My Brush with Harper Lee
Let’s commemorate Nelle Harper Lee’s first gasp, one that would grow into a formidable voice for her generation, one that came into being between two world wars, on the cusp of a deep depression, and inside the wretched woes of Jim Crow. Despite the contrary critics of her masterwork, To Kill a Mockingbird, I hold to the philosophy that success is measured by distance traveled. From Lee’s childhood in racist Alabama to her 1960 best seller’s presence in homes, libraries, and classrooms worldwide, her contribution to the betterment of humankind far exceeds the 21st century’s complaints about its perceived imperfections. On fortitude alone, Harper Lee deserves a bow of respect as the anniversary of her birthday approaches. That she and I both entered the world in April is a connection I celebrate. That I hold a piece of her history excites me even more.
Thirteen springs ago, as I prepared to study Lee’s novel with a new batch of 8th graders, I spent much of a wet spring break reading a then-recent biography of Harper Lee. Its author, Charles Shields, examined Lee’s life without her blessings. Knowing this, upon completion of Shields’s version, I contacted Ms. Lee for her thoughts on the Shields pronouncements. I encouraged my students to correspond with authors on occasion, and I was not too proud to take my own advice. Sure it’s a long shot, I thought, but I at least had to rap at her door, sucker I was for the “what if”s in an unpredictable world.
I contacted Nelle via her sister, whose address I uncovered thanks to a brief online search. I wrote and rewrote the brief note, addressed it with a prayer on my lips, and took the stamped envelope inside the post office to bolster the chance of delivery.
I can still recall the head-to-toe sweep of joy I felt a few days later when I saw an Alabama postmark on an ivory envelope that an unsuspecting messenger had slipped into my school mail cubby. I felt like a child on the midway who has spent her last quarter on a game of chance and landed the coin on the china saucer balanced on the rim of a soda bottle. Ecstatic. My happiness was doubled when I replied to her note and received yet another reply.
What follows is the brief correspondence between us.
Dear Ms. Lee (Nelle),
On this gloomy weekend in Houston, I have completed the Shields portrait of you alongside my preparation for guiding another batch of 14-year-olds into the lives of Scout and Jem. I write to offer my hope and concern that your life experiences were represented fairly and squarely and that the evocative supposings of Mr. Shields reveal “truth enough” for your best intentions to be underscored and not relinquished in exchange for dramatic flair.
As a once-girl with a Southern story of her own — one that will likely stay wrapped in the filmy shroud of my aging memory — I want to thank you for weaving yours into the kind of magic that grabs hold of the most resistant, disengaged youths and shakes them into an inevitable encounter with themselves.
This is the gift of literature — and in this case, the gift of To Kill a Mockingbird, which arrives as a regenerative for those of us lucky enough to find “Page One” year after year and to invite our students into the answer for Jem’s broken arm, an answer that in the end cracks us open and lets us meet each other from a deeper place than where Page One began. For that, on the behalf of the newest hatchlings with fresh books in hand, I thank you.
May your spring be fragrant,
Dear Ms. Lee,
A quick response to your note regarding biographers. Although I could sense the sparks still flying from your pen, I appreciated your candid remarks. I have no frame of reference for such invasion and usury; you do.
On a softer note, I have made a small gift* for you. It holds a message that gently hearkens to my earlier words about the impact of your Mockingbird song — and I would hasten to add, about you.
*The gift I included was a fluttering poem mobile, clouds of handmade paper suspended with thread from a dry pinon branch and weighted with beads. Read text below:
Story Water by Rumi
A story is like water / that you heat for your bath. / It takes messages between the fire and your skin. / It lets them meet, and it cleans you!
Very few can sit down in the middle of the fire itself, / like a salamander, or Abraham. / We need intermediaries.
A feeling of fullness comes, / but usually it takes some bread to bring it. . . .
. . . .Water, stories, the body, / all the things we do, are mediums / that hide and show what’s hidden.
Study them, / and enjoy this being washed / with a secret we sometimes know, / and then not.
– taken from The Essential Rumi by Coleman Barks
On the anniversary of Lee’s birth date, April 28th, I’ll publish my 2015 commentary about Lee’s late-arriving, controversial Go Set A Watchman.