A Portrait of Harper Lee, from Scout to Go Set a Watchman
By Charles J. Shields
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2016 Charles J. Shields
All rights reserved.
The Making of Me
On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.
— E. B. White, Here Is New York (1949)
On a snowy night in the winter of 1958, in a one-bedroom cold-water flat at 1539 York Avenue between Eighty-first and Eighty-second streets, Nelle Harper Lee sat crying at her desk. Rolled into her typewriter was a page from a novel she'd been working on for almost ten years, about growing up in a little southern town. Thinking she was close to finishing, she had accepted a loan from friends — "an act of love" that would be "the making of me" she had called it — and spent the small advance from a publisher to stay home and write full-time. That had been months ago. Beside the typewriter lay the unfinished manuscript with sentences and paragraphs crossed out, and her editor's comments and suggestions written in red pencil in the margins.
When she had arrived in New York City from Alabama in 1949, she had been twenty-three. Her send-off from her hometown of Monroeville had not been festive. Her mother was easily thrown off-kilter by emotional and health problems. Her father was disappointed that his youngest child had burned her bridges by dropping out of law school at the University of Alabama a semester short of graduation. He had entertained an old man's hopes that she would join his law firm, where he had been a partner for more than twenty-five years. Instead, she was leaving to go to New York to write, an ambition that must have sounded obstinately romantic.
He was not a worldly man, but stereotypes of Southerners ran rampant in the North, and she would likely be perceived as just another hick coming to the big city. On the Fred Allen radio show, heard nationwide, a Connecticut-born actor was convulsing audiences with his portrayal of a blustering, pontificating southern politician named Senator Beauregard Claghorn. "When in New York ah only dance at the Cotton Club," intoned Claghorn solemnly. "The only dance ah do is the Virginia reee-ahl. The only train ah ride is the Chattanooga Choo-Choo." Just as popular was The Jack Benny Program, whose bandleader, Phil Harris, was from Tennessee and pretended to be drunk. His signature song — a jazzy number called "That's What I Like About the South" — sold millions after it was featured in a hit movie of 1945, I Love a Bandleader.
Won't you come with me to Alabamy?
Let's go see my dear old mammy,
She's frying eggs and broilin' hammy,
That's what I like about the South!
Moreover, it was unlikely that lightning would strike twice in the same place: Monroeville had already produced one literary star Nelle Harper Lee's age.
As a child, she had been as close as a sister to the boy next door, Truman Capote. They had played, wrestled, fought, and even written childish stories together. He was something of a sensation now in the literary world, writing for the New Yorker, and his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) had received an ecstatic review in the New York Times: "Only twenty-three now, precocious, self-confident and genuinely gifted, Mr. Capote has been getting himself a reputation by his short stories. ... In a few years he has mastered a bewildering variety of jobs and acquired an amazingly finished literary technique ... emotional, poetic, symbolical, filled with sibilant whispering and enigmatic verbal mysteries." No doubt Nelle's desire to emulate her friend was drawing her to New York, but a town of two thousand souls was not likely to produce two published writers in the same generation.
It seemed, however, that nothing could change her mind. After dropping out of law school, she had lived at home and worked as a waitress, saving her money for the day when she could strike out for New York. Finally that day had arrived, and now the family's black Chevy was being loaded for the trip to the train station in Evergreen, an hour away. After she bade everyone adieu, father and daughter drove down South Alabama Avenue, where she had played tag as a child, caught fireflies in jars, shot marbles, and stolen fruit from neighbors' trees. On their way out of town, they passed rickety picket fences, hundred-year-old trees, and homes where people had been born, lived, and died without ever feeling the need to venture far.
To a pair of young eyes like Nelle's, though, Monroeville was just a dusty old hamlet. Even after electric power had arrived in 1923, the town seemed reluctant to leave the nineteenth century. When she was a child, the sawmill whistle at noon announced when it was time for the midday meal; when it blew again, at five o'clock, wives checked their progress on making supper. The metallic clink of blacksmiths' hammers rang from several shady alleys because horse-drawn wagons were still in use. Folks shared "pass-around perennials" to save on expense: calla lilies, coreopsis, dianthus, gladiolas, phlox, and fragrant chocolate vines. In hot weather, a friendly wave from a porch beckoned passersby to come on up for a glass of sweet tea. For conversation, there was news from church, and gossip was always welcome. With as many as ten households on the same telephone party line, everyone eavesdropped on everybody else's business anyway. In times of sickness or trouble, neighbors brought over covered dishes — casseroles, biscuits, collard greens, and ham — whatever they could spare. In the late summer, the air sometimes sparkled at dusk with sawdust from the mills. In winter, the red clay streets turned sloppy, and cars splashed along in axle-deep tire ruts. The week before Christmas, farmers tended not to mind trespassing on their land, so long as anyone hunting for just the right pine tree to decorate respected the fences and closed the gate behind them when they left. About the time everyone turned in for the night, Monroeville's sole watchman began his quiet rounds in the square.
