Car ainsi m’a parlé le Seigneur: Va, place la sentinelle; Qu’elle annonce ce qu’elle verra. (…) Sentinelle, que dis-tu de la nuit? Sentinelle, que dis-tu de la nuit? La sentinelle répond: Le matin vient, et la nuit aussi. Si vous voulez interroger, interrogez; Convertissez-vous, et revenez. Esaïe 21: 6-12
S’ils disent la même chose que le Coran, ils sont inutiles; s’ils le contredisent, ils sont nuisibles; dans les deux cas, il faut les détruire. Calife Omar Al-Farouk (642)
Ceux qui brûlent des livres finissent tôt ou tard par brûler des hommes. Heinrich Heine
On ne se débarrasse jamais vraiment de l’odeur de chair brûlée. Quelque soit le temps qu’on vive. Salinger
I’m really Boo. Harper Lee (conversation with Oprah)
La seule chose qui ne doive pas céder à la loi de la majorité est la conscience de l’individu.
Tu ne comprendras jamais aucune personne tant que tu n’envisageras pas la situation de son point de vue (…) tant que tu ne te glisseras pas dans sa peau et que tu n’essaieras pas de te mettre à sa place.
Je voulais que tu comprennes quelque chose, que tu voies ce qu’est le vrai courage, au lieu de t’imaginer que c’est un homme avec un fusil à la main. Le courage, c’est de savoir que tu pars battu, mais d’agir quand même sans s’arrêter. Tu gagnes rarement mais cela peut arriver.
Tu es trop petite pour comprendre, mais parfois, la Bible est plus dangereuse entre les mains d’un homme qu’une bouteille de whisky entre celles de ton père.
– Je préfererais que vous ne tiriez que sur des boîtes de conserves, dans le jardin, mais je sais que vous allez vous en prendre aux oiseaux. Tirez sur tous les geais bleus que vous voudrez, si vous arrivez à les toucher, mais souvenez-vous que c’est un péché que de tuer un oiseau moqueur.
Ce fut la seule fois où j’entendis Atticus dire qu’une chose était un péché et j’en parlai à Miss Maudie.
– Ton père a raison, dit-elle. Les moqueurs ne font rien d’autre que de la musique pour notre plaisir. Ils ne viennent pas picorer dans les jardins des gens, ils ne font pas leurs nids dans les séchoirs à maïs, ils ne font que chanter pour nous de tout leur coeur. Voilà pourquoi c’est un péché de tuer un oiseau moqueur. Ne tirez pas sur l’oiseau moqueur
In my hometown, a remote village in the early 1930s, youngsters had little to do but read. A movie? Not often — movies weren’t for small children. A park for games? Not a hope. We’re talking unpaved streets here, and the Depression. Books were scarce. There was nothing you could call a public library, we were a hundred miles away from a department store’s books section, so we children began to circulate reading material among ourselves until each child had read another’s entire stock. There were long dry spells broken by the new Christmas books, which started the rounds again. As we grew older, we began to realize what our books were worth: Anne of Green Gables was worth two Bobbsey Twins; two Rover Boys were an even swap for two Tom Swifts. Aesthetic frissons ran a poor second to the thrills of acquisition. The goal, a full set of a series, was attained only once by an individual of exceptional greed — he swapped his sister’s doll buggy. We were privileged. There were children, mostly from rural areas, who had never looked into a book until they went to school. They had to be taught to read in the first grade, and we were impatient with them for having to catch up. We ignored them. And it wasn’t until we were grown, some of us, that we discovered what had befallen the children of our African-American servants. In some of their schools, pupils learned to read three-to-one — three children to one book, which was more than likely a cast-off primer from a white grammar school. We seldom saw them until, older, they came to work for us. Now, 75 years later in an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods, and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books. Instant information is not for me. I prefer to search library stacks because when I work to learn something, I remember it. And, Oprah, can you imagine curling up in bed to read a computer? Weeping for Anna Karenina and being terrified by Hannibal Lecter, entering the heart of darkness with Mistah Kurtz, having Holden Caulfield ring you up — some things should happen on soft pages, not cold metal. Harper Lee (2006)
Writing is a process of self-discipline you must learn before you can call yourself a writer. There are people who write, but I think they’re quite different from people who must write. Harper Lee (1964)
A hundred pounds of sermons on tolerance, or an equal measure of invective deploring the lack of it, will weigh far less in the scale of enlightenment than a mere 18 ounces of new fiction bearing the title To Kill a Mockingbird. The Washington Post
Penguin has announced that Harper Lee, 88, has written a sequel to the universally loved, Pulitzer prize-winning, and much studied-at-school To Kill a Mockingbird – 55 years after it was first published. Lee’s second book, Go Set a Watchman, was written first, and To Kill a Mockingbird was born from its flashback sequences. The sequel, whose title is taken from a biblical quote, tells the story of the same characters from Mockingbird, featuring a grown-up Scout now living in New York. Instant reaction to the announcement has been mixed. While many fans of such a seminal novel are delighted, others, who have treasured the tale of the charismatic lawyer Atticus Finch fighting racial injustice in the American deep south, are not best pleased by the thought of a sequel. The Guardian
Back to the future ?
Et qu’avec le déni de la réalité du mal, le retour de la rougeole au pays chef de file du Monde libre …
De celle de la publication pour l’été prochain après plus d’un demi-siècle de silence elle aussi mais déjà controversée (aurait-on abusé du grand âge d’une amie d’enfance de Truman Capote déjà traumatisée par un succès trop précoce ?) …
Du deuxième roman (Go set a watchman »: « Va, place la sentinelle », tiré d’un verset du prophète Esaïe) de l’auteur-culte d’un livre …
Qui sans compter – « Quand meurt le rossignol », « Alouette, je te plumerai », « Ne tirez pas sur l’oiseau moqueur », « Du silence et des ombres » pour le film – ses multiples titres français …
Se trouve être son premier puisque, rejeté par les éditeurs, il relatait la vie de la même héroïne mais 20 ans plus tard …
L’oiseau moqueur n’en étant en fait au départ qu’un des nombreux flashbacks ?
Cinquante-cinq ans après « Ne tirez pas sur l’oiseau moqueur », un très grand classique de la littérature américaine, son auteure Harper Lee va publier en juillet un deuxième roman, une sorte de suite du premier, qui s’appellera « Go Set a Watchman ».
Le manuscrit de ce livre, « Go Set a Watchman », écrit dans les années 1950, dormait depuis des années dans des cartons. Harper Lee l’a exhumé cinquante-cinq ans après « Ne tirez pas sur l’oiseau moqueur », son unique roman au succès planétaire.
« Je ne savais pas qu’il avait survécu » a-t-elle confié mardi 2 février, en se disant « émue et stupéfaite qu’il soit publié après toutes ces années », dans un communiqué de l’éditeur HarperCollins.
Il met en scène de nombreux personnages qui figuraient dans « Ne tirez pas sur l’oiseau moqueur », mais 20 ans plus tard.
Ce roman, le seul jamais publié par Harper Lee, aujourd’hui âgée de 88 ans, a marqué des générations d’Américains. Il avait valu à son auteure un prix Pulitzer en 1961, un an après sa sortie. Il a été vendu à plus de 30 millions d’exemplaires, traduit en plus de 40 langues, et est étudié dans de très nombreuses écoles et lycées américains.
Plaidoyer pour la justice, il raconte l’histoire d’un avocat blanc, Atticus Finch, défendant un Noir accusé de viol pendant la Grande Dépression des années 1930, dans une ville fictive et raciste d’Alabama, l’État du sud des États-Unis où vit toujours l’écrivaine. La narratrice du roman est la fille d’Atticus Finch, Scout. L’histoire est directement inspirée de l’enfance de l’auteure : son père était en effet avocat et éditeur d’un journal local dans l’Alabama.
« Go Set a Watchman » avait été écrit avant ce premier roman, par une jeune Harper Lee alors débutante. « J’ai terminé « Go Set a Watchman »dans le milieu des années 50. Il met en scène le personnage de Scout, en tant que femme adulte, et je pensais que c’était une réussite assez convenable », a expliqué Harper Lee.
« Mon éditeur, qui était fasciné par les flashbacks sur l’enfance de Scout, m’a persuadée d’écrire un roman sur le point de vue de la jeune Scout. C’était mon premier livre, j’ai fait ce qu’on me demandait », a-t-elle ajouté.
De là naît deux ans et demi plus tard « Ne tirez pas sur l’oiseau moqueur », écrit après « Go Set a Watchman ».
Harper Lee, qui parle très rarement aux médias, a précisé qu’une amie avocate avait retrouvé à l’automne dernier le manuscrit de « Go Set a Watchman », et qu’après avoir « beaucoup réfléchi et hésité », elle en avait parlé avec quelques personnes, et été ravie d’entendre qu’ils pensaient qu’il était digne de publication.
L’auteure avait dans le passé déclaré qu’elle n’avait jamais écrit d’autre roman après « Ne tirez pas sur l’oiseau moqueur », estimant qu’il ne pourrait jamais surpasser son succès.
« Nous sommes ravis » d’avoir acquis les droits nord-américains pour ce roman récemment redécouvert », a annoncé la maison d’édition Harper, filiale d’HarperCollins, à propos de « Go Set a Watchman », en précisant qu’il sortirait le 14 juillet.
Harper Lee : pourquoi attendre 55 ans pour publier la suite d’un roman-phare ?
La romancière va publier une suite à son unique ouvrage To Kill a Mockingbird, paru en 1960, l’un des plus populaires de la littérature américaine. Pourquoi maintenant ? s’interroge The Atlantic.
4 février 2015
La nouvelle est en une du New York Times et du Washington Post ce 4 février. Cinquante-cinq ans après sa publication, To Kill a Mockingbird (Ne tirez pas sur l’oiseau moqueur, éditions de Fallois, 2005) aura bientôt une suite, écrite dans les années 1950 mais jamais parue. L’unique roman de Harper Lee, 88 ans, « a une place à part : chef-d’œuvre singulier de la littérature américaine, éternel best-seller, il a provoqué d’innombrables discussions dans les salles de classe sur l’injustice sociale et raciale », rappelle The New York Times.
Se déroulant dans une ville fictive d’Alabama, le récit met en scène le procès d’un Noir accusé à tort d’avoir violé une femme blanche et néanmoins condamné. Il a valu à la romancière un prix Pulitzer et une célébrité immédiate, qu’elle a cherché à éviter en se retirant dans sa ville natale de Monroeville, en Alabama.
Son éditeur a annoncé mardi 3 février la parution prochaine de Go Set a Watchman, un roman où l’on retrouve l’héroïne de To Kill a Mockingbird vingt ans plus tard, et dont le titre est inspiré d’une citation biblique : « Va et place la sentinelle. » Abandonné par Harper Lee avant la publication de son premier livre, le manuscrit, qu’on croyait perdu, a été retrouvé par hasard l’an dernier par l’une de ses amies.
