Saturday, July 9, 2016

Previously Unpublished Goodies by Harper Lee

Recognize this iconic name?

Yup. Thought you might. None other than the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning, Gregory Peck-starring, To Kill a Mockingbird. 

So imagine my flabbergastation (not really a word but it should be) when I saw it hand written in the inside flap of a 1945 college English textbook titled, "Poetry of the Victorian Period" sitting on my friend Julia's coffee table in Alabama.
Inside flap of Harper Lee's college English book

"Is this who I think it is?" I asked, my voice suddenly squeaking. "Did Harper Lee really write this?"

Sure enough, Nelle (pronounced Nell), as she was known to her family and friends (she later wrote under the pen name "Harper Lee" to avoid being miscalled, "Nellie," which she abhorred), had attended the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa in the 1940s with Julia's mother. They became friends while living in the New Hall dorm and attending law school together.

Nelle never completed her law degree (or any other degree for that matter), but I'm guessing it's because she became a bit more enamored with writing than with law.

Lucky for us.

Apparently Nelle was a doodler after my own heart; it was a thrill for me to flip through the yellowed textbook and run my fingers respectfully over the awesome little goodies she'd likely absent-mindedly scribbled while engrossed in the word-worlds of her English professor.

I found it almost a religious experience.

One of Harper Lee's English book doodles
As you may know, it wasn't until the 1950s that Nelle began working on To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published in 1960, an instant, sensational hit. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and now has over 30 million copies in print.

But what you probably don't know is how many dozens of rewrites it took for Go Set a Watchman (the eventual title of the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, which contained, according to critics, amateurish themes, stunted character-development, and too much colloquial "Alabama-speak"), to morph into the American literature classic it became.

A little known fact that was confirmed by my friend Julia's statement, "I cried when I read Go Set a Watchman (unearthed and published in 2015) because it sounded exactly like my mama's voice." Which was, of course, identical to Nelle's voice.

Alabama accents are as pervasive as warm fuzzies.

Ha! My exact sentiments during school lectures too! 
In that era, it was the publishing house editor's job to nurture and guide (sometimes ruthlessly) young, talented aspiring authors like Nelle Harper Lee in order to turn a promising but crude manuscript into something marketable.

According to those in the know, Nelle's editor and Nelle developed a love-hate working relationship that - after a few fit starts - eventually blossomed into lifelong friendship.

Unpublished drawing by Harper Lee 
Don't ya wish editors would still do that today?

Although she penned several other manuscripts, which she filed away in a drawer never to be seen again, To Kill a Mockingbird became the only book Nelle ever pursued to publication (some think it was because she found the rewriting process so prolonged and painful).

We writers and rewriters sure get that, right? But what a shame it would've been for the entire world if she hadn't persevered.

Nelle Harper Lee died February 19, 2016 in Monroeville, Alabama, the same town in which she was born in 1926.

Although she shied away from the press, throughout her life she remained accessible to her old friends (did you know Truman Capote was a childhood friend of Nelle's?), even corresponding with the granddaughter of her old college pal - Julia's mother - for a time.

So I reckon this is my 15 minutes of fame: having the privilege of posting the unpublished doodles of Nelle Harper Lee. Many, many thanks to Julia Irby Thomas for allowing me to share this writerly thrill-of-a-lifetime with you.