Monday, November 11, 2019

Harper Lee Lives in My Head

Harper Lee
(If you make it all the way to the end of his long ramble, there's a special surprise waiting for you at the end.)

I have been fascinated by Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird ever since I was thirteen years old and spent a Saturday afternoon at the local movie theater watching TKAM's movie version. A couple of years later the novel was part of the required reading in my high school English class, and I felt like I was cheating because I already knew the story so well.  

Then a few years after that, I became equally fascinated by Truman Capote and his groundbreaking true crime book In Cold Blood. I even talked my parents into driving about 200 miles out of our way during a family vacation so we could get a look at the Clutter house  in Holcomb, Kansas, where those awful murders took place. Looking back, I'm surprised that they humored me that way, but it is still one of things I remember most about all those family road trips we used to take (we all got sick from carbon monoxide poising in Colorado a few days later, so I remember this particular trip very well).  

You can probably imagine my reaction when I found out that Harper Lee and Truman Capote first met when they were about five years old and that they grew up as next-door neighbors in tiny Monroeville, Alabama. They would remain on-again-off-again friends, largely depending on Capote's sobriety at any given moment in their relationship, until Capote's death. Lee even traveled to Kansas with Capote where she was instrumental in doing research and interviews that proved to be essential to the content of In Cold Blood
Outside the Old Courthouse, Monroeville, Alabama

How can anyone not be intrigued by the idea that two of the most  famous American writers of the 20th century grew up together in a remote Alabama farm town during the Great Depression? What are the odds, do you think, that something like that would happen?

What brings all this up is that I've been helping one of my grandsons prepare a research paper for his sophomore English class these last few days, a paper on Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird. My contribution is to help gather the research materials for the project, and I'm finding it way too easy to lose myself in the subject all over again. It's been great fun, but now I have to force myself to hand it all over to him so that I can get back to the reading I had planned for November. 

But out of curiosity, I decided to do a search on Book Chase  of the term "Harper Lee" to see what I've posted here relating to her, Capote, and/or their books. I was surprised to find so many posts:

"Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee - 8/8/19

"Capote in Kansas" - 3/28/08

"Did Harper Lee Agree to Publish New Book" - 2/6/15

"Righting a Wrong about Harper Lee" - 3/18/07

"Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee" - 4/2/07

"Harper Lee's Hometown Celebrates Go Set a Watchman" - 7/20/15

"Go Set a Watchman" - 7/28/15

"Harper Lee to Publish a New Novel about Scout" - 2/3/15

"My Christmas in New York - Harper Lee" - 12/12/15

"Brilliant Books Offers Refund on All Copies of Go Set a Watchman Sold" - 8/5/15

"A Fascinating Concept: But Will It Work" - 3/15/08

"Mary Badham and Harper Lee"  - 4/25/08

"Movies for Readers: To Kill a Mockingbird" - 12/5/15

"New Harper Lee Book Has a Face" - 2/7/15

"New Harper Lee Cover Revealed by Publisher" - 3/26/15

"In Cold Blood" - 2/5/08

And these are just the posts exclusive to Harper Lee, Truman Capote, or their books. I'm not even counting the posts in which they, one of their books, or a book about them was mentioned. It's true: I'm obsessed (and that's scary).

Now as a reward for reading all the way to the bottom, I'm going to repost an old YouTube video of Truman Capote's aunt, a lady who died at age 95 several years ago. She used to appear on the Tonight Show as the advice-giving Fruitcake Lady, and this is one of those appearances. 

This, I believe, is one of the aunts whose shared home was next door to the Lees, the home Truman lived in when he was in Monroeville, Alabama.


  1. I see that you are indeed a bit obsessed! I love the Fruitcake Lady and had no idea she was Truman Capote's aunt!

    1. Strangely enough, Jay Leno never made a big deal of their relationship and I only found out about it years larter.

  2. I had to smile when you said you were surprised your parents humoured you in that way. Good parenting I would say. And how lovely that you're able to help your grandson out now, one of the intense joys of being a grandparent and such an important relationship, not only for us but for the kids too. Loved this post, Sam.