Dans un article titré « La tristesse d’une suite », le site du magazine The Atlantic s’interroge sur les raisons qui ont pu pousser l’écrivaine à publier cet ouvrage aujourd’hui, rappelant qu’elle avait laissé entendre à plusieurs reprises par le passé qu’elle ne souhaitait pas faire paraître d’autre roman. « J’ai dit tout ce que j’avais à dire », avait-elle ainsi déclaré. The Atlantic se demande si la romancière a simplement changé d’avis ou si « elle [n’]a [pas] été traitée comme le sont tant d’auteurs décédés : comme des idées plus que comme des personnes, comme des marques et des affaires commerciales. »
Un nouveau roman de l’Américaine Harper Lee, Go set a Watchman (Partez établir une sentinelle), est annoncé pour cet été, 55 ans après le succès de To Kill a mockingbird (Ne tirez pas sur l’oiseau moqueur), qui lui a valu le prix Pulitzer en 1961. Mais si le livre peut à son tour devenir un best-seller, beaucoup se demandent si sa publication est réellement une volonté de l’auteur, comme le souligne le site Jezebel.
Seulement trois mois après le décès d’Alice Lee, qui protégeait les intérêts d’Harper Lee en tant que sœur et avocate, voilà qu’un manuscrit écrit il y a plus de 55 ans réapparaît entre les mains de la maison d’édition de l’auteure à succès. Pourtant, Harper Lee, dépassée par le succès de son unique roman, semblait déterminée à ne pas publier d’autres livres. De quoi rendre sceptique ses plus grands fans.
D’après le New York Times, Tonjia Carter, amie et avocate de l’écrivain, aurait découvert cet automne le manuscript de Go set a Watchman. Un récit qui se déroule vingt ans après To Kill a mockingbird mais aurait été écrit en premier. Marja Mills, une amie des sœurs Lee, est sceptique:
«J’ai quelques inquiétudes concernant les déclarations qui lui ont été attribuées.»
Marja Mills a elle-même eu des problèmes quand elle a voulu publier les mémoires d’Harper Lee en juillet 2014, The Mockingbird Next Door. L’auteure de 88 ans aurait dénoncé le livre de Marja Mills comme n’étant «pas autorisé», rappelle Gawker. Pourtant, Harper Lee avait bien signé une lettre dans laquelle elle déclarait donner son accord pour la publication de cet ouvrage.
En réalité, Harper Lee a souvent été confrontée à ce type de problèmes ces dernières années, toujours selon Gawker. L’auteure a souffert d’une attaque en 2007 et vit depuis dans un centre où elle est prise en charge. En 2011, Alice Lee avait écrit à Marja Mills:
«[Ma sœur] ne peut ni voir, ni entendre, et est susceptible de signer n’importe quel papier qui lui serait présenté par une personne en qui elle a confiance.»
Quant à Jonathan Burnham, vice-président des éditions Harper et éditeur de l’écrivain, il dit n’avoir jamais parlé directement à Harper Lee au sujet du nouveau livre et n’a communiqué qu’avec son avocate, Tanja Carter, et son agent littéraire, Andrew Nurnberg. La publication de Go set a Watchman, qui sortira en juillet à 2 millions d’exemplaires, n’est donc peut-être pas une volonté de son auteure.
Nelle Harper Lee, born in Monroeville, Alabama in the spring of 1926, was named, in a roundabout way, after her grandmother: “Nelle” is “Ellen” spelled backward. The writer’s father, A.C. Lee—the inspiration for Atticus Finch—called her “Nelle.” So did her friend from childhood, Truman Capote. So do the small group of people, past and present, who move in her intimate orbit.
To the rest of us, however, she is Harper. That’s because, when Nelle Lee published her first and (as yet) only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird—leading to, in short order, a Pulitzer, an Oscar-winning film, and a fame she didn’t ask for—the young writer didn’t trust the media not to mispronounce the name she’d spent her life with, the one she’d gotten from her grandmother, as “Nellie.”
So Harper Lee it was. And Harper, for most of us, it remains.
Lee, today, finds herself in a place she traditionally has not enjoyed occupying: the news. That’s because of the surprise announcement that To Kill a Mockingbird will have its long-awaited sequel: Go Set a Watchman, about the adventures of a grown-up Scout as she returns to Maycomb, Alabama, to visit Atticus. That a novel more than 60 years in the making would finally be published was the result, Lee said in a statement delivered through her publisher, HarperCollins, of some crazy serendipity: The book’s long-lost manuscript was discovered by her lawyer, the statement says, “in a secure location where it had been affixed to an original typescript of To Kill a Mockingbird.”*
Which is all, almost needless to say, a very big deal. (When the new novel was announced earlier today, apparently, “a series of screams” could be heard in the offices of Penguin Random House, Lee’s U.K. publisher.) To Kill a Mockingbird is beloved in ways few of its fellow curricular staples are. More than half a century after its original publication, it continues to sell more than a million copies a year; it’s been translated into more than 40 languages. Not only has it proven itself, repeatedly, to be on the right side of history; it also captures, in a way few books are able to, that particular feeling, smallness straining against bigness, that comes with being a kid. For many American children—myself, and possibly you, very much included—Mockingbird offered an early, easy exposure to justice and the lack of it. It eased us, through the charming person of Scout, into a truth we were alternately warned about and protected from: that life can be, without at all meaning to be, cruelly unfair.
* * *
Mockingbird’s author is now 88 years old. She spent much of her adult life in New York City, living with the kind of strategic privacy that tends to get one labelled as “reclusive.” Recently forced to sell her Upper East Side apartment, she now lives in an assisted-living facility back in Monroeville—a 2007 stroke, a friend says, having left her “95 percent blind, profoundly deaf,” and bound to a wheelchair. « Her short-term memory, » he says, « is completely shot, and poor in general. »
Perhaps he is overstating Lee’s condition. Perhaps not. But it’s worth considering, either way, something that is both inconvenient and also indicative of the expectations we place on the small cadre of people we have elevated to the status of Author: that Harper Lee, née and known to those close to her as Nelle, spent the majority of her life not wanting Go Set a Watchman to be published. Or, at least, she has spent the majority of her life telling the media that she didn’t want Go Set a Watchman to be published. (She has had many opportunities to do so: In 2006, The New York Times wrote a piece about her specifying “the three most frequently asked questions” associated with her name: “Is she dead? Is she gay? What ever happened to Book No. 2?”)
« Will success spoil Harper Lee? » a reporter asked.
« She’s too old, » Harper Lee replied.
« How do you feel about your second novel? » another asked.
« I’m scared,” Harper Lee replied.
At one point, Lee’s sister (and companion and caretaker and sometime legal adviser), known publicly as Miss Alice, claimed that a burglar had stolen the manuscript of Mockingbird’s spectral sequel. But Lee had many other explanations for why the anticipated novel failed to materialize. To a cousin: “When you’re at the top, there’s only one way to go.” To a bookseller: « I said what I had to say. » To a friend: “I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill A Mockingbird for any amount of money.”
All that, human nature and media systems being what they are, only served to stoke the curiosity that swirled around a Second Novel From Harper Lee. As did Lee’s own reluctance to situate herself within fame’s familiar infrastructures. As The New York Times summed it up: “Unmanageable success made her determined to vanish.” Lee’s repeated response to the interview requests of Charles Shields, who published an (unauthorized) biography of her in 2006, was « not just no, but hell no. » Lee once told Oprah Winfrey, over a (private) lunch, why she’d never appear on her show: While people tended to compare her to Scout, she explained, “I’m really Boo.” Lee did not, in the manner of some other literary “recluses,” fully withdraw from public view—she occasionally accepts awards and honorary degrees and the like—but she has insisted that her participation in her own publicity be mostly of a silent nature. In 2007, at a ceremony inducting four new members into the Alabama Academy of Honor, Lee declined a request to address the audience, explaining, “Well, it’s better to be silent than to be a fool.”
* * *
Given all that, you have to wonder: Why end the silence? And why do it now?
Perhaps it really was as simple as a manuscript lost and recovered, serendipitously for all involved. Perhaps all those doubts Lee had previously expressed about the publication of a second novel were merely the results of the natural, but not invincible, anxiety that comes with that infamously fraught project. Perhaps Lee regretted having signed over her copyright of Mockingbird, and wanted something else she could call, in the fullest sense, truly hers. Perhaps Lee, approaching her 90s, figured that age will afford her what her attempts at a sheltered life could not: the easy relief of silence.
Perhaps she decided that she has not, after all, said all she has to say.
Or perhaps, having witnessed the rise of what Boris Kachka calls the “Mockingbird industrial complex” from afar, the writer wanted to bring a renewed kind of intimacy to her work. « I think it very undignified for any serious artist to allow themselves to be exploited in this fashion, » Truman Capote, in full frenemy mode, once sniffed of Lee’s work to promote the film version of her novel. Lee’s silence, after the initial heat of her fame dissipated, might indicate that she agrees.
Or perhaps Lee, alive but ill, is being treated the way so many deceased authors are: as ideas rather than people, as brands and businesses rather than messy collections of doubts and desires.
We won’t know. We can’t know. All we will have, in the end, is a book, a thing that will raise as many questions as it answers. And, for better or for worse, that is probably just how Harper Lee—Nelle to the small collection of people who really know her—would prefer things.
The Los Angeles Times
February 3, 2015
Have the standards for ‘Go Set a Watchman’ been set too high by the legend of Harper Lee?
‘Interstellar’ and other Hollywood movies fall into the same trap of expectation that could trip up Harper Lee
In news that delighted anyone who ever went to school, read a book or walked outside, “To Kill a Mockingbird” author Harper Lee revealed Tuesday via her publisher that she had written another novel featuring Scout and Atticus Finch. “Go Set a Watchman,” penned in the 1950s, was recently discovered by the ailing writer’s attorney, would be published this year. It focuses on the main characters decades after the powder-keg events of “Mockingbird.”
As a rule, we don’t like seeing our favorite fictional characters grow up. Comparatively few remember “Jo’s Boys” (Louisa May Alcott’s follow-up to “Little Women” nearly two decades later) and most people might wish they could forget “Heidi Grows Up,” and that includes author Joanna Spyri, who was long dead when the translator “discovered” manuscripts on which to base the new book.
But the Lee news played differently. She and the book title jumped to the top of Twitter and stayed there all day. Fans and many in the book community gushed excitement. Even some of those who were skeptical — and given the timing of the discovery by the attorney, Tonja Carter, just a few months after the death of Lee’s sister and protector Alice Lee, there was plenty of reason to be — were still excited. “And yet, and yet. A new Harper Lee novel!” wrote Katy Waldman in Slate’s Browbeat blog. “May the Atticus Finch in our souls help us fashion our feelings into the right and appropriate response.”
lRelated Milan Kundera novel ‘The Festival of Insignificance’ coming in English
It was easy to understand the enthusiasm. There are two things that have been eternally true about Lee. Her writing about Scout Finch’s escapades is great, and there isn’t enough of it. This news spoke to both points. Here was an icon whose well was long thought dry now saying, essentially, “There’s more where that came from.”
