We take note now of two major literary passings this past week, both on Friday. Umberto Eco, author of the novel "The Name of the Rose," died in Milan at the age of 84.
Closer to home, Harper Lee passed away in Monroeville, Alabama at age 89. She made her lasting mark on American culture years ago, with a single, magnificent novel. An appreciation now from Anna Werner:
If there is one book you remember reading in school, there's a good chance it's "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee.
Nearly everyone could identify with Scout, the story's narrator, including Oprah Winfrey.
"I fell in love with Scout," Winfrey said. "I wanted to be Scout. I thought I was Scout."
The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and the celebrated 1962 film that followed, gave us the indelible characters of six-year-old Scout and her father, Atticus Finch, an attorney who bravely represents a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in a segregated Southern town.
It's Finch (played by Oscar-winner Gregory Peck) who delivers one of Lee's most famous lines:
"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view ... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it."
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In her 2010 documentary, "Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and 'To Kill a Mockingbird'," author and former CBS News producer Mary McDonagh Murphy examined Lee's life and work.
Werner asked, "Did Harper Lee allow anyone to really climb inside her and walk around?"
"No, she really didn't," said Murphy. "And she talked to a lot of people, just not reporters. She famously stopped giving interviews in 1964."
Lee never married. "But she does write about Gregory Peck and how fabulous he is," Murphy noted. "They did spend quite a lot of time together."
Nelle Harper Lee was born in the small town of Monroeville, Alabama. In her twenties, she helped her childhood friend Truman Capote investigate a gruesome murder in Kansas. The result: Capote's bestseller, "In Cold Blood."
"I think you can make a very good case for the fact that there would be no 'In Cold Blood' were it not for the research she did," said Lee's friend, Wayne Flynt.
And for a long time, it was thought that "Mockingbird" was Lee's only book.
It turns out, in 1957, a publisher had rejected another manuscript. The newly-published novel, "Go Set a Watchman," became a bestseller last year, although there were many who questioned if Lee, in failing health, had wanted it released at all.
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Murphy said, "I did ask her, when I saw her in July, I held up 'Go Set a Watchman,' and I said, 'Did you ever think you would see this published?' And she said, 'Of course, I did. Don't be silly!' in a very kind of Scout, feisty way."
Ten years ago, Harper Lee received an honorary degree from Notre Dame, and when 2,800 graduates held up their copies of her masterpiece, the great writer's face spoke volumes.
For more info:
- "Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and 'To Kill a Mockingbird'" (PBS/"American Masters")