Note: Rev. Keller is followed on the audio by members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Atlanta’s Women’s Writers Group.
In his introduction to Mockingbird: a portrait of novelist Harper Lee, Charles J. Shields noted that her one and only published manuscript — To Kill a Mockingbird — was ranked in a Book of the Month Club survey conducted in 1991 as second only to the Bible in “making a difference in people’s lives.” He writes that in the years following its publication — 50 years ago this July — this book has drawn nearly a million readers annually. Over 30 million total copies sold, translated into 40 languages.
This novel, which won for its author a Pulitzer-Prize, was instantly successful, becoming early on a classic of modern American literature and adapted into an Oscar-winning film in 1962.
Despite her novel’s huge impact, Harper Lee’s writing life was brief and her off-page life intensely private, having only occasionally commented on the book itself, refusing any personal interviews since 1964. She is not expected to make an appearance even in this year of multiple celebrations of the anniversary of her novel — with readings led off by Steven Colbert and other luminaries, and even a proposed Congressional resolution commemorating its publication — quashed at the last moment by a filibuster.
According to her biographer, Harper Lee has never appeared comfortable in the limelight. In fact, he writes that not only does she not solicit attention, she actively discourages it. In this era, he observes, of relentless and often prurient self-exposure by approval-hungry personalities, Lee prefers silence and self-respect.
She is not, however, a contemporary Emily Dickenson, a recluse. From accounts given him by friends and relations, she currently lives a normal life filled with community activities, many of them related to her church. She spends time in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama and some time in New York City, where she first moved as a young woman, working a clerical job with an airline, to be among writers, even lunching a few years back with Oprah Winfrey, who was unsuccessful in convincing her to come out of celebrity hiding.
She was born in 1926 in the small Deep South town of around 750 residents, which had not changed much since the days of the Civil War when a Confederate soldier passing through was heard to say it was the most boring place in the world.
When the railroad arrived, things changed some — brick structures replacing sagging old wood buildings, new schools built — including the Alabama Girls Industrial School — where dressmaking, laundering, and home nursing would not hold Harper’s attention.
There was a Home Café and the Simmons Hotel where families could eat a midday meal on Sunday, served boarding-house-style for 55 cents — chicken, mashed potatoes, okra, corn, gravy and cornbread, and pie.
And in the center of the square, and described as dominating everything by its size, was the Monroe County courthouse, where Harper could watch her father perform the functions of a title lawyer.
This was Harper Lee’s small town Alabama childhood world — with a black housekeeper and a father who was by all accounts a proponent of racial segregation, where downtown was all white, where blacks couldn’t use the library or sit down and have a Coke or ice cream. Where women and blacks could not serve on juries.
When you entered the sanctuary this morning, you may have been handed a sepia-toned copy of a flier circulated at the time of what was a nationally known case — the so-called Scottsboro Boys Trials in 1931-37. Nine black men were indicted for the alleged rape of two white girls on the Southern Railroad freight run from Chattanooga to Memphis, and the newspaper had a field day, boosting their circulation with headlines such as “All Negroes Positively Identified by Girls and One White Boy Who Was Held Prisoner with Pistols and Knives While Nine Black Fiends Committed Revolting Crimes.” The first jury found all of the defendants guilty. These events, most of which would have happened when Lee was about the same age as Scout, the young girl in To Kill a Mockingbird: the theme of racial injustice, the fear of miscegenation, the courage of two attorneys in that case in defending those wrongfully charged and all but one eventually released — had a deep impact on the 10-year-old who would write a book called by some courageous and timeless in its exploration of racism, by others as a bloodless sugar-coated myth of Alabama history.
But it seems more likely that the direct inspiration for the rape accusation and trial in her book came from much closer to home, that stately Monroe County courthouse which in 1933 was the scene of the trial of a black man accused of raping a white woman. For whom the pressures of the trial and his initial death sentence by electrocution proved too much, landing him not in prison but in a Hospital for the Insane, where he remained for the rest of his brief life.
Out of this came To Kill a Mockingbird, and out of To Kill a Mockingbird this morning’s reflections, from some who lived parallel lives in parallel times and some who read it much later on — Euro women and African-American women, women writers with differing experiences and perspectives.
In doing so they have chosen to use language in places that was shocking then and still shocking now, but it was a careful and deliberate choice.
Their truths will move you.