That statement, of course, is common in another realm of pop culture. Hollywood often takes work from decades before and fashions new elaborations from it. And we’re usually duly skeptical.
What are authors saying about the upcoming Harper Lee novel?
That’s in part because such elaborations are the product of studio cynicism or laziness, not the result of there necessarily being something new to say. But it’s even true when a creator himself or herself revisits beloved characters. Oliver Stone’s return to Gordon Gekko decades later in “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” didn’t exactly become a zeitgeist-burner, and there’s already a wary eye on “Mad Max: Fury Road,” in which George Miller returns to the Aussie action franchise 30 years after Tina Turner told us we didn’t need another hero.
Do we just cut writers more slack than filmmakers? Perhaps, but then that wouldn’t explain all the lukewarm receptions to all those literary sequels (toss Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer, Detective” into that category too).
Or is there something more specific going on with Lee?
The author has always been revered for her book, but she’s also been revered for another reason: She didn’t write another. The fact of one book and nothing more have lent her an air of mystery. More important, they allowed her to live in that rare space in which she, and we, never know the shoulder-slump of a follow-up.
That’s an especially potent phenomenon in the world of modern media, where the joy of anticipation is almost always preferable to the reality of consumption. Teased into a frenzy by the carefully doled out promotions of new movies and TV shows — and given just enough raw materials to build from them our own fantasy version — we can’t but be let down by the final product. A film trailer is often better than that which it is intended to promote. “Interstellar” is the best movie of the year until it comes out.
The way to avoid that trap is to not offer anything concrete, ever. That’s not easy to do for prolific, ambitious artists, but it’s essentially what Lee has done (possibly for other reasons — or possibly not, given that she’s reputed to have once said she didn’t publish another novel because there was nowhere to go but down). Lee has, in effect, given us the joys of absence , letting us remember how much we liked “Mockingird” so we can draw between the lines without any new colors to spoil the picture.
The announcement of a second book with only scant details of what it’s about actually plays right into this, since it gives us a few more crayons with which to keep coloring. Whatever we imagined Scout could be, would be, might be, will now be served up, and by the woman who gave us the pleasure of the character in the first place.
But much of what gets us excited will be lost when the new book actually comes out this summer. As exciting as it is to imagine that a work of “Mockingbird’s” lineage, and even quality, awaits, there’s also a precedent, in our movie theaters and on the page, that the adventures of beloved characters aren’t quite as good the next time around, in part because they’re never as good as the way we experienced them the first time.
True, “Watchman” was actually written during the same period as « Mockingbird. » In fact, Lee wrote it before “Mockingbird” (the latter was an attempt to satisfy the publisher who liked the flashbacks but didn’t care much for the adult Scout). That actually makes “Mockingbird,” in Hollywood terms, a prequel, just one that happened to be published 55 years before the original.
But it may not matter. A new Lee work comes into this world, after nearly six decades of fond memories, cultivated and grown unfettered. « To Kill a Mockingbird » as we experience is a great book, but it’s also a near-bulletproof fantasy of what a book and its author should be. And now it must be matched.
After the « Watchman » news broke, Time writer Anne Strauss wrote on Twitter: “Can Harper Lee’s second book outdo one of the best books ever? »
That’s a very high bar to set for any novel, and perhaps an even more fraught standard for someone who already sits on such a great perch. It’s possible “Go Set a Watchman” may turn out to be a great work of literature. But it will have some awfully stiff competition. Few books can outdo the one we’ve written in our minds.
Why Harper Lee remained silent for so many years
Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird and then remained silent for 55 years, Philip Hensher examines the trouble with being a literary heavyweight
03 Feb 2015
The professional lives of most novelists closely resemble each other. They write a novel; it is published; they embark on a round of publicity. They appear at literary festivals, where they garner a quarter of the audience of some television chef in the tent next door, and at signings in bookshops, with the aim of signing as much stock as possible.
Through it all, the novelist attempts to remain amusing, affable and patient. Three years later, he will publish another novel, and the whole experience repeats itself. As Samuel Beckett wrote in Worstward Ho: “All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
For some writers, however, the need to try again, to fail again, hardly arises. The extraordinary career – or perhaps non-career – of Harper Lee bears witness to a quite different way of conducting a writing life. She wrote one novel, an immediate classic and perhaps the best-selling novel of the 20th century, To Kill a Mockingbird. Since its publication in 1960, Lee has published no other book. A second novel, entitled The Long Goodbye, apparently came to an abrupt end on the day her agent, JP Lippincott, expressed an interest in her first. “Her pen froze,” he said.
Lee, who turned 85 in 2011, has not been entirely absent from the public record since, and her neighbours in Monroeville, Alabama, wouldn’t agree that she is a recluse, either. Politely refusing to talk to journalists since 1964 is not the same thing as withdrawing from society. Since that has been her policy, her agreeing to co-operate with a new literary biographer, Marja Mills, who claims to tell the true story behind her years of silence, is important and surprising news. Will this biography tell the whole truth? Can anyone ever really know why an author falls silent – even the author herself?
Lee came from one of the 20th century’s richest literary schools, the American South. Work by Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor examined the South’s flavour of intense, self-regarding decorum and passionately defended injustice and violence.
It is sometimes regarded as extraordinary that Nelle Harper Lee came from the same small town as another great Southern writer, Truman Capote – that, indeed, they were neighbours as children. Some have gone as far as to speculate wildly that To Kill a Mockingbird might actually have been a near-collaboration between the pair, as Capote’s documentary study In Cold Blood seems to have been.
The idea that a coincidence of implausible proportions would be needed to explain the emergence of two such gifted writers from a small place ignores how different their style is. It also ignores the way in which writers encourage, criticise, develop each other by proximity. That is true not just of Lee and Capote, but of Lee and the whole Southern school of novelists. She could hardly have predicted that she would quickly come to be seen as the epitome and climax of the grand Southern tradition.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a great novel and, unusually, was quickly made into a great film (Gregory Peck and his family subsequently became close friends with Lee). But then, everything stopped for Lee’s writing. She spoke in an early Sixties interview, the last she ever gave, of wanting “to leave some record of small-town, middle-class Southern life”, apparently thinking of the novels she wanted to write in the future.
What stays in the memory of To Kill a Mockingbird are the grand coups – Scout unknowingly deflecting a lynching, or the great moment when the Reverend Sykes, after the verdict, says to Scout: “Miss Jean Louise, stand up: your father’s passing.” But the rich texture of the novel comes from its loving delineation of the relationships and tensions in a small town. That is the direction she would have gone in, and what we have lost in her subsequent silence.
The novelist of social texture, of the quiet relationships between people, is perhaps one peculiarly vulnerable to the impact of fame. We have plenty of witnesses to Jane Austen’s personal modesty, the way in which she would hide her writing at anyone’s approach. A novelist who had become a celebrity would find it almost impossible to pursue their task of listening, of modest disappearance into the background, of observation. Some writers manage to tough it out; others find the weight of expectation impossible to manage.
The cynic would say that Harper Lee, with a novel which still sells millions every year, over half a century after its publication, hardly needed to go on writing anyway. Would she have wanted her career to work out like this? But writing is not like hedge-fund trading. The author who voluntarily retires from writing, after having made a pile, is a rare creature; it is the strangest of facts about Shakespeare that he stopped writing, apparently of his free will, at the height of his artistic powers after The Tempest, and retired to Stratford.
Much more common is the writer who is effectively destroyed by a single huge success. The burden of fame and acclaim weighs down particularly on the creative faculties. Ian McEwan has spoken of feeling, when he embarks on promotion of his books, like “an employee of his own former self”.
The task of balancing the awareness of past success with the necessary task of producing new work is not one that every writer can achieve. And, perhaps, these single huge successes are much harder to deal with when they come early on in a writer’s career, before they have learnt to, in Kipling’s words, “treat the two impostors” of triumph and disaster “just the same”. It’s striking that out of the four novelists, for instance, who have won the Booker Prize in the last 40 years with a first novel, none has so far managed to write a successful follow-up.
Lee has succeeded in protecting herself over the last half-century, and living a life which is of her choosing. In a rare statement recently, a letter to Oprah Winfrey’s magazine, she suggested how out-of-touch with modern life she has become: “In an abundant society where people have laptops, cellphones, iPods and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books.” That detachment is, clearly, necessary to her. It is the paradox of the novel that it could not have been written by someone in love with literary fame; that the fame it achieved and deserved killed off any prospect of a succeeding masterpiece.
This piece was originally published in 2011. On February 3 2015, Harper announced that Go Set a Watchman, a novel the Pulitzer Prize-winning author completed in the Fifties and put aside, will be released July 14. Rediscovered last autumn, Go Set a Watchman is essentially a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, although it was finished earlier. The 304-page book will be Lee’s second, and the first new work in more than 50 years.
Anne Boyd Rioux on The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee and J. D. Salinger: The Escape Artist
Writers’ Private Lives
September 30th, 2014 reset – +
LITERARY BIOGRAPHERS POSSESS a position in our culture at once respectable and ignoble. If they are successful, they illuminate an author’s work, amplifying rather than diminishing it. If not, they can seem to reduce art to history, piggybacking on the creativity of more ambitious authors. They can be called parasites, vultures, or, in Henry James’s words, “publishing scoundrel[s].”
No wonder so many authors have gone to great lengths to hinder their would-be biographers, creating great bonfires of their correspondence or prohibiting quotations from their private papers. None of this has stopped the biographical industry, of course. The genre continues to thrive, even when confronted with paltry documentary evidence.
The bravest of biographers surely must be those who take on the lives of the undocumented. One thinks of Stacy Schiff’s biography of Cleopatra or Jill Lepore’s of Jane Franklin, Ben’s nearly vanished sister. In such cases, one expects the long-gone subjects wouldn’t mind being more fully understood — or simply remembered.
But what of those unwilling celebrities who wish simply to be left alone? Two new books tackle the lives of two of the most famous and, not coincidentally, most reclusive authors of the 20th century — J. D. Salinger and Harper Lee. The authors of the young adult classics The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird, respectively, both deliberately courted obscurity, retreating into what many have felt was an almost perverse silence. Their right to privacy has never been fully acceded by an American public hungry for not only their books but also their personalities.
The two quasi-biographies — Marja Mills’s The Mockingbird Next Door and Thomas Beller’s J. D. Salinger: The Escape Artist — raise, for their readers, compelling questions about what we seek in the lives of authors, what relationship their lives have to their works, and what connections readers can claim not only to their famous novels but also to the authors themselves.
