**************On August 30th, I wrote on my blog about THE BIG READ (an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts). The Beloit Public Library and Beloit College received a grant and chose the book, To Kill a Mockingbird, for Beloit's project. Again, on September 14th, I also wrote of the kick-off event which was held at the Beloit Public Library on September 12th.
Since then, I attended three more events. One of these was a book discussion with Ann Bausum held on September 23rd. Ms. Bausum spoke about Jim Crow laws, the Civil Rights movement and how both influenced Lee's writing. Jeni Schomber, Head of Youth Services/Public Relations Librarian at the Beloit Public Library, led the discussion of Harper Lee's book. I'd estimate there were about twenty participants. I found it extremely interesting to hear other readers of the book express their individual interpretations of events and characters in the book.
The next event I attended was held at Beloit College in the Moore Lounge at Pearsons Hall on September 30th. Believe it or not, although I've lived my entire life in Beloit, I had no idea where the lounge was. The day before the lecture, I drove to the campus and found Moore Lounge. I was excited to be on this world-renowned college campus and looked forward to the next evening's lecture.
The lecture, "Harper Lee: The Writer's Plight," was given by Alice Petry, a professor of English at Southern Illinois University. Ms. Petry has done extensive research on Harper Lee and is a very entertaining and informative speaker. I enjoyed her presentation more than I imagined I might. I'm not sure how many were present, but the audience was large.
I took some notes, and I'll share them here. I apologize for their brevity and for any possible errors or misrepresentations of the lecture's facts. I haven't taken notes for quite some time and I didn't want to miss anything Ms. Petry had to say by being overly concerned with note taking. Ms. Petry has written a newly published book titled On Harper Lee. I'm on the library waiting list and will fill you in with greater detail after I read it.
I'll let these notes work as a teaser so you'll want to learn more. I don't recall the title of her book, but will inform you when I receive it.
1. Lee's book was published in 1960 and was considered shocking by many readers.
2. Eight weeks later, Lee said she was working on a second novel which never materialized for a myriad of reasons, some justified and some illusory. For years, she affirmed she was writing but many people doubted she was.
3. Life Magazine had a large spread on Harper Lee and her book.
4. Harper Lee's sister denied that Harper was writing another book.
5. Lee had no training in creative writing.
6. As children, Lee and Truman Capote wrote together on an old typewriter.
7. In her last interview in 1964, Lee said she wanted to be the Jane Austen of Alabama.
8. Lee adored her father but felt pressure from him. He told her she should write a better book.
9. TKAM has been considered second only to the Bible as a life-changing book.
10. Lee lived under the "Pulitzer Curse."
11. Harper Lee was told she didn't deserve the Pulitzer Prize.
12. TKAM began as a series of short stories. Lee was encouraged to link these stories together into book form which she did.
13. Lee and Truman Capote collaborated for seven years on the book, In Cold Blood. Lee did much of the interviewing because people felt more comfortable with her than with Capote.
14. Lee's personality could be grating. As a child she was a tomboy, liking blood and guts. She wasn't liked in her hometown of Monroeville.
15. Lee had a lucky desk made from a door with legs attached. This was the only place she could write.
16. As the years passed, Lee had an ailing father to care for. During this time, she had limited time for writing if she was so inclined.
17. When approached by a film maker, Lee insisted that she wanted to write the screenplay. She found it was too difficult and it was written by someone else.
18. She initially attempted to answer all of her fan mail by herself.
19. I have revised this post, omitting this point of the lecture. Upon further consideration, I found it to be outside of the purpose of this post.
20. After all the acclaim from TKAM, Lee told her cousin, "I've got no where to go but down."
21. When asked in a letter from a fan if she was a one hit wonder author, Lee wrote "Hell no," across it and mailed it back.
22. Lee was a perfectionist regarding her writing and agonized endlessly, page after page.
23. Harper Lee's father and sister were practicing attorneys.
24. Ms. Petry, the lecturer, said Harper's mother "was a few French fries short of a happy meal." Emotionally troubled, her mother committed suicide when Harper was 25 years old.
25. Harper Lee never submitted another book for publication.
To be honest, I didn't like listening to the negative information about Harper Lee in this lecture. Unfortunately, many authors have led troubled lives. As I mentioned previously, Alice Petry has written a book about Harper Lee and I'm on the waiting list to get my hands on it. Now that I've heard some of the problems Lee was plagued with, I might as well get the rest of the story.
The final event that I attended was back at the BPL. Lewis Koch, an accomplished photographer with his own and collected photos, and Wanda Sloan, an African-American woman who grew up in Beloit, spoke of the blacks who came up from the South to work in the foundry at Fairbanks, here in Beloit. Both speakers shared information I was totally unaware of. Ben Hartzel, a student at Beloit College, closed the evening with an oral reading of the final two chapters of TKAM.
In closing, I'd like to say I feel compassion for Harper Lee. Can you imagine having your first book receive the Pulitzer Prize? I can understand how difficult it would be to work diligently on a second novel. Harper was constantly asked throughout her life when her second book would be available. For her own reasons, she failed to get beyond TKAM. Everyone handles pressures and notoriety differently and for Harper Lee it was too much.
I believe that her first and only published book is more than enough to be asked of her.