Friday, October 9, 2009


**************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.


Annie said...

I find it interesting that she had no training in creative writing. Obviously this, as well as some other negativity she experienced did not stop her from accomplishing a great novel. And how courageous as well, considering it was published in 1960. I can only imagine the shock people felt, especially during that time. I have read In Cold Blood and never realized she was a part of writing it. Interesting to know. Thanks for showcasing this author. I have learned quite a bit from your notes! Look forward to your review on the book about her life.


So interesting...I'd like to see the lucky door table! Thanks for sharing this Shaddy...Have a wonderful weekend dear~

Terra said...

I enjoyed these highlights from Harper Lee's life; she sure faced difficulties and yet her prose shines so brightly.
I graduated from Beloit College!

Shaddy said...

Annie: I've always loved the book and the movie. It's sad that she struggled as she wanted to write more books but for various personal and other reasons didn't get it done. She wrote a few articles for magazines and worked on a book or two. I'm glad you enjoyed my scattered notes.

Lenore: I wonder if that table is on display somewhere. Maybe I'll find out when I read Alice Petry's book.

Terra: Harper Lee surely did give the world a beautiful gift when she wrote TKAM and it was published. You graduated from Beloit College! How exciting to have you read this post of mine. I hope to spend more time at the college in the future if the opportunity arises again. SLU, Senior Learning Unlimited, has lectures on the campus that I hope to take advantage of when my work schedule allows. Thank you for commenting.

Walk said...

I could see that the pressure to produce something as grand as what TKAM is would be incredible. Interesting facts, I guess if you're only going to write one book, it might as well be one of the all time best ever written.

Harper Lee Speaks said...

Wow, it seems to me that quite a lot of the information given to you by the speaker at this event was in error.

I've met Ms. Lee and would encourage you to seek out better information about her. She is truly a wonderful person, not an Alcoholic!!! I have several videos of her at the link in my signature.

Shaddy said...

Walk: Harper Lee must have been totally unprepared for the recognition she received when TKAM was published and won the Pulitzer Prize. When I try to imagine being in her shoes, I can't.

HARPER LEE SPEAKS: I just returned from spending several hours viewing the videos you have referred to. I greatly appreciate that you have shared the link here on my blog.

I feel badly that you believe that some of what I've shared here regarding Harper Lee is incorrect. Nothing can diminish my respect for Lee; nothing she may or may not have done in her private life will change my opinion of her as a person and an author.

I plan to read more about her, although I don't believe much is available since she has lived a very private life.

I have amended the note I took from Ms. Petry's lecture and used in the post on my blog which regards alcoholism. Out of respect for Ms Petry, I don't believe Ms. Petry would say something without certainty. Also, I can rationalize the possibility that a person in Lee's situation could turn to alcohol in an attempt to endure the unexpected attention and acclaim she wasn't prepared to receive. I realize that the point in question isn't one I want to bring attention to.

I thank you for your comments and feelings; I don't want to tarnish Lee's reputation in any way. Her private life can't and shouldn't ever enhance or erase the importance of her book.

I encourage everyone who reads this to click on the underlined words Harper Lee Speaks in the comment above. An abundance of videos cover many aspects regarding Lee, her book TKAM, the film and much, much more.

Anonymous said...

Another great post about TKAM. It sounds like your lecture series has been very intersting and enjoyable. There was much I didn't know about Lee in your post.

Sudden fame can be a difficult thing to deal with. I know I would prefer to hire someone to stand in for me during booksignings and things of that nature. I just want to write. I really do not look forward to any spotlight that may shine should I produce something worth publishing.

I also look forward to following the link above and learning more about her reclusive life. Maybe there is something there I can learn about myself.

Shaddy said...

darksculptures: I suspect we all search the world over in our own way, seeking to learn more about ourselves.

Gullible said...

With regards to your comment about artists (of all ilks) leading troubled lives, I have a couple things to say.

1. I know this is going to sound very elementary and naive, but perhaps there is something in all that creative ability and energy, something that causes the artist to see things differently, to feel things deeper or to be more affected by things. Perhaps there is an accompanying inability to keep those things in perspective, and thus the artist reacts in ways outside the norm.

2. Perhaps when an artist accomplishes something that gains attention and the miscroscope of a hungry public is put to that person's life, we see all the warts and imperfections that exist in all lives. We are unable to accept them in a person who excels, probably because of our own yearnings and strivings for lives closer to an imagined ideal. Thus, what we perceive to be personal failings in an artist take on more import than they warrant.

3. When I was young and thought my life was the pits, when I had no control over the things my thoughts did to me, when everlasting unhappiness seemed to be my lot in life, two things rescued me:

A. From "The Prophet" by Kahlil Gibran: "The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain."


B. PMS was invented. This was back in the late 50s and early 60s, and those monthly hormonal tempests were just beginning to be recognized, and more importantly, discussed openly. What a life-saver that was.

By posting these rainy Sunday afternoon thoughts, I do not mean to present myself as an artist, just someone who's had her helping of troubled times.

Shaddy said...

Gully: Troubled times. Yes, I've had some of those as well. Maybe there's hope that we'll emerge as artists yet!!! I'm pretty good with finger-paints, how about you?

Gullible said...

I have the sterling ability to make a prodigious mess with paint of any kind.

Shaddy said...

Gully: Well then, you definitely will make a fine painter. The messier your paintings are, the greater you will become. Mystical attributes will be attached to both you AND your art.


LOL on your comment dear...Yes,we've seen them all & then suddenly another will pop up!
You have a lovely evening with dear hubby okie*

I am Alive said...

hey.. That's an interesting read...
How have you been... hope you haven't forgotten me :(

Shaddy said...

Lenore: Those shoes on your blog are some of the strangest things I've ever laid eyes on. Good grief. Thanks for sharing them; I wouldn't have believed them if I hadn't seen them!

I am Alive: I sure haven't forgotten you. I'd love to see something new on your blog. Please?

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