Mills calls her book a memoir and Beller’s is part of Amazon’s Icon series of short biographies, yet both exist somewhere in between. They might be called quest biographies (Leon Edel’s term), in which the writers’ search for their subjects, rather than the subjects themselves, takes center stage. Such an approach is usually born out of frustration with a lack of material. And although more traditional biographies have been written of both Lee and Salinger, with mixed results, it would seem that anyone approaching the lives of these two exiles from public life has little choice but to abandon a conventional approach to the form altogether. Unfortunately, after reading these two books, one feels less sure that a new form has been created than that the old one (biography) has simply been avoided. Mills, especially, seems so concerned about being considered an irresponsible biographer that she tries to avoid being a biographer at all.
Mills’s book begins with what appears to be a bombshell. The author claims to have been a friend and neighbor of Lee and to have written the book under the “guidance” of Harper and her sister Alice Lee. Concerned about the imminent publication of Charles Shields’s unauthorized biography (published in 2006), Harper Lee “open[ed] up” to her, Mills writes. This is a promising beginning, indeed, signaling that the book perhaps could avoid the ethical questions of an unwilling subject.
But even before Mills’s book appeared on bookstore shelves, the story became more complicated. A signed statement from Harper Lee, now 88, was released denying any involvement with Mills’s project. For some, if Goodreads reviews are any indication, that alone makes it a deeply unsettling, and even unethical, book to read. Mills has suggested that the stroke Lee suffered in 2007 has something to do with her lack of memory about cooperating with the project. Alice, now 102, supports the project — she came out in support of Mills when the book deal with Penguin was first announced in 2011.
Alice ran interference for Harper throughout her years of seclusion. But it seems that by the time Marja Mills arrived on her doorstop in 2001, she had grown weary of silence. Alice invited the Chicago Tribune reporter in for a long chat, during which Mills’s reporter’s notebook got a workout, judged by the wealth of details she includes. But Mills wasn’t the only one Alice talked to. She also communicated with Shields, until Harper’s agent interceded, and allowed herself to be interviewed on camera for the 2011 documentary Harper Lee: Hey, Boo, which ran on PBS as part of its American Masters series.
A few chapters into The Mockingbird Next Door, it becomes clear that Alice was the driving force behind the family’s cooperation with Mills. She didn’t want to die without getting their family’s story out there. Harper met with Mills after her sister encouraged her to do so. Harper — or Nelle, as she is known — may have become friends with Mills, doing laundry with her and inviting herself over for cups of coffee after Mills moved in next door (with the sisters’ blessing, Mills says), but she kept most of what she said to Mills off the record. While Alice sat for hours of taped interviews over a period of many months, Harper became testy when Mills tried to pull out her notebook during their talks. At other times, when Mills’s questions got too personal, Lee would snap, “That’s for me to know and you to find out.”
Throughout, Mills was so concerned about offending Lee that she refrained from asking sensitive questions. Thus the most mysterious parts of Lee’s life — her sexuality, her relationship with her mother, her friendship with Truman Capote, her seeming lack of interest in writing another book after Mockingbird — remain fodder for speculation. Mills’s scrupulous attention to the Lee sisters’ wishes and her allegiance first of all to their friendship, while noble, make her a poor biographer. The one insightful quote from Harper Lee in the book (and there are very few direct quotes from her at all) is: “Truman was a psychopath, honey. […] He thought the rules that apply to everybody else didn’t apply to him.” This is a tantalizing statement that makes us miss, even more keenly, the inside story this book doesn’t offer.
What the book more than amply provides are the details of the ordinary life Harper Lee preferred to literary celebrity. Mills’s book picks up where Shields’s scrupulously researched biography left off, with the most recent years of Lee’s life, which one can’t help but feel didn’t really need to be so painstakingly documented.
Mills paints a portrait of the author that surely proves the adage that a writer’s life is generally pretty boring — but not because she spent her days at her typewriter. We see Lee feeding the ducks from a Cool Whip container, becoming puzzled by Super Bowl ads for erectile dysfunction, and ordering a salad at Burger King to try to lose weight. The banality of such details has been dismaying to some, who feel they diminish the author. To others, it is refreshing to see Lee as simply an ordinary person. But even taking the book on its own terms — Mills has described it as a glimpse into her brush with the great author — it is a pretty uneventful book. Nor do these details generate any illuminating insights about Mills herself. As a result, it disappoints as both memoir and biography.
A typical passage about Mills’s attendance with the Lee sisters at a Super Bowl party reads:
Before the game got under way, I grabbed another Diet Coke from the kitchen and took my place near the Crofts’ son Kenny. […] Kenny looked up at Nelle as she began to read aloud from Doris Jay’s “Rocky Hill News” column in that week’s Monroe Journal. This was, hands down, Nelle’s favorite part of the paper. The column detailed the comings and goings of an extended family who lived in the area known as Rocky Hill, southwest of Monroeville.
Mills then quotes Lee reading from the column at length, a series of uneventful events (dinners, visits, and doctor appointments) that sounds very much like the book Mills has written about Lee. All of this leads to Nelle breaking out in laughter that Mills describes as “the kind of affectionate amusement I’d come to recognize, an appreciation of what was both absurd and deeply human about this kind of thing.” But when the record of the ordinary is about someone as respected as Lee we don’t laugh; rather, we feel more like looking away.
Banality is hardly the problem with J. D. Salinger’s life. The biography J. D. Salinger: The Escape Artist, written by Thomas Beller, a former New Yorker staff writer and creative writing professor, is full of interesting anecdotes that largely satisfy the reader’s appetite for an encounter with the man behind Holden Caulfield and the Glass family. The problem instead is Beller’s reticence to fully explore his subject’s life.
Beller’s biography begins, in fact, with the queasiness he felt about prying into Salinger’s private life. He nevertheless decides that Salinger’s death in 2010 loosened his moral grip on the letters he guarded so closely in life. The man is gone, but the letters and our “curiosity” remain. Somehow, the fact of Salinger’s death makes us feel less invasive than in the case of Harper Lee, but is that simply because he is no longer around to voice his objections?
Beller justifies his invasion of Salinger’s privacy by insisting that he is not simply one of the “Biography Corps, who speculate on why Salinger was up in the woods with all the nuance and insight of a two-year-old having a temper tantrum.” His quest is loftier than that. He is in search of the source of the elusive, “alchemical mix” that draws us to Salinger’s writing. But what exactly is the connection between the slippery fish of lived experience and the works that grow from it? It’s an admittedly difficult question, but in a biography as contemplative as Beller’s one would hope to see the issue at least explored if not fully answered. Unfortunately, Beller seems unwilling to go so far.
In his search for the Salinger behind his favorite works, Beller says he often felt as if he were “trailing a suspect through crowded streets and into a strange room, where all of a sudden I see someone I know.” That someone turns out to be at first his father, who was roaming the streets of Vienna at the same time (1937) as Salinger, and then himself. Although of a later generation, Beller feels his life intersecting with Salinger’s and that of his most famous creation, Holden Caulfield, in the landscape of New York and at The New Yorker magazine. Beller’s quest also takes him to Salinger’s summer camp (still in existence), to the Park Avenue apartment in which Salinger grew up, and to the Princeton Library to read some of his letters.
All of these excursions are narrated from Beller’s point of view, yielding not much more than his impressions and experiences. We are even further from Salinger when Beller visits his own eighth grade teacher, who once taught him The Catcher in the Rye. Readers will naturally grow impatient with such passages as well as the copious footnotes and asides, not to mention a strange bulleted list of reasons why someone might be mad at their neighbor. We are left feeling frustrated, as if a biographer’s shell game has led us not so much to the elusive object of our fascination but to Beller himself.
There are plenty of enticing vignettes to engage the reader along the way, however, such as the tidbit about how Carol Marcus, a friend of Salinger’s girlfriend Oona O’Neill, raided his letters to Oona for her own love letters to William Saroyan. All is revealed one day on Charlie Chaplin’s yacht when Saroyan starts raving about The Catcher in the Rye and “how this Salinger kid could really write.” Or there is the chapter about the author’s World War II experiences. Beller devotes considerable space to how Salinger, who helped to liberate Paris and as a Counter Intelligence agent was probably involved in the Nuremberg trials, brought home from the war a wife who happened to have been a low-level Nazi. This is all fascinating, until Beller later mentions only in passing that Salinger was also part of the landing on D-Day. Why Beller has chosen to ignore Salinger’s combat experience and its effect on his writing is a mystery. As elsewhere, his ad hoc and impressionistic approach leaves the reader yearning for a fuller, if not complete, treatment of the author’s life.
Thoroughness is also lacking in Beller’s approach to some of the more disturbing aspects of Salinger’s life. There are, for instance, his daughter’s allegations of his utter neglect of his family, his seduction of younger women, and his apparent inability to see women as more than sexual objects. But Beller doesn’t address the quandary he or any fan of Salinger’s fiction must feel. Can we simply ignore the unsavory parts of his personality that naturally induce queasiness of another kind? Beller, to his credit, doesn’t ignore them, but he cannot bring himself to comment on the sadism Salinger expressed toward women in a story he wrote around the same time he was dating (and losing) the beauty Oona O’Neill (daughter of the famous playwright Eugene). “My most generous assessment,” Beller writes, “is that this is the anguish, and rage, a guy feels when he is besotted with a beautiful woman who is already slipping away even when she is in your arms.” Yet what are we to do with the repulsion we feel upon learning that Salinger probably would have liked to burn Oona with a cigarette, as he has his character do in “The Long Debut of Lois Taggett”? By raising the possibility and then backing off from the disturbing questions it raises, Beller holds back from fully encountering the author of other works that have inspired almost hyperbolic devotion (including his own).
Here is the trouble with looking for ourselves in the writers whose works we admire, at least if we are proposing to be their biographers. For if we are in search of ourselves, or in this case our own troubled teenaged selves roaming New York, then we are apt to downplay those parts of the life that don’t correspond with that need for recognition.
In the end, neither Beller nor Mills deserves the title of “publishing scoundrel.” They have been too respectful of their subjects for that. Perhaps that is why both of these writers leave us wanting more. Would we have them be what Salinger called the “shitty literary kids,” who elicited his wrath for prying into his life and the sources of his fiction? Yes and no. We would not have them cross the line into irresponsible gossip. Yet their guilt about being biographers at all has prevented them from truly engaging with their subjects and has left them — and us — stranded in some kind of no man’s land somewhere between biography and memoir without the satisfactions of either.
Anne Boyd Rioux is a professor of English and author of a forthcoming biography of the writer Constance Fenimore Woolson.
Voir de même:
The Decline of Harper Lee
February 3, 2015
This piece originally ran in July 2014. We are rerunning it with the announcement that Harper Lee is releasing a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird.
