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REVIEW: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

By in Culture

ALEX MACPHERSON
Arts Writer

Notoriously Verbose: a weekly book review by the Sheaf’s long-time volunteer and friend Alex MacPherson.
 
I grew up questioning the authorship of To Kill a Mockingbird.

I did not believe Harper Lee wrote it. I didn’t even think that she could have written it. It was too good and too profound. The astonishing sensitivity of the characters and the plangent, almost crippling honesty of the text could only have come from the pen of an experienced writer. I firmly believed that Truman Capote had penned a masterpiece and then, for reasons unknown, disowned it, giving credit to his childhood friend.

  The evidence supporting this thesis is plentiful and cogent. Capote was already an established writer. His literary output was prolific and of unimpeachable quality. More saliently, he would later produce In Cold Blood, a sensational examination of crime and punishment in the American Midwest.

Thematically, the works are very similar. Both explore the fundamentally linked ideas of justice and redemption and both display a pronounced emphasis on synthesizing tenderness, remorse, violence and pity in an attempt to paint a credulous portrait of human nature. Ultimately, To Kill a Mockingbird and In Cold Blood are different — yet equally effective — allegories for the growth and development of a nation.

In contrast to Capote’s literary eminence — his star burned bright and cast a pleasing glow — Harper Lee was all but unknown. Her literary oeuvre comprised little more than a handful of long stories; prior to completing To Kill a Mockingbird, she did not retain an agent. For an obscure and unpublished author to produce a work of such startling vigour and resonance is an extremely rare occurrence.

Still more damning is the simple yet inescapable fact that Lee never again wrote anything of consequence. Other than a handful of essays published in various magazines, To Kill a Mockingbird was Lee’s sole foray into serious writing.

  The case for Truman Capote as having written To Kill a Mockingbird is further buttressed by the fact that he and Lee were old friends. The pair grew up as neighbours and subsequently developed an unlikely yet long-lasting friendship. Lee would subsequently join Capote in Holcombe, Kansas, to assist in researching the article that became In Cold Blood. She later ensured that Dill, the small boy in To Kill a Mockingbird, bore startling resemblance to the young Truman Capote.

Finally, Lee’s unapologetic reluctance to participate in public life seems to support the theory that she did not, in fact, write To Kill a Mockingbird. She has for years maintained a commitment to reclusiveness and consistently declines invitations for interviews and appearances. One cannot help but think that a refusal to answer questions — or be lauded as a literary hero — implies some degree of falsification or duplicity.

  The evidence is convincing enough to precipitate probing questions and yet I have changed my opinion. I no longer believe Truman Capote wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. In fact, I am passionately convinced that Harper Lee is the sole author of the work: I doubt Capote even saw the manuscript.

  My acceptance of Lee’s authorship, I think, is directly related to a restoration of my own faith in humanity. Manifold disappointments reduced me to the meagre and pathetically ignorant positions of realism and fatalism. I leaned precipitously over the abyss of nihilism. And then literature intervened.

Love for books and for writing arrested an inexorable slide. A basic restructuring of ideas in the blackest recesses of my mind generated a sustained commitment to viewing human nature through a different lens. Simply put, we became ends and not means. I had learned the value of optimism; suspicion, I finally saw, was an impecunious and invidious default position.

  An overriding belief in the fundamental goodness of people engendered a willingness to accept peculiarities and eccentricities without cynicism or presupposition, whereas passionate misanthropy limited credulity and ossified faith. I could believe that Harper Lee was honest. Consequently, I think that To Kill a Mockingbird, in addition to being a novel of the highest quality and a paragon of American literature, instantiates the idea that everyone, from the luminous to the abject, has something to say.

  Harper Lee was a phoenix but that need not sully her reputation nor cast shadow on her integrity. Sometimes a flash in the pan triggers an explosion of blinding incandescence. The stories are all there, replete with resonance and brilliance. They lie dormant everywhere, awaiting discovery. Harper Lee, I think, simply had an idea and pursued it to completion. The result was — and is — exemplary. And while not all of us can hope to accomplish a similar feat with Lee’s startling grace and lustre, it is enormously encouraging to think that, just as anyone can pick up a book and read, anyone can pick up a pen and write.

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