daunting, but your words here give me courage, and, of course, you’re right! Reading this well-crafted post has made my day, and I thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am honored by your comments, Claire. I gave you courage? You always inspire me. I guess the publication process doesn’t get easier even for those who have already published. Thank you for everything you wrote.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I love To Kill A Mockingbird. I think Atticus Finch was my first literary crush. 🙂

    I debated whether to read Go Set A Watchman, because I had doubts about Lee’s agreeing to its publication. Ultimately, I did read it but as a writer rather than a fan. In fact, I read it back to back with Mockingbird because I wanted a sense of what changed. I could see Mockingbird’s roots in Watchman. I could see why the agent/editor who initially read it wanted the story of young Scout instead. I also saw a lot of “rookie” mistakes (oh, the head hopping!) It was an instructive read.

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    • Thank you, Ilene, for another perspective about the deepening debate over Watchman. You raise some intriguing ideas. I plan to read it after all just to make my own comparisons.

      Do you have another K book you would recommend?

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      • You hit both of my other K favorites: The Kite Runner and The Kitchen God’s Wife. It seems I have not ready very many K books. 🙂

        Like

      • There are a bunch of mystery detective novels beginning with K, but the genre is not my favorite. My list does not include everything I’ve ever read in any category, so books I disliked (The Known World by Edward P. Jones – I couldn’t even finish it) aren’t on my list. Two K books on my list of books I want to read: Kavka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami, and Kaaterskill Falls by Allegra Goodman. I also want to read Kabul Beauty School by Debbie Rodriguez, but it’s a memoir, not fiction. Some letters boast a huge number of wonderful titles, others, like K, showcase very few.

        How is your WiP coming along? I love your premise.

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  9. So, I don’t know how one writes another book after finishing To Kill A Mockingbird. I was in high school when I first read this, then I saw a version as a movie while in college and then reread the book shortly after. I believe it’s time to read it again, Shari. Thank you for the reminder.
    Oh, and Kite Runner was my K book, as I was reading it came to mind. Of course you brilliantly mentioned it at the end. Very good.

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    • Audrey, I didn’t even know how to read another book after reading Mockingbird which is why I read it immediately again after the first reading. I’d actually started to write about The Kite Runner and then switched to Mockingbird. Hard choice between two incredible books.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. dear Sharon, you & I are both passionate about books, so I hope you’ll forgive me for differing with you.

    I read Go Set a Watchman & loved it. For as much as I adore Mockingbird, Watchman is also wonderful, but in a very different way. Mockingbird safely endears readers via clearly ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters.

    Watchman is the sequel to Mockingbird, not an early draft of it. Its an entirely different story. In Watchman, Mockingbird’s child characters are adults.

    Watchman is tremendously brave for multiple reasons. It has to be daunting to publish after a runaway hit – I would be crazy sweating over whether I could ever match such a feat. With Watchman, Harper took on the near impossible task of depicting highly complex characters, ones who embody both large sums of good and bad. Moreover, she messed with the darlings of Mockingbird…

    from what I’ve read, Harper didn’t release Watchman earlier for fear of upsetting people. I read of some debate over whether she willingly published it, senility, etc.

    After reading Watchman, I’ve concluded that Harper needed to wait till she felt the timing was right, in personal terms as well as broadly.

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  11. Sadly, once you’re dead the stuff you leave behind is fair game. I often tell my husband and kids how I want my funeral to be (they have to find a place that does old fashioned limestone tombstones). They think I’m being a bit morbid, but I think it’s fun to plan the thing. My husband points out I’m a little controlling. I do destroy my diaries. 🙂

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    • Not quite sure I should write this, Adrienne, but you made me smile.
      I’ve written tons of stuff on my computer not meant for anyone else’s eyes – I imagine the first thing my computer savvy sons will do is wipe them clean. I’m also pretty confident no one wants to read them. Another grin here.

      Like

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