For Monroeville, Alabama, population 6,400 and shrinking, the summer of 2010 was momentous. Over a long July weekend, locals reenacted historical vignettes, held a silent auction, cooked a southern feast, and led tours of local landmarks. There was a documentary screening, two lawn parties, and a marathon reading of the novel whose 50th anniversary was the grand occasion. To Kill a Mockingbird, which needs no introduction — because it is the introduction, for most American children, to civil rights, literature, and the justice system — had sold nearly a million copies for each year in print. There were at least 50 other celebrations nationwide, but the epicenter was Monroeville, a place whose only real industry (the lingerie plant having recently shuttered) was Mockingbird-related tourism. It was not only the model for the novel’s fictional Maycomb but the home of its author, Harper Lee. She lived less than a mile from the festival, but she never came.
If our country had a formalized process for anointing literary saints, Harper Lee might be first in line, and one of the miracles held up as proof would be her choice to live out her final years in the small town that became the blueprint for our collective ideal of the Small Town. But at 88, the author finds her life and legacy in disarray, a sad state of litigious chaos brought on by ill health and, in no small part, the very community she always believed, for all its flaws, would ultimately protect her. Maycomb was a town where love and neighborly decency could overcome prejudice. To the woman who immortalized it and retreated to it for stability and safety, Monroeville is something very different: suffocating, predatory, and treacherous.
For much of her life, Nelle Harper Lee (known to friends as Nelle) spent more time in the comforting anonymity of New York than in the Monroeville redbrick ranch house her family had occupied since 1952. Then, in 2007, a stroke left her wheelchair-bound, forgetful, and largely deaf and blind — forced to sell her Upper East Side apartment and move into a Monroeville assisted-living facility. It was a loss but also a homecoming: For decades she’d relied on another local living legend, Alice Lee — her older sister, part-time housemate, and lawyer — to maintain her uneasy armistice with her hometown and her fame.
Alice, who retired two years ago at the age of 100, had inherited her partnership in the family firm from their father, A.C. Lee, the model for Mockingbird’s righteous lawyer, Atticus Finch. (Nelle calls her “Atticus in a skirt.”) The same family practice whose modest virtues are inculcated, via Mockingbird, to generation after generation of schoolchildren was charged with protecting the legacy of its author — a job that one of the best-selling novelists of all time wanted nothing to do with. Yet as both women passed into very old age, what should have been a peaceful and prosperous decline became a surprisingly turbulent decade, robbing Nelle of not just her health but old friends, her dearly held privacy, the town’s good will, and, for a time, the copyright to the book she sometimes wishes she hadn’t written.
It wasn’t just infirmity that kept Nelle from basking in those 2010 celebrations; it was disillusion. Allergic to both attention and commerce, she’d always found the Mockingbird industrial complex tacky and intrusive, but had managed to carve out a separate existence in its shadow. Now too many “well wishers” were stopping by her new apartment — including her literary agent, whom she eventually barred from the facility. (He’d already had her sign over her copyright.) Just a month before the anniversary, a family friend entered her room with a Daily Mail reporter in tow. The journalist flew back to London with an unflattering photo and a cruel 2,000-word profile to match. Monroeville had finally confirmed her fear that there really was nowhere to hide. She’d once explained to Oprah Winfrey, over lunch in a private suite at the Four Seasons, why she’d never appear on her show: Everyone compares her to Scout, the sweetly pugnacious tomboy who narrates Mockingbird. But as she told Oprah, “I’m really Boo” — Boo Radley, the young recluse in the creepy house who winds up saving the day.
Lee at a 2005 awards dinner in her honor. (Photo by Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images) Photo: Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images
By the time of Mockingbird’s golden anniversary, Nelle’s agent was denying in court that he represented her. The courthouse gift shop, “The Bird’s Nest,” was selling To Kill a Mockingbird onesies and car decals. A former next-door neighbor, Marja Mills, was working on a memoir called The Mockingbird Next Door — which came out this week, lifting the veil of Nelle’s privacy amid a confounding volley of statements between lawyers, sisters, and friends over whether and when she approved of the project. It was left to Alice’s successor in the family firm, Tonja Carter, to sort things out. Carter restricted Lee’s visitors and instituted lawsuits against not just the literary agent but also the courthouse museum. She nearly sued Marja Mills, too, and released a letter last week reaffirming Nelle’s objections — objections that her own sister, Alice, had claimed Carter had ginned up on her behalf. “It’s a terrible thing to happen toward the end of a person’s life,” says Thomas Lane Butts, a preacher who was among Lee’s best friends but hasn’t seen her in a year. Whatever Nelle’s intentions, Carter has upended the town’s delicate status quo, making as many enemies as headlines. Nelle never did like making headlines, even for the right reasons, but she did once love Monroeville.
* * *
In 1964, in one of her last interviews, Lee laid out her mission as a writer. “This is a small-town middle-class southern life as opposed to the Gothic,” she said. “I believe there is something universal in this little world, something decent to be said for it, and something to lament in its passing.” She concluded, joking, “All I want to be is the Jane Austen of South Alabama.”
Mockingbird plays on Southern Gothic, only to demystify it and mythologize the ordinary instead. Amasa Coleman Lee may have been, as his daughter said, “one of the most beloved men in this part of the state,” but he wasn’t Atticus Finch; he was a tax lawyer. He left his childhood farm in Florida, married a prominent village daughter (Frances Finch of Finchburg), and moved to Monroeville in order to manage the finances of the law firm of Barnett, Bugg & Lee, as it shortly became, a partnership of businessmen-attorneys who owned half the town. A.C. did try one criminal case, at age 29, defending two black men on a murder charge. He lost and they were hanged, pieces of their scalps mailed to the son of the victim.
Though Atticus defends a black man wrongly accused — and ultimately convicted — of rape, nothing quite so brutal happens in Mockingbird. And by making Atticus a widower, Lee also omitted a much more personal experience: her mother’s instability. According to Mills, Frances suffered a nervous breakdown after her daughter Louise failed to thrive. (The Lees had five children in five-year increments.) Dr. William Harper came to the rescue of both mother and baby, and Harper became their next child’s middle name. Truman Capote, Nelle’s best childhood friend, later described her upbringing as “Southern grotesque.” He claimed Frances had tried to drown Nelle in the bathtub. Lee denied it vehemently, and for all her rebelliousness — Butts once said she had “hell and pepper in her” — she never said a word against her family, in fiction or otherwise. In her work and life, madness is banished in the light of reason and authority.
A.C. passed his august authority on to Alice. During the Depression, she had to leave college but was quickly brought under her father’s wing and into his law firm. Nelle tried to follow the same path — attending the same girls’ college as Alice and then transferring to the University of Alabama, where she loved writing but hated her sorority and law classes. After a summer at Oxford University, she dropped out. She wanted to make a go, like her friend Truman, of living and writing in New York. A.C., who’d been paying for school, said she’d have to make it on her own.
In New York, Lee found a tight-knit replacement family. Capote introduced her to Broadway lyricist Michael Martin Brown and his wife, Joy. They hooked her up with an agent, Maurice Crain, and on Christmas, 1956, they gave her the gift her father wouldn’t: enough money to do nothing but write for a year. She remembered it later as “a full, fair chance for a new life.” Within five months, she had a draft of Atticus out on submission, and was already partway into a second novel when a Lippincott editor took it on.
Most of Mockingbird’s characters have real-life antecedents, and Scout’s delicate friend Dill is clearly Capote. He was Nelle’s first writing partner and her social fixer in New York, and Lee helped him research his true-crime classic, In Cold Blood. But Capote eventually spurned her. Rebutting his vicious gossip seems to have been one of Lee’s motivations for talking to Marja Mills. “They fled from the truth like Dracula from the cross,” Lee told Mills, meaning him and his aunt, whose memoir Lee claimed to have thrown into a bonfire. “Truman was a psychopath, honey.” Capote drifted away in a miasma of drugs and self-hatred — a cautionary tale of frustrated fame. His former best friend tacked fiercely in the opposite direction.
A.C. Lee was shocked by his daughter’s success. “It’s very rare indeed when a thing like this happens to a country girl going to New York,” he told a reporter. “She will have to do a good job next time.” He died in 1962, after meeting Gregory Peck but before seeing him play Atticus in Alan Pakula’s film. Nelle spent the next couple of years trying to write, but couldn’t shake the fear that there was, as her father had worried, nowhere to go but down. At one press conference to promote the movie, Lee’s humor was edged with tension. “Will success spoil Harper Lee?” asked a reporter. “She’s too old,” Lee said. “How do you feel about your second novel?” asked another. “I’m scared,” she said.
In the Monroeville courtroom she made famous. (Photo by Donald Uhrbrock/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images) Photo: Donald Uhrbrock/Donald Uhrbrock
In his unauthorized 2006 biography, Mockingbird, Charles J. Shields quotes Lee telling a friend, “I wouldn’t go into downtown Manhattan for the world.” Mills once made Lee a gift of E.B. White’s Here Is New York. Nelle “wept at the first sentence.” It reads, “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy. » White later pictures “a young girl arriving from a small town in Mississippi to escape the indignity of being observed by her neighbors.” After Mockingbird won acclaim and a Pulitzer, Lee felt observed by everyone — the whole world a small town. At least when she stayed in Monroeville, she had Alice.
By 1970, when her beloved agent died, there was no one else left — not Capote, not her parents. “The close circle she was relying on fell away over the course of a decade, and her tight Monroeville clique was practically all that remained,” says Charles Shields, who wrote the 2006 unauthorized biography, Mockingbird. “I think the Lees have kind of an old-fashioned notion,” he adds. “Keep your friends close to your breast with hoops of iron and rely on them. And the novel, being one of the most popular of the 20th century, makes tremendous demands that go well beyond their abilities.”
* * *
Maybe it wasn’t just Nelle’s insecurity that held her back from becoming “the Jane Austen of South Alabama,” but also the dismaying decline of the “small-town middle-class” idyll she’d staked her career on documenting. She had, after all, written a historical novel. To Kill a Mockingbird was filmed not in Monroeville but on an L.A. lot. There were — still are — remnants of Depression-era Monroeville, not least the old Federal-style courthouse. But even as the film came out, a drab new courthouse was being built next door. Downtown’s only movie theater burned down not long after Mockingbird had its first run, and was never rebuilt. In 1997, the city was dubbed “The Literary Capital of Alabama,” prompting Lee, who wasn’t consulted on the nickname, to remark, “The literary capital of Alabama doesn’t read.”
Harper Lee’s assisted-living apartment is on Highway Bypass 21, just a couple of blocks from the town’s real commercial center, a series of malls. There’s a place called Radley’s Fountain Grill down that way, and an old stone wall that once separated Lee’s childhood home from Capote’s — both long gone, replaced by a takeout shack called Mel’s Dairy Dream. Lee prefers the more generic places by the lingerie factory outlet (a remnant of the old Vanity Fair plant). Before her stroke, she could be found at Hardee’s, or better yet at McDonald’s, gulping down coffee during long chats with friends. (There were higher-end expeditions to the local golf club and to casinos on the Gulf coast.) When she watched an advance screening of the biopic Capote at a neighbor’s house — the Lees had no television — she opted for Burger King.
