Monday, July 12, 2010

Celebrating To Kill a Mockingbird

I would be remiss in my mission to discuss great southern literature if I did not mention Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird this week, as the novel celebrates its 50th anniversary. In my header I state that it is my goal to "devour books and information in order to find 'such a thing in the world' that will last 'the whole enduring time'" -- phrases borrowed from Eudora Welty's short story "A Worn Path" and my blog's namesake. Lee's masterpiece exemplifies that phrase; it has been translated into 40 languages and has never been out of print since its first publication on July 11, 1960.

Although her novel has been a bestseller for 50 years, it remains Lee's solitary publication. She spent the years immediately following its release granting interviews and traveling for events relating to the book. The book and Lee herself received much critical acclaim and many honors, perhaps the most prestigious of which was the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. In 1964, Lee removed herself from the spotlight and became somewhat of a recluse, at least in terms of speaking about Mockingbird.

My beautiful friend Nicole Worzek had the exceptional experience of having dinner with the great author during a trip to New York City several years ago. She had gone to the city for the summer to fulfill a lifelong dream to spend time there, seeing sights and experiencing New York City at its best. She rented a room in a New York brownstone, from a wonderful family who welcomed her into their home with open arms. One evening near the end of her stay, one of the children asked the mother if she thought their guest would like meeting "Nelle." The mother agreed, and soon after, my friend was getting ready to go to dinner with the family. "Nelle," actually the author's first name, turned out to be none other than the exceptional Harper Lee of Mockingbird fame.

I asked Nicole for every detail in countless re-tellings of the dinner recounted in the weeks and months after her return. She was remarkably low-key about her experience, perhaps in acknowledgment of Lee's wish to remain a private person. Nevertheless, that dinner was doubtlessly a high point not only of her time in New York, but also in her life. What book lover would not relish the idea of an evening spent with this beloved author?

Harper Lee was born in 1926 in the small town of Monroeville, Alabama, and lived next door to In Cold Blood writer Truman Capote. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the United States in 2007 for her contributions in literature. She has written an unfinished novel, reportedly titled The Long Goodbye, and also began but did not complete a non-fiction book centered around a serial killer. To Kill a Mockingbird has been translated onto the silver screen in the 1962 movie of the same name, as well as in a play performed in Lee's hometown since 1990.

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