Nelle Lee, who had begun using the byline "Harper Lee" on articles she contributed to the University of Alabama campus newspaper, would have all this to remember whenever she looked back. Mr. Lee turned south out of the square and left Monroeville behind, the white dome of the courthouse receding in the rearview mirror. At Repton, he caught Route 84 to Evergreen, where the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, pulling a line of Pullman cars, would take on passengers. From there, his headstrong daughter could begin the 1,110-mile journey to New York City.
* * *
Nelle's first hurdle after arriving in Manhattan with a suitcase and typewriter was finding a decent place to live. The wartime housing shortage wasn't nearly over, and thousands of ex-GIs and their families were living in temporary Quonset huts in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn, Fox Hills, and Staten Island. Some took whatever they could get. A Marine Corps veteran living with his wife in Queens had to settle for a place that was "seventy dollars a month, hardly furnished, stall shower, ice box. The door down to the basement got water rats. They were banging on the door."
And then there was the sheer size of the city for a small-town girl to reckon with. Eight million people lived in the five boroughs. The skyscrapers of New York resembled colossal outcroppings of rock scraping the clouds. There were twenty bridges, eighteen tunnels, seventeen scheduled ferries, fifteen subways, and eleven thousand taxis. Was it rumor or fact that alligators lived in the sewers, dumped there when they grew too large to be pets?
Finally, Nelle found a cold-water flat in the Yorkville neighborhood on the East Side of Manhattan; by coincidence, it wasn't far from where Capote had rented his first apartment a few years earlier: "one room crowded with attic furniture, a sofa, fat chairs upholstered in that itchy particular red velvet that one associates with hot days on a train. ... The single window looked out on a fire escape. Even so, my spirits heightened whenever I felt in my pocket the key to this apartment; with all its gloom, it still was a place of my own, the first, and my books were there, and jars of pencils to sharpen, everything I needed, so I felt, to become the writer I wanted to be." Nelle's place unfortunately came without a stick of furniture.
Yorkville was one and a half square miles of rathskellers, grocery stores, newsstands with papers in East European languages, Brauhauses, delicatessens, coffeehouses, flower shops, drugstores, and German-language movie theaters. Geraniums and catnip grew in window boxes; ivy and myrtle on brick walls; boxwood, yew, and laurel in tubs around sidewalk cafés. A few of the better restaurants, such as the Café Geiger, attracted tourists with loud polka music on weekends for plates of pigs' knuckles and sauerkraut, plockwurst, or Bavarian sauerbraten. In the cellar taverns, a regular topic of conversation was the fallen Nazi Party or, on a happier note, the legend of local boy Lou Gehrig. A block from Nelle was a branch of the New York Public Library.
It was a working-class neighborhood. Children dashed in and among cars after balls and shouted to friends to come out and play. During a recent garbage strike, some residents had protested by dumping their trash in the gutters. On windy days, cyclones of newspapers, bread wrappers, and cigarette cellophane whirled through the air. Squashed fruit rotted and stank and the flies were as big as raisins.
Nelle found a job fairly quickly — Capote thought he could find her one, but that didn't pan out. Instead, she worked in a bookstore, somewhat in the orbit of the literary world, at least. But if any famous writers came in while she was unpacking shipments of books, shelving them, and ringing up sales, she didn't have time to notice. And quickly, she learned one of the first lessons of living in New York: a job that barely pays the rent isn't worth it. At night, if there were no police walking the beat, she slapped parking meters, hoping to dislodge a nickel or a dime.
After a year or so of getting by, her finances improved when she was hired as a ticket agent at Eastern Airlines. She joined a union, the Brotherhood of Railway Clerks, and instantly doubled her take-home pay. Still, for someone with three years of college, showing customers a diagram of available seats wasn't exactly riveting employment. And she was afraid to fly, strangely enough. But she moved over to British Overseas Air Corporation (BOAC), and because she adored Dickens and Jane Austen, it was exciting speaking familiarly about destinations such as London, Manchester, and Birmingham — the stuff of nineteenth-century novels.
In the evenings, she sat down to write. At first, the din of the city was hard to shut out. Bored taxi drivers blew their horns constantly; the sirens of fire engines made the windowpanes rattle, and radios blaring from open windows in hot weather created a bedlam of music, laughter, and talk up and down the open street. With time, however, she was able to settle into reveries at her desk — just a closet door propped up on blocks. For subject matter, she abided by the advice given to most novices: "Write about what you know." She wanted to write about the comforting ripples of incident and character back in Monroeville. She wanted to catch the rhythms of life in a small southern town: the eccentricities, the humor, and how folks spoke of the past as if it had only happened yesterday. She was lonely.