The site of Lee’s childhood home and the wall that once separated it from Truman Capote’s. (Photo by Maude Schuyler Clay) Photo: Maude Schuyler Clay
In 1961, Lee told Life that, unlike Thomas Wolfe, “I can go home again.” That’s debatable, as is the question of why Harper Lee chose to spend so much of her life in a town whose only claim to fame was her fame — a fame she claimed to despise. The Mockingbird Next Door dwells on rural trips out of town, fishing and duck watching and off-the-record country drives. (Romantic inquiries were “not up for discussion.”) Lee seemed to prefer the countryside to her hometown. “I was surprised that she was living here, to tell you the truth,” says Butts, who was often on those drives. “It’s like being in a fishbowl.”
Marja Mills’s astonishing access to Lee was the product of luck, both good and bad. Sent to Monroeville by the Chicago Tribune to find out what Harper Lee thought of Mockingbird being chosen for “One Book, One Chicago,” she expected to strike out. But, after a polite introductory letter, Alice not only answered the ranch house door but also secured her an audience with Nelle. On Mills’s second visit to town, Butts gave her his rationale for the sisters’ openness: “When she and Alice go, people are going to start ‘remembering’ things as they didn’t happen, or outright making things up, and they won’t be here to set the record straight. So keep taking notes, girl.” Mills suffers from lupus, and she had a flare-up just before leaving Monroeville again. Nelle claimed to be her mother-in-law so she could stay with her in the local hospital. Mills became an honorary member of “the old in a nation geared toward the young.”
In 2004, sapped by her illness, Mills decided to leave her job and try to write a book. She wound up moving in next door to the Lees, securing a $450 rental with the sisters’ help. Over endless coffees and drives, Nelle opened up enough to give a solid sense of herself: unconfident in her looks and therefore unconcerned; witty and garulous within the strict limits she sets for talk; conservative by northern standards; cranky and principled; moody but predictable.
Mills makes it clear in the book that she intended at first to write a broader Alabama history. Monroeville was confused, years later, by the news of a memoir. “I think that lady kind of pulled wool over their eyes,” George Jones, the 91-year-old town historian and gossip, told me. Mills says only very few friends knew just how much time she and the sisters spent together. The Lees, she says, “managed to have a parallel existence” within Monroeville — a smaller bubble within the bubble of a hard-to-reach county seat, apart from tourists and nosy locals alike.
One of Nelle’s friends, retired Auburn history professor Wayne Flynt, is skeptical of Nelle’s participation — but not Alice’s. “Alice wanted the family story told and Alice has an agenda, and I think Marja Mills fits that agenda quite well,” he says. “Nelle is afraid that telling the family story will be telling her story, and I can’t believe she cooperated.” He adds that, around that time, he tried to persuade Nelle to record a sealed oral history, and she flatly refused. Last Monday’s letter, signed by Lee, seems to confirm his impressions: “I was hurt, angry and saddened, but not surprised,” upon learning of Mills’s “true mission: another book about Harper Lee.” She concludes, “rest assured, as long as I am alive any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood.” Butts says she may well feel that way now, but didn’t at the time. “There was no break,” he says — contrary to the letter’s claim — “until somebody talked to her, said she should oppose the book.” He says he witnessed Nelle insisting on putting personal things on the record.
Mills’s portrait is gentle almost to a fault, but her mission was to humanize Lee, not to lionize her. Butts warned Mills she might get angry late-night phone calls from Nelle: “She accuses people, chews them out. The alcohol fuels it.” Mills repeats speculation that drinking contributed to Lee’s abandoning a true-crime book in the ’80s. Overall, Lee comes off both plain and complicated. She can be paranoid, but often for good reason. In Monroeville, Mills writes, “information about Nelle was currency. It could be spent, traded, or saved for the right moment.” On Nelle’s earliest meeting with Mills, in a sweltering room at the Best Western, one of the first things she told the reporter was, “This is not the Monroeville in which I grew up. I don’t like it one bit.” Mills writes of Lee looking over a ravine. “Nelle suggested that perhaps she could toss all her belongings in there and burn them, preferably shortly before she died, so she wouldn’t have to worry about her personal things falling into the wrong hands. She was only half kidding.”
The case of Samuel Pinkus would make any writer paranoid. Pinkus had briefly run McIntosh & Otis on behalf of his ailing father-in-law — and Nelle’s longtime agent — Eugene Winick, but then suddenly left and took with him the estate-heavy firm’s most lucrative living authors, Mary Higgins Clark and Harper Lee. (No one knows exactly how he persuaded Lee to leave.) “It was an absolute betrayal,” Winick told me last year, “not only as an employee, but also as a family member.” The Winicks sought relief in mediation. Over the years, Pinkus set up a succession of corporations that, M&O’s and Lee’s lawyers claimed, were designed to avoid those debts. In the process of shifting around millions in royalties, Pinkus managed to take over Harper Lee’s copyright.
Lee’s 2013 complaint against Pinkus begins by describing her close ties to the agency: “Both Harper Lee and her sister trusted and relied on M&O virtually all the time since the publication of her famous novel.” That account elides a lot of drift. After Maurice Crain died, Lee was passed along to his wife, but by the time Pinkus was brought into the company, it was Alice whom Nelle counted on most of all. When Nelle heard the courthouse-museum was putting out a book called Calpurnia’s Cookbook, using the name of Mockingbird’s maid, Alice sent the letter that took it off the shelves. M&O never even heard of it.
While working on his biography, Charles Shields called M&O and couldn’t get any real answers about their prized client. Maybe they were just being protective, but Shields found a willing correspondent in Alice Lee. They had a few written exchanges about Lee family history, and things seemed to be opening up — until, one day in 2006, he received “an imperious letter” from Pinkus, by then her exclusive agent, warning him off any further contact with the Lee sisters.
* * *
In June of 2007, Lee had a lunch appointment with friends in New York. When she didn’t show up, they went to her apartment, and found her lying on the floor. She’d been there for more than a day. Even before the debilitating stroke, she’d had hearing problems and macular degeneration — been forced to accessorize her khakis and sneakers with glasses fitted with side panels. Now she went through months of rehab, gave up her New York apartment, and moved straight from the hospital into assisted living.
Around this time, she signed an assignment of copyright to Sam Pinkus — an act she later forgot. Her lawyer during this period was still officially her sister Alice, 94. Eventually, Tonja Carter began pressing Pinkus to give up his copyright. (She had, however, notarized a reaffirmation of Pinkus’s copyright — something she’s never explained.) Finally, in 2012, Nelle got her copyright back, but according to the lawsuit, Pinkus continued to instruct publishers foreign and domestic to pay royalties into one of several companies. It wasn’t until a New York litigation firm filed suit — a move that put the elusive Harper Lee all over the news — that Nelle was finally able to free herself of Pinkus. The case was settled last September.
In 2011, while Carter and Pinkus haggled, Penguin Press acquired The Mockingbird Next Door after a heated auction. The day after it was announced, Carter released a statement from Harper Lee: “Contrary to recent news reports, I have not willingly participated in any book written or to be written by Marja Mills.” Penguin Press responded by producing a statement, signed by Alice Lee, agreeing to participate. Few people paid attention when, a month later, the AP reported that Alice Lee now claimed that Carter’s statement was made without the sisters’ consent. That story concluded, “A woman who answered the phone at Barnett, Bugg declined comment and hung up on a reporter seeking comment.”
Carter, who reportedly has power of attorney over Lee, replied to one email — “I can correspond by email when and if I become available” — but never answered my questions. It isn’t clear exactly what spurred Lee — or Carter — to file for a trademark to Lee’s name and the title of her book early last year. The Monroe County Heritage Museum fought the trademark, and Lee’s lawyers responded last October by suing them. Like the Pinkus suit, this complaint alleged that the defendant was taking advantage of Lee’s ill health — in this case, by ramping up gift shop operations and naming their website tokillamockingbird.com. (Both the shop and the website are more than 15 years old.)
The complaint begins immediately with a dig at Monroeville: “Although the story was set in the 1930’s, her realistic and highly critical portrayal of Maycomb’s residents shone a harsh light on the attitudes of communities that were the focal point of the civil rights movement in the 1960s … The town’s desire to capitalize upon the fame of To Kill a Mockingbird is unmistakable: Monroeville’s town logo features an image of a mockingbird and the cupola of the Old County Courthouse.”
In May 1961, shortly after winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. (Photo: Bettmann/Corbis) Photo: Bettmann/Corbis
Seeking unspecified damages, the suit listed all the Mockingbird-branded items in the gift shop, including clothes for adults and children, tote bags, towels, “glass ware, plastic/acrylic tumbler glasses, seat cushions, car decals, coasters,” and a dozen other tchotchkes. It estimated 2011 museum revenue at more than $500,000, without mentioning that expenses were almost as high — the difference being just a bit more than the roughly $30,000 the gift shop earns annually. Nor did the suit mention that the museum is a nonprofit, or that Tonja Carter and her husband, a distant cousin of Truman Capote, own a tourist-filled restaurant across from the courthouse.
Museum attorney Matthew Goforth released a statement in October firing back: “It is sad that Harper Lee’s greedy handlers have seen fit to attack the non-profit museum in her hometown that has been honoring her legacy.” Whatever the merit of Goforth’s argument, it brought to mind something Lee told Mills: “Greed is the coldest of deadly sins, don’t you think?”
“I was shocked,” says Stephanie Rogers, executive director of the museum. “I tried to talk to the family and say, ‘let’s stop this.’” After that 50th-anniversary commemoration in 2010, she’d sent Nelle leftover cake (shaped like Mockingbird’s iconic knot-holed tree), and Nelle had written back thanking her “friends.” After last month’s settlement, the website URL has been changed, but all the Mockingbird knickknacks are still for sale. Once the trademark goes through, they’ll be licensed through Lee. The Mockingbird Next Door will be sold there, too.
Friends were hurt by both the lawsuit and notes from Carter informing them they could no longer visit Nelle. One of them, Sam Therrell, owns Radley’s Fountain Grill and recently resigned as a member of the museum’s board. “I don’t think Miss Nelle or Alice had anything to do with it,” he says. “It’s her agent and her local lawyer [Tonja Carter]. I don’t know what kind of relationship they entered into, how she ever became of counsel, and I don’t give a rat’s ass, to tell you the truth. It was stupid to let it happen, I can tell you that.”
Other friends do emphasize her lifelong ambivalence over Monroeville. “She never has liked the museum,” says Butts. “But a lot of her attitudes about things changed after the stroke. She becomes excitable in all sorts of ways.” It’s perfectly plausible for Lee to be against the book, against the town — even against her own sister — without being fully accountable. “Nelle Harper’s at this stage in her life,” says Butts, “at which she’s readily influenced about anybody who’s around her.” He doesn’t fault Alice for failing to safeguard Lee’s rights; he faults Nelle for never relying on anyone else. “She lived as if Alice would never die.”
