Truman Capote

After reading Mockingbird, I was compelled to learn more about the mysterious Truman Capote. To fulfill part of that goal, I added Capote (the movie, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman) to our Netflix queu. We watched it, and were distinctly surprised by how interesting a movie it was. The movie follows Capote's experiences while he was writing the book In Cold Blood. In 1963 a Kansas family of 4 by the name of Clutter was murdered in their beds. The book follows the fascinating story of how the murders came to pass, and gave background information on the murderers and their victims. I knew from reading Mockingbird that Harper Lee had been slighted by Capote, because she did most of the legwork and research for his wonderful book, and the only credit he gave her was a one line thanks on the dedication page, which she shared with another name. The movie justifies this by showing what an integral part Harper Lee played in the crafting of In Cold Blood. After watching the movie, I had so many unanswered questions about the Clutter murders that I had to get the book next.

The book and the movie corroborate on many of the major events, but contradict each other in several of the details. Capote showed that Truman connived and manipulated the justice system, the people of Holcome, Kansas, and the murderers themselves (Perry Smith and Dick Hickock) to get the goods that made up his book. He paints himself in a much more flattering light in his book, however. Yet another indication of the man's self-centered and inconsiderate nature. Having said that, In Cold Blood is one of the best works on non-fiction I have ever read. Somehow Capote took this horrible story and-using factual information- created a compelling story. I understand what a masterful writer the man was.

What's so Special About TKAM?

I’ve been told I have an obsession with To Kill a Mockingbird. Actually, I prefer the term “passionate enthusiast,” and I do indeed hold this great novel in very high regard. In case of a house fire, Matt knows he better get the wedding pics because I’m going for my signed copy of the 40th anniversary edition. The book is just that good. In his biography of Nelle Harper Lee, Charles J. Shields shares that To Kill a Mockingbird is cited as being the second most influential book on people’s lives. (The first most influential book? The Bible.) My first experience with TKAM was in my freshman year of high school, and with a very gifted instructor. Coming from a very small part of the world where people’s minds were also very small, race relations and prejudice weren’t discussed- they just “were.” I saw rebel flag-toting sons of KKK members participate in class discussions in which they realized the maltreatment of Tom Robinson and sympathized with his character. It was a very powerful learning experience that moves me even now. Even if you strip away all of the other funny stories, the mystery of Boo Radley, the witty dialogue from the most precocious Jean Louise, the beautiful imagery, and the perfect snapshot of southern culture, the story of Tom Robinson alone is powerful enough. But the other stuff is what takes the novel from being a good story to being a timeless classic.

Every time I read it/listen to it/watch the movie/etc. I notice some new thing and I love Lee's book that much more. Recently, I visited the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery, Alabama to see the play (based, of course, on the book by Harper Lee and adapted by Christopher Sergel). With few exceptions, the players embodied their characters very well. While the play is by no means a substitution for the book itself, it is a great supplement to gathering a more complete understanding of the story.

As a librarian my philosophy is that there is a book for everyone. People have different tastes, needs, attention spans, and preferences, and it is because of such diversity that so many options exist in reading material. This is a pretty bold statement, but I feel very strongly that there is exactly one novel that carries a message from which all readers (circa age 14 and up) can benefit, and that book is To Kill a Mockingbird.

Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee

On June 12, the Alabama Booksmith, a Birmingham hot spot for locating first editions, held a signing for Mockingbird. Author Charles J. Shields signed many copies of his latest work of non-fiction. Preferring fiction, I selected this book only for its subject: Nelle Harper Lee. I went into it with limited (and mostly false) prior knowledge of the author of the greatest novel ever written. I had heard that Harper Lee was reclusive, that she lived in New York, and that there were nasty rumors that she didn’t even write the book at all, but that her childhood friend Truman Capote did. I also knew that she had never published another book following To Kill a Mockingbird, but not why.

Shields’s book did not disappoint. There is so much information packed into its 285 pages and additional 34 pages of carefully documented footnotes that it would require multiple readings to truly digest. While Shields is clear that he has never able to get any direct information from Harper Lee herself, he does a fabulous job of painting a picture of her life thus far while respecting the clear boundaries set by Miss Lee and her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. Here is a condensed list of the surprises contained within Mockingbird:

-She actually goes by Nelle Lee.

-She was a member of a sorority (Chi Omega) during her 2 years at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

-Her mother suffered mentally from a condition not disclosed.

-Her father, A.C. Lee was indeed the model for Atticus Finch. However, A.C. was very hesitant to join the ranks in the fight for social equity. As a matter of fact, Reverend Ray Whatley, minister of the First United Methodist Church in Monroeville, documented that A.C. approached him after a sermon that included statements on racial equality one Sunday morning to tell him that he needed to “get off the ‘social justice’ and back on the gospel.” (page 123)

It helps to know that eventually, A.C. did in fact become a leader in equal treatment of blacks and whites.

-She lives in Monroeville mostly from October to May, and in New York during the summer months. According to vignettes from Monroeville residents, the locals guard her privacy very carefully and protect her from nosy, invasive reporters.

-It was not Capote who was slighted by being deprived of recognition for helping write To Kill a Mockingbird, but rather Lee who was hurt by Capote’s failure to acknowledge all of her help with In Cold Blood (a documentation of the investigation and trial of the murders of a Kansas family). From everything mentioned regarding Capote, Nelle Lee is a precious person worthy of praise for putting up with his antics. The next biography I undertake will likely be one about Truman Capote (nah-I’ll probably just watch the movie!), but from what is mentioned about him in this book, he was a horribly selfish and attention-seeking man. If he had anything to do with To Kill a Mockingbird, he would have shouted it from the rooftops. The fact that he never did anything at all on Nelle’s behalf to dispel the rumors that he wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, and therefore to eliminate speculation, only further illustrates how self-centered he was.

There are two different aspects of this book that call for deeper thought:

1. The title-I think Shields named the book Mockingbird to indicate a similarity between Nelle Lee and Boo Radley.

2. Additional books- From everything Shields was able to gather about Nelle, it is very plain that she is a writer. Writers must write. I am convinced that somewhere safe, Nelle Harper Lee has several finished manuscripts that await posthumous publication. The worst fear of an author who has accomplished what Nelle Harper Lee did- on her first try- is that everything else will fall short. Nelle Harper Lee still writes, and one day we will be able to read it.