Alabama, American Literature, Atticus Finch, Books, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Burglary, Crime, Harper Lee, Harper Lee's Second Novel, Humor, In Cold Blood, Literature, Monroeville, Opinion, Racism, Satire, Suburbia, The Long Goodbye, The Mind of the South, To Kill A Mockingbird, Truman Capote
I have always included Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird within a tradition of shallow protest novels – books by Charles Dickens and Harriet Beecher Stowe which, whatever they represent, are not really literature. For me, the vacuous moralising and moral grandstanding of Lee’s hopelessly middle-class hero, Atticus Finch, amounts to an unwitting indictment of America’s alienated liberal bourgeoisie. My editor James, on the other hand, has a sentimental weakness for To Kill A Mockingbird and, moreover, he assumes – contrary to popular belief – that Lee has written several subsequent novels. He has convinced himself that our literary website should actively attempt to obtain these unpublished manuscripts. He thinks that this would make his name as an editor and, with this ambition in mind, we travelled to Alabama last summer, intending to break into Lee’s home and steal any manuscripts which we came across.
We flew into Birmingham, Alabama, and, after hiring a car, we set off for Lee’s home in the city of Monroeville. Zooming down Interstate 65 with James at the wheel, we put our heads together over questions of strategy.
“Speaking entirely objectively, I think that out of the two of us, I am probably the best when it comes to charming old ladies,” James reasoned, “whilst you are the more dexterous when it comes to burglary.”
“You’re broadly right,” I agreed. “Although I would much rather be an adept burglar than one of those somewhat sinister men who enjoys chatting away with old women. And to be honest, the idea of you trying to burgle somebody – and bumping and crashing about in their home – is not a happy one. The damage to the furniture and paintwork would probably cost more than the burglary itself. So if I slip around the back of the house and break into this woman’s bedroom, how are you going to distract her? I’ll need at least five minutes….”
“I thought that I might try to sell her one of my paintings…”
I looked across at him. “You mean that you have actually brought some of your “artwork” all the way to Alabama…?”
“There’s one on the back seat…”
I retrieved the canvas and studied it carefully. “Some sort of a tree…?” I ventured finally.
“It’s a woman combing her hair!”
I peered at it again. “I don’t think so. You must be mistaken.”
“You’re trying to wind me up,” James laughed angrily. “That is quite definitely a woman combing her hair.”
“No way. I bet you a thousand pounds that that is not a woman combing her hair.”
“But… I painted the thing!”
“Which of those… stalks?… tendrils?… is an arm?”
“The one holding the comb for a start…”
“But which is the comb and which is the head?” James was looking very fierce and so I tactfully returned the canvas to the back seat, if adding that, “I have no scruples about burgling this woman’s home, but I feel seriously embarrassed about presenting her with that painting.”
Perhaps I had annoyed James enough and so I changed the subject. “If I am to burgle this woman’s house, where am I most likely to find any manuscripts? I myself would keep them in a safe – but if there was to be a safe involved, I would have to steal the entire thing rather than waste valuable time trying to break it open on the spot.”
“I think that is to misjudge the psychological terrain,” James answered. “The manuscripts will probably be hidden under the bed like a teenager’s diary or a stash of porn magazines.”
“Well, I am not as certain as you are that there will be any manuscripts.”
“Yes, but you think that she wrote In Cold Blood.”
“I do. Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s is such a magical and compelling book – it proves that Capote was a true artist – whilst To Kill A Mockingbird and In Cold Blood are both the products of an inferior mind. Neither are works of fiction – all of the characters in Mockingbird are portraits of Lee’s own family and friends, and the setting is her home town. With In Cold Blood, Lee merely applied her unimaginative observational writing to Holcomb Kansas, and she took a drink-addled Capote along with her to use as camouflage.”
“I used to think the same, but after subjecting both books to extensive word-pattern analysis, I found that the ways in which words such as “almost” and “furthermore” are used in the respective narratives verifies that they are by completely different writers.”
“But back to your psychological terrain…”
“Well, unlike you I think that Lee is a real artist, and therefore that she must have written more books. For any writer worthy of the name, the creative instinctive is just as insistent and as uncontrollable as libido, but, unlike with sex, there is no rational incentive for the literary equivalent of celibacy. Publishing, however, remains another matter. After having written a book as great as To Kill A Mockingbird…”
“After having written a book as great as To Kill A Mockingbird – which has since sold over 30 million copies – the expectations surrounding a second novel were too great to ever be satisfied. The responsibility must have been overwhelming – imagine knowing that you had the power to disappoint over 30 million readers.”
“So you believe that she continued to write novels – which you concede are probably inferior to Mockingbird – and that she and her teddy bear remain the sole readers of these manuscripts – subscribers to a super-exclusive literary club? And that we will just find these manuscripts somewhere in her home? I will only remind you of my judgment that she is an entirely observational writer. Having made her name and fortune with Mockingbird, Lee returned to suburbia and – looking out of her windows and chatting away with her neighbours – she was ultimately damned by this subject. You cannot write about suburbia in any new or revolutionary way, or with a force which would have satisfied the Mockingbird readership.”