In Monroeville, a chance to pose as Scout, Dill, and Jem. (Photo by Maude Schuyler Clay) (Photo by Maude Schuyler Clay) Photo: Maude Schuyler Clay
Wayne Flynt, the Auburn professor, trusts Carter and believes she’s just honoring Nelle’s sense of being fed up. “Monroeville is like most small towns in the South,” says Flynt, whose work focused on Alabama and poverty. “It’s wonderful because of its tremendous sense of curiosity and community, but it’s also nosy and intrusive. The world she wrote about is the world she now inhabits, with all the good stuff and the bad stuff.”
In responding to Lee’s new letter last week, Penguin Press released a handwritten letter Alice Lee wrote to Marja Mills in 2011. It read, in part: “When I questioned Tonja” — her onetime protégé, inheritor of A.C. Lee’s firm — “I learned that without my knowledge she had typed out the statement, carried it to [Nelle’s apartment], and had Nelle Harper sign it … Poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence. Now she has no memory of the incident … I am humiliated, embarrassed, and upset about the suggestion of lack of integrity at my office.”
The letter signed by Nelle last week points out that “my sister would have been 100 years old” when she wrote those words. Butts insists Alice was “bright as a penny” — at least back then. Around the time of that letter, Alice stopped visiting the office regularly. She had a fall, then contracted pneumonia and began to decline. She moved out of the Lees’ redbrick ranch house and into a different assisted-living facility. Whatever Wayne Flynt’s suspicions about Marja Mills, he agrees with Nelle’s latest biographer on one point: Silence has not served Nelle Harper Lee. “In the absence of her being willing to talk, the only versions we’ll ever have are other people’s versions.”
Why Fans Shouldn’t Read Harper Lee’s New Book
February 03, 2015
The publisher of the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird has announced that the book’s reclusive author Harper Lee will publish her second novel 55 years after the first was released to global acclaim, reports the Associated Press. Harper, a subsidiary of the publisher HarperCollins, said in an announcement seen by the Associated Press that the 304-page novel Go Set a Watchman will be published July 14. The question now is whether fans of the original novel should actually read the new book, or if it could color their perception of Mockingbird in ways they might not appreciate.
The book is essentially a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird but was technically written first. Lee completed the book during the 1950s and when she shopped it around to publishers, it was suggested that she start over focusing on the childhood memories of the narrator Scout. Go Set a Watchman sees an adult Scout returning to her hometown of Maycomb, Ala., roughly 20 years after the events in Mockingbird.
“Scout (Jean Louise Finch) has returned to Maycomb from New York to visit her father, Atticus,” the publisher’s announcement reads, per the AP. “She is forced to grapple with issues both personal and political as she tries to understand her father’s attitude toward society, and her own feelings about the place where she was born and spent her childhood.”
Lee won a Pulitzer Prize and adoration from generations of readers for Mockingbird, but the author hasn’t published another book since 1960 and has only done a handful of interviews in the interim. Harper made it clear it is unlikely Lee will do press to promote the new book.
Fans are looking at this announcement with some mixed feelings. At first, of course, it’s exciting to hear that this beloved author is releasing new writing about the characters millions of readers have come to know and love. Mockingbird is not just a classic work of literature, it’s also the book that teaches many about civil rights, the court system, the South, and morality when it’s assigned in elementary or middle school. It’s one of those books that can be enjoyed by anyone at any age, from a grade-school student to a college literature professor, and each time you read it, you get something different from the story. The book is so meaningful to so many people that news of more information, more stories about the beloved Scout and Atticus might seem like a cause for celebration, but is it?
Some are already questioning the motives behind the decision to publish this supposedly lost work now. An article from New York Magazine explains how Lee’s later years have been marked by ill health and being taken advantage of by her attorneys and others that are supposed to be helping her. Lee’s sister Alice served as her protector and adviser for many years until Alice passed away late last year. Jezebel has pointed out, as others surely will, that it seems suspicious that such an announcement would be made so soon after Alice’s passing. It seems fairly likely that Harper Lee didn’t want this book published just as she didn’t want any more of her other writing published, and now that Alice is gone, lawyers and literary agents can take advantage of Harper’s weak mind and ill health.
In addition to the questions surrounding the circumstances of the book’s publication, Go Set a Watchman has a lot to live up to as a work of literature. Even though it was technically written first, this book will have to live in the shadow of Mockingbird, a shadow so dark that it prevented Lee from writing another book in her lifetime. New York Magazine quotes Lee at the press conference to promote the classic film adaptation of Mockingbird starring Gregory Peck as saying, “I’m scared,” when asked how she feels about writing another book. That fear, in addition to her own eccentricities, has kept her from releasing any other writing despite publishers, fans, family, and friends all hounding her for it. And maybe the memory of Mockingbird was better served that way.
If Go Set a Watchman is subpar — and what wouldn’t be subpar in comparison to Mockingbird? — then it could be a huge disappointment for fans. Reading Go Set a Watchman will change the reader’s interpretation of Mockingbird by telling us about what Scout and Atticus are like 20 years later. Perhaps readers have their own ideas about what ended up happening to the Finch clan, or maybe you think part of the book’s perfection is how it’s encapsulated in those few years of Scout’s childhood. Either way, bleeding outside the boundaries of Mockingbird will make the new book change the reader’s perception of the original, whether they want it to or not.
The fact that this is sort of an original draft of Mockingbird and not a later attempt on Lee’s part to write a prequel that just never got published is encouraging when considering its potential literary value. Watchman was good enough that publishers saw the promise in it even from an unknown young writer back in the 1950s, another sign that the book is actually quality writing and not just something that’s being published because it has Lee’s name on it. Given Lee’s highly reclusive nature, we really don’t know if she was a true literary one-hit wonder and only had one great book in her, or if she’s had volumes of wonderful stories in her mind that she’s been unwilling to share, publish, or maybe even write down. This is a chance to finally find some answers to a few of the greatest literary questions of the past century, but with reading this new work comes taking a chance on changing our understanding of the original, for better or for worse.
Voir de plus:
Be Suspicious of the New Harper Lee Novel
Two and a half months after the death of Harper Lee’s sister (and lawyer) and 55 years since the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, HarperCollins has announced the summer release of Go Set a Watchman, the elusive author’s second novel.
According to the New York Times, Go Set a Watchman « takes place 20 years after To Kill a Mockingbird:
Though it’s effectively a sequel, Ms. Lee actually wrote » Go Set a Watchman » first. The 304-page novel takes place in the same fictional town, Maycomb, Ala., and unfolds as Scout Finch, the feisty child heroine of « To Kill a Mockingbird, » returns to visit her father, Atticus.
Sadly, this news is not without controversy or complications. Harper Lee’s sister Alice Lee, who ferociously protected Harper Lee’s estate (and person) from unwanted outside attention as a lawyer and advocate for decades, passed away late last year, leaving the intensely private author (who herself is reportedly in ill health) vulnerable to people who may not have her best interests at heart.
Tonja Carter, Harper Lee’s attorney since Alice Lee retired at the age of 100, acknowledges that the author—who was left forgetful and nearly blind and deaf after a stroke in 2007—often doesn’t understand the contracts that she signs. « Lee has a history of signing whatever’s put in front of her, apparently sometimes with Carter’s advice, » Gawker’s Michelle Dean reported last July.
« The existence of ‘Go Set a Watchman’ was unknown until recently, and its discovery is an extraordinary gift, » said HarperCollins publisher Jonathan Burnham in a statement.
But was the gift willingly given?
« After much thought and hesitation I shared it with a handful of people I trust and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication, » Lee said in a statement of her own. « I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years. »
That might seem like confirmation of Lee’s willing involvement in Go Set a Watchman’s publication, except for the fact that we know about Lee’s messy relationship with her attorney (who, again, often gets her to sign things that she doesn’t understand) and Lee’s own publicity-shy character.
Lee once told Oprah over (a non-televised) lunch that she hated being compared to To Kill a Mockingbird’s spunky protagonist Scout Finch. « I’m really Boo, » she said, referring to the reclusive hero whose actions—by the grace of Atticus Finch (and the benevolent Heck Tate)—were allowed to go unpublicized.
In the past, Lee affectionately referred to her sister Alice as « Atticus in a skirt. » Not just because she was an amazing lawyer, but because she was the protector who shielded Harper Lee from the publishing world and press attention that she was so adamantly repelled by. But now Alice—her Atticus—is gone and an unhealthy and unstable Lee must alone face the publishers, interviewers and literary agents that she’s spent her entire life avoiding.
Our Boo Radley is being dragged into the light.
Voir par ailleurs:
Wai Chee Dimock
The Los Angeles Review of books
December 25th, 2014
BOOKS ARE EVERYWHERE in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, beginning with the opening shot. The camera, gliding slowly across the length of the bookshelf, lingers over several titles, and lingers as well over a toy space shuttle, also sitting on the bookshelf, gathering dust.
The dust is of course no ordinary dust, but shorthand for everything that is wrong with the planet. Nolan admires Ken Burn’s documentary about the 1930s, The Dust Bowl, and uses the same interview format, lining up eyewitnesses to testify to a succession of crop failures. This is not the 1930s, though, but a Dust Bowl redux, happening in the near future. Even though climate change isn’t explicitly mentioned, the cough-inducing and crops-destroying dust storms do a good job giving us a taste of the extreme weather and severe infectious diseases projected by climate scientists. Wheat and rice are gone at this point. The last crop of okra ever grown on the planet has already been harvested. The only thing left is corn, but even this is on its way out, threatened by blight that replaces the earth’s oxygen with nitrogen. Probably one more generation of humans will survive; after that, mass extinction.
The secretly operating NASA hopes to transport the earth’s population to a different home, in a different galaxy — by way of a wormhole, suddenly detected near Saturn and apparently put there by intelligent aliens. The Lazarus mission has already used that opening and gotten out and found three promising planets, so NASA is now sending the Endurance, led by ex-pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), to decide which one is habitable. As the spaceship lifts off, mission head Professor Brand recites these lines from Dylan Thomas:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
These lines will be recited three more times before the ending shakes off that “good night” once and for all, so it is fair to say that, as much as Interstellar has touted its grounding in science — the Caltech astrophysicist Kip Thorne was on board as consultant and executive producer — the film is grounded perhaps more fundamentally in literature, underwritten by a poetic license that might turn out to have mathematics as one of its scripts.
