Yesterday I picked up Scout, Atticus and Boo, which contains a couple of dozen essays about what readers over the years have thought about To Kill a Mockingbird. I love these kinds of books. It’s like sitting around a giant table, listening to people discuss what moved them about a story, what it meant to them growing up, what it means to them now. This one contains the opinions of famous people (Oprah Winfrey), authors who’ve also written about the South (James McBride), and a number of people associated with the story in some way (like the girl who played ‘Scout’ in the movie version).
It’s heartwarming to read how passionate people — a variety of people — feel about a piece of literature, and how that passion can last for a lifetime. Some identify with Scout. As Oprah said, “I wanted to be Scout. I thought I was Scout!” Or how so many wanted a father like Atticus, or a caregiver like Calpurnia. How so many of us understand what it’s like to grow up in a small town and how Miss Nelle Harper Lee seemingly painted our towns for us in her book, as if all of our towns were, in fact, some version of Maycomb, with its class system, its busybodies, its prejudices and gossip.
It’s also interesting to read about classic books from the editing perspective. Did you know the original title was “Atticus”? Or that Ms. Lee and her editors spent 2 – 3 years editing the book, which is said to have been more a collection of short stories than a novel in its first draft?
One thing that’s sad, and I guess that not all that surprising, is what happened to the friendship between Nelle and Truman Capote after the success of To Kill a Mockingbird. There are a few accounts in this book that describe his jealousy and lack of support for his childhood friend. It’s said that he was incensed that her book won the Pulitzer, which he fully expected (and did not receive) for In Cold Blood, and that between this jealousy and his alcoholism, their friendship ceased to be.