“We’re here,” James remarked. Our car drew up outside a large, quaint whitewashed house which was surrounded by magnolia trees and a picket fence.
“I’ll take the wheel,” I suggested. “You are hopeless at parking. If you just get out and guide me in under that tree…”
James hopped out and I edged across into the driver’s seat. Then – with a quick, vicious determination – I reversed blindly with a squeal of tyres until I heard a smart bump and a yelp. Satisfied with this, I turned off the ignition and climbed out of the car.
“Are you okay, James?” I inquired.
“I think that my leg is broken,” he wept.
“Perfect! This is just what we need. If you can crawl over and hammer on the door to get help, this will distract her for a good ten minutes…”
James used some language which you will not find in To Kill A Mockingbird.
I darted around the side of the house, before pausing for a moment to peep back at the front door. Leaving behind a long, bloody smear in his wake, James had crawled up the steps of the porch, looking as forlorn as a half-swatted insect, and he was now tapping feebly on the door for help.
A sprightly old lady with silver hair and a merry twinkle in her eye had answered the door. “You poor young man! Whatever has happened?”
This was the signal that I needed. Around the back of the house, I was able to scale the guttering to what I assumed was a bedroom. Raising a sufficiently open window and ducking into the interior with all the stealth of Peter Pan slipping into the nursery, I found that I had to stop and spend a moment adjusting my eyes to the gloom.
A bed with a thick eiderdown. An ancient dressing table and a mirror. The heavy scent of something like talcum powder or old flowers. I scanned the room rapidly, looking for the secret hiding place. I was amused by the idea of getting into the bed and falling asleep under the eiderdown, and then being awakened by an outraged Harper Lee and asking blandly if dinner was ready.
There was nothing of interest under the bed – only an alarming number of boxes, all containing hats. The wardrobe was filled with junk. When I was a young teenager and I had wanted to steal condoms from my father, they were always kept in the little bedside chest of drawers, but there was nothing particularly secret in Lee’s bedside cabinet. I found a packet of peppermints and I helped myself to two.
It then struck me that there were no books in the bedroom. Harper Lee must have her own library, kept in a designated room. Stepping across the landing, I listened to the voices floating up from downstairs. They were suddenly interrupted by a great howl. I wondered whether Harper Lee was amputating James’ leg, but I decided that she was merely being a bit rough with the bandaging.
It turned out that there were several rooms all lined with bookcases. For a moment, I was frozen with despair, but then I started to speculate about how Lee would have ordered her library. James’ books, for example, are piled up everywhere in stacks around his office – like a gigantic model of a city’s skyscraper district – and he has bought several copies of certain books again because he cannot find his original copies. I, on the other hand, have all of my books categorised alphabetically by author and I began with the assumption that Lee had done the same.
This turned out to be correct – the first book which I came across in Lee’s library was by Henry Adams. I reasoned that Lee would keep her manuscripts under her own name and I had soon reached the L section in the second room. And there – between Stephen Leacock and H.P. Lovecraft – was a thick folder of papers.
I opened the folder and began to read. And then I laughed. I laughed out loud.
I was then immediately alert – the voices downstairs had fallen quiet – and so I scuttled noiselessly to the window with the folder between my teeth and dropped out into the sunshine.
I was soon at the front door, asking for James.
“It’s such an honour to have been nursed by somebody as eminent as you, Mrs Lee…” James was grovelling. “And you’re quite certain that there is no second novel?”
“I’m quite certain!” Harper Lee sang gaily, ruffling his hair.
“Well, you’re almost ninety so you’d better get a move on or it will be too late,” I broke in rudely. “Come on James! I think that this woman has delighted us enough.”
Outside, I was helping James limp towards the car when Harper Lee called us back. “Gentlemen, you must help me! There’s been a burglary!”
“Really?” I inquired.
“My neighbour has just called me to say that she saw somebody jumping out of my bedroom window!”
“You’re right, I saw him too! It was that man over there!”
I pointed at a black man who was strolling with his family on the green opposite Harper Lee’s house. Whilst their children danced around them, the man and his wife had taken the hands of their smallest girl and, every few steps, they would swing her up in the air and she would gurgle with pleasure.
Harper Lee stared briefly in amazement at the man, before turning back on me with fury.
“You racist bastard! Blaming that poor black man for a crime which I now have little doubt that you yourself have committed! You monster! You ought to be ashamed!” She was tottering after us, shaking her little fists, but I nimbly sidestepped her, pushing the protesting James into the car. We screeched off. As we tore away, I caught a glimpse of Harper Lee on her porch now brandishing a shotgun.
“A fantasy novel!” James wailed. “I don’t believe it!”
“You can read it for yourself, but I wouldn’t bother if I were you. It’s truly dreadful. As far as I can make out, it’s an eight-volume epic which chronicles the intergalactic warfare between two tribes of mutant lizards.”
“No way!” James cried. “We are not publishing that!”
So when we got back to Edinburgh, we returned Harper Lee’s second novel with a polite note of rejection.