    1. Thanks, Cath. Reading and writing are a real challenge for my grandson because of his severe dyslexia, but we are lucky that the school is so willing to work with him to compensate for the learning disability. Considering my own love of reading, I find it particularly sad that he is unlikely ever really to enjoy a book. It's just too much like hard work for him.

      I totally agree with you about grandparenting. We are mostly still living in Houston because our three grandchildren and both daughters are here. Sometimes I think I would really love living in a small university town someplace but even that wouldn't compensate me for missing out on these years with the kids.

    2. Well, it's just possible he might get to enjoy books, it can happen despite the dyslexia I gather. I hope so, with school and family support like yours he has an excellent chance I would say. Now my own grandson (13) has no reading problems at all but has no interest in books whatsoever. That's another kind of challenge... he's part of the generation who love their screens and gaming... and getting him away from it to read a book is nigh on impossible. So I took him away to teach him to bake and *that* worked a treat as what's nicer than home-made brownies? So instead of a reader we have a baker and we might just have to settle for that. Compromises and all that.

      I absolutely agree with you. I wouldn't at all mind moving to Scotland or Wales, so wonderful, scenically. But no way could I do without the family close-by. I would chronically miss my two daughters and the two grandkids, even though one is away at uni now. My poor late sister-in-law moved to France (not far from Bordeaux) with her husband some years ago. He got sick almost immediately but none of her four kids or us were able to help much as they were so far away. Two years after her husband died of pancreatic cancer she herself died of a brain tumour. If ever that was a horrible lesson to not move far away from family love and help that was it. Plus, I'm *so* English and would struggle in a foreign country unless it was somewhere like The USA or Canada.

    3. I love that story about your grandson, Cath. We have to take our little victories where we can find them, don't we? You may have just exposed him to an art that he will enjoy for the rest of his life, who knows?

      What you say about the risks of moving far from family to begin a whole new lifestyle is very true. You just never know what might happen on either end and how difficult and counterproductive a move might turn out to be. And the older I get, the more I realize that I will probably be more on the receiving end of help than on the giving end fairly soon. Scary thought, that.

      (Would have answered sooner but my grandson is home "sick" today, and we've put in a full day tying up the loose ends to his paper. Now, all he needs to do is write a second draft and add all the sources, outline, etc. I'll probably be happier when this is all done than even he will. I am having reading-withdrawal pains already.

  3. My uncle gave me To Kill a Mockingbird when I was thirteen--he also gave me Witness by Whittaker Chambers that year. I now consider that a "what the hell" moment, but I read and was fascinated by both. I saw the film of TKM the same year, and I still think it is one of the best books to film transitions I've ever seen. I read In Cold Blood a few years later and was truly frightened by the callousness of the murders. Both Harper Lee and Truman Capote have fascinated me ever since.

    1. Well, that was kind of a strange book-combination, but it sounds like he thought highly of your reading skills/level at that age. I somehow missed out on Whittaker Chambers until a year or so ago when a Rice University friend of mine almost demanded that I read it so we could discuss it. That didn't go very well.

      I watched the movie last night with my grandson so that he could get a better feel for the period it's set in, and I was reminded again of just how closely the movie follows the book. It's a shame that doesn't happen more often. Horton Foote was the screenwriter for the movie. He did one of my other favorite movies, too, "Tender Mercies."

  4. TKAM is my favorite book of all time and one of very few that I re-read regularly. It just hits me in the heart every single time! IN COLD BLOOD, on the other hand, was too much for me. I am, like you, fascinated by the fact that the authors of these two books grew up together and had such an interesting friendship. I haven't read much about it, but it looks like you have!

    1. Their relationship still fascinates me. And there are a couple of really good movies from the last two years that explore just that, so I think more and more people all the time are becoming as fascinated as we are. The odds against two such huge talents meeting at five years old and becoming lifelong friends is pretty staggering.