There was a party-loving bunch of ex-Alabamians in New York, and she had found them. One of the chief revelers was Eugene Walter, a modern-day Puck from Mobile who kept a stuffed monkey under a glass bell jar. His book The Untidy Pilgrim — a comic novel about "Mobile madness," a malady specific to the Gulf Coast — won the 1954 Lippincott Prize. He said he couldn't exist in New York except that all the Southerners "would get together about every ten days or two weeks and cry over Smithfield ham. There was a community, like a religious group except it wasn't a church. Southerners always, by secret gravity, find themselves together. ... You always knew, if there was any kind of trouble, that was like [having] cousins in town." Nelle, accompanied by Truman, put in an appearance from time to time, toting a bottle of scotch, but to most everyone else in the room the quiet girl in scruffy jeans and a tomboy haircut lacked essential cool. The wife of Zoot Sims, the jazz saxophonist, took her measure and was not impressed. "Here was this dumpy girl from Monroeville. We didn't think she was up to much. She said she was writing a book, and that was that."
* * *
The years passed. It was 1957; she had spent almost ten years trying to get published. She hadn't submitted a single thing, fearing rejection, except to an agent she had met through a mutual friend. He liked her work, but suggested a change of direction. "Have you ever tried a novel? This story about the woman with cancer ought to be in a novel. Why don't you write one about the people you know so well?" That was what she was trying to do, but she felt hopelessly lost. She was floundering, revising, discarding, and starting over.
It was dark and cold outside that night in 1958, and the words on the page in the typewriter might as well have been in Swedish. The whole book — an amalgam of stories, anecdotes, anything she could use — no longer made any sense.
Suddenly, she yanked the page out of the typewriter, gathered up the chapters, the notes, the drafts, walked over to a window on the alley, and threw the entire mess of paper outside into the snow. The wind blew away some of the pages, taking with them words spoken by characters named Atticus, Jean Louise, Uncle Jack, Aunt Alexandra ... never to be heard from now. She went to the phone to call the editor she was working with, an older woman, and tearfully explained what she'd done.
Then not many minutes later, a young woman on York Avenue could be seen hurrying down the steps of her building, chasing after pieces of typewriter paper. Her editor had chewed her out good, and "since I knew I could never be happy being anything but a writer ... I kept at it because I knew it had to be my first novel, for better or for worse."
"Ellen" Spelled Backward
Hell is eternal apartness.
— Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman (2015)
"Get offa him!" Nelle roared. "Get off now!" She peeled the older boys from on top of their prey, uncovering Truman beneath flailing elbows and knees; he was lying on his back, red-faced and tearful, in the sandpit of the Monroeville Elementary School playground. The bigger boys had been playing a game called Hot Grease in the Kitchen, demonstrating their territorial prerogative by standing with arms crossed in front of the sandpit as they announced, "Hot grease in the kitchen, go round, go round!"
Every other child had been wise enough to obey the injunction, but not Truman, who saw a dazzling opportunity to get attention. He had run straight toward the bigger boys, breaking their line for an instant, but then they dragged him down and piled on. Pain, darkness, and muttered curses between clenched teeth enveloped him for a few seconds, until Nelle leaped in, hauled him to his feet, and escorted him away from his antagonists, glancing backward as if daring any of them to pursue.
But the boys knew better than to try that. Though she was only seven years old, Nelle Harper Lee was a fearsome stomach-puncher, foot-stomper, and hair-puller, who could talk mean like a boy. Once, three boys had taken a shot at her, charging at her one at a time like knights galloping toward a dragon. Each one ended up facedown, spitting gravel, and crying "Uncle!" Watching the mêlée was George Thomas Jones, a sixth-grader in 1933. "In my mind's eye I can still see the fire in those big brown eyes as they stared dead ahead, her teeth clenched in jaws set as only could be akin to a full-blood bulldog. Her tiny hands balled into tight fists as she strode defiantly from the playground back toward her fourth-grade classroom." Truman later based the character "Ann 'Jumbo' Finchburg ... a sawed-off but solid tomboy with an all-hell-let-loose wrestling technique" on his friend Nelle in his short story "The Thanksgiving Visitor."
No one could dispute that Nelle was quick on the draw out on the playground, but she outstripped nearly all others in the classroom, too. Her vocabulary was prodigious, her skepticism a constant bother to teachers accustomed to obedient children. Classmates would turn around to watch in awe whenever Nelle began asking her usual slew of impertinent questions. Mrs. Leighton McNeil was astonished to hear little Nelle greet her at the start of a new school year as "Leighton." When the child was upbraided, she expressed confusion. At home, she called her father by his first name. "The second grade was grim," Scout says in To Kill a Mockingbird, "but Jem assured me that the older I got the better school would be." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Mockingbird by Charles J. Shields. Copyright © 2016 Charles J. Shields. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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