Interstellar is bookish to a fault. More than one critic has railed against its wooden, at times excruciating dialogue (lines such as the by now notorious “Love is the one thing that transcends dimensions of time and space,” spoken by Anne Hathaway playing Amelia Brand, daughter of Professor Brand; or “Pray you never learn just how good it can be to see another face,” spoken by Dr. Mann when he is roused from his deep sleep on the forbidding planet where he has been stranded). That is one form of bookishness: the characters here are simply the conduits for the printed words that must have been in the heads of the two screenwriters, Chris Nolan and his brother Jonathan; treatises on mysticism and psychology that they seem bent on injecting into the film, on the same footing as the mathematical equations, which are also very much in evidence.
Those very equations, however, point to another sense in which Interstellar might be said to be bookish. These are actual, astrophysical equations, but as seen on screen, line after line, covering the entire blackboard, they actually look like an exotic script, an alien language hardly anyone can read. This is what math is to 99.99 percent of moviegoers: mysterious and never to be understood. Data from the black hole might indeed be the thing needed to unify relativity and quantum mechanics, and allow humans to exit the earth’s gravitational field, but we wouldn’t know just by looking at those arcane squiggles. Math is akin to magic in this sense: it is a universe unto itself, embedded in the quotidian one we know but not accessible to most of us. It is also a lot weirder, with a lot more room for otherwise inexplicable phenomena. What is unthinkable elsewhere is entirely thinkable here.
Such as reverse time travel, the ability of future generations to reach back and engineer events of the past. Those intelligent aliens who planted the wormhole turn out to be none other than our own highly evolved human descendants, existing in five dimensions, and giving rise to narrative time lines equally convoluted. In one sense this is familiar Nolan territory: flashbacks and obsessive crosscutting are nothing new; they have always been his signature style. Beginning with his first film, Following (1998), and continuing through Memento (2000) and Inception (2010), the human mind for Nolan has always been a labile, multidimensional space, rotatable at 90, 180, and 360 degrees. This shape-shifting and ever-receding labyrinth is the logical backdrop for time that flips over, or goes backward. Nolan says that his fondness for reverse chronologies comes from growing up in the age of VHS and being able to watch movies over and over again, taking them apart differently each time. “You’re making films that are going to be watched more than once,” he says. “People are going to watch them in a different way. They’re going to have a different relationship to that narrative.” Films like Memento and Inception internalize these serial disorientations and turn them into a Möbius strip of the mind.
Interstellar is a little different. Reverse chronology here is not housed in the mind, as the labyrinth of memory, but projected outward into the vastness of the cosmos, as the weird, seemingly nonsensical, but entirely mathematical space-time of relativity and quantum mechanics. This kind of math has an objective correlative: the tesseract, a four-dimensional analogue to the three-dimensional cube. The word, from the Greek τέσσερεις ακτίνες (“four rays”), was first coined and used in 1888 by Charles Howard Hinton in A New Era of Thought, a nonfictional work about the fourth dimension. In its later incarnations, the term would sometimes morph into a more graspable form — in the Marvel Universe, for example, it is simply an Infinity Stone, an object of extraordinary power. Nolan goes back to the earlier, weirder version, giving us a four-dimensional continuum that physicalizes time as vehicular space. It is this that allows Cooper to go back several decades and haunt his own house as a ghost, sending cryptic messages written first in dust, and then in Morse code, providing his now-grown daughter Murph (Jessica Chastain) with the necessary data to create a unified theory of physics. Humanity is saved, and Cooper himself gets to go home in the flesh, 124 years old in earth-time but not aged at all, having spent only a few hours on the time-dilated planet. His daughter, 10 years old when he left, is now on her deathbed, an old woman over 90.
According to Wired, Nolan’s tesseract is a visualization of the equations of Kip Thorne, “the product of a year of work by 30 people and thousands of computers.” It is telling, though, that this high-tech, high-concept cosmic marvel should have more than a passing resemblance to the internal mental architecture of Inception. It is telling, as well, that the “bootstrap paradox” that results, by which a chicken sends an egg back in time to be hatched into the chicken that it becomes, is not at all unique to this film but a staple of the science fiction genre, beginning with Robert Heinlein’s story “By His Bootstraps” (1941), and used to great effect by Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick, before showing up in The Terminator series and Doctor Who.
There’s a reason why that toy space shuttle is sitting on a bookshelf. Mathematics might be the movie’s operating system, but what powers it is a poetic license of a fairly old-fashioned kind, often running a parallel program of allegory, perhaps to match the director’s equally old-fashioned commitment to shooting on 35 mm and 70 mm film. The film “is about human nature, what it means to be human,” Nolan says. And so the villain is named Dr. Mann, while one of the legible titles on the bookshelf is Ted Morgan’s biography of Somerset Maugham, best known for his best-selling, human-nature-probing novel Of Human Bondage. The other books are not so clearly allegorical; still, their plots tell us something — Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale, Isabel Wolff’s Out of the Blue, Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow, Curtis Oberhansly and Dianne Oberhansly’s Downwinders — all back-trekking narratives with a past that is malleable, visitable, and changeable. And presiding over them all is Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, that circular, multigenerational, and counterintuitive novel that gives magical realism its classic definition.
Interstellar is not quite magical in that sense, although there is considerable magical thinking here as well, making it almost an anti-cli-fi film, holding out hope that the end of the planet is not the end of everything. It reverses itself, however, when that magic falls short, when the poetic license is naked and plain for all to see. In those moments, it suddenly dawns upon us that the ocean that rises up 90 degrees and comes at us like a wall is not just a special effect on some faraway planet, but a scenario all too close to home.
Wai Chee Dimock is the William Lampson Professor of English and American Studies at Yale University.
May 7, 2006
Do you remember when you learned to read, or like me, can you not even remember a time when you didn’t know how? I must have learned from having been read to by my family. My sisters and brother, much older, read aloud to keep me from pestering them; my mother read me a story every day, usually a children’s classic, and my father read from the four newspapers he got through every evening. Then, of course, it was Uncle Wiggily at bedtime.
So I arrived in the first grade, literate, with a curious cultural assimilation of American history, romance, the Rover Boys, Rapunzel, and The Mobile Press. Early signs of genius? Far from it. Reading was an accomplishment I shared with several local contemporaries. Why this endemic precocity? Because in my hometown, a remote village in the early 1930s, youngsters had little to do but read. A movie? Not often — movies weren’t for small children. A park for games? Not a hope. We’re talking unpaved streets here, and the Depression.
Books were scarce. There was nothing you could call a public library, we were a hundred miles away from a department store’s books section, so we children began to circulate reading material among ourselves until each child had read another’s entire stock. There were long dry spells broken by the new Christmas books, which started the rounds again.
As we grew older, we began to realize what our books were worth: Anne of Green Gables was worth two Bobbsey Twins; two Rover Boys were an even swap for two Tom Swifts. Aesthetic frissons ran a poor second to the thrills of acquisition. The goal, a full set of a series, was attained only once by an individual of exceptional greed — he swapped his sister’s doll buggy.
We were privileged. There were children, mostly from rural areas, who had never looked into a book until they went to school. They had to be taught to read in the first grade, and we were impatient with them for having to catch up. We ignored them.
And it wasn’t until we were grown, some of us, that we discovered what had befallen the children of our African-American servants. In some of their schools, pupils learned to read three-to-one — three children to one book, which was more than likely a cast-off primer from a white grammar school. We seldom saw them until, older, they came to work for us.
Now, 75 years later in an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods, and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books. Instant information is not for me. I prefer to search library stacks because when I work to learn something, I remember it.
And, Oprah, can you imagine curling up in bed to read a computer? Weeping for Anna Karenina and being terrified by Hannibal Lecter, entering the heart of darkness with Mistah Kurtz, having Holden Caulfield ring you up — some things should happen on soft pages, not cold metal.
The village of my childhood is gone, with it most of the book collectors, including the dodgy one who swapped his complete set of Seckatary Hawkinses for a shotgun and kept it until it was retrieved by an irate parent.
Now we are three in number and live hundreds of miles away from each other. We still keep in touch by telephone conversations of recurrent theme: « What is your name again? » followed by « What are you reading? » We don’t always remember.
Daech brûle 2.000 livres et manuscrits et détruit des œuvres datant de plus de 7.000 ans
L’autodafé géant est passé totalement inaperçu. Les combattants de l’organisation Etat islamique auraient envahi la Bibliothèque centrale de Mossoul et le Musée. Bilan: des centaines de manuscrits, des œuvres antiques et des vieux journaux détruits et incendiés.
C’est une information d’Alarabtv (lien en arabe), qui relate avec force détails ce qui pourrait être le plus grand autodafé de l’Histoire. Cette information Associated Press mise en ligne le 1er février n’a pas été encore confirmée par les autorités. Selon Alarabtv, courant janvier, des combattants de Daech auraient pris possession de la Bibliothèque centrale pour «assainir» les fonds documentaires. Selon les habitants, ils auraient emmené avec eux dans six pickups plus de deux milles livres pour les détruire. Etaient concernés, les livres pour enfants, de poésie, de philosophie, de santé, de sport et de sciences, ainsi que les journaux datant du début du XXe siècle, des cartes ottomanes et des collections privées offertes par les vieilles familles de Mossoul. Seuls les livres traitant de l’islam auraient été épargnés.
Désobéissance à Dieu
Un homme en tenue afghane aurait harangué la foule : «Ces livres appellent à la désobéissance à Dieu, ils doivent être brûlés.» Les assaillants auraient ensuite mis le feu aux documents devant les étudiants. «Les extrémistes ont déjà commencé à détruire les livres dans les autres bibliothèques publiques de Mossoul le mois dernier (janvier, NDLR) », témoigne un professeur d’histoire de l’Université de Mossoul. Selon lui, les préjudices touchent les archives d’une bibliothèque sunnite, celle de l’Eglise latine et le monastère des Dominicains.
Les combattants de Daech s’en sont ensuite pris à la bibliothèque du Musée de Mossoul et ont détruit des œuvres datant de 5.000 ans avant Jésus Christ. Daech «perçoit la culture, la civilisation et la science comme des ennemis féroces», remarque le député irakien Hakim Al Zamili.
Les bibliothèques de Mossoul avaient déjà subi deux pillages : en 2003 avec la chute de Saddam Hussein et en juin 2014 lorsque les djihadistes ont pris le contrôle de la ville. De nombreux manuscrits ont été exportés clandestinement. Les Dominicains, eux, avaient commencé à numériser les manuscrits dans les années 90.
ETATS-UNIS. La rougeole est de retour
VACCIN. Les autorités sanitaires américaines et le président Barack Obama ont lancé ces derniers jours un vibrant appel à la vaccination face à la crainte d’une épidémie étendue de rougeole dans le pays, certains parents estimant toujours que ce vaccin est dangereux. La maladie, censée être éradiquée aux États-Unis depuis 2000, est réapparue en décembre 2014 en Californie. Le foyer de l’épidémie a été localisé dans le parc d’attractions de Disneyland.
102 cas de rougeole
Depuis, 102 cas de rougeole ont été recensés dans 14 États américains, selon les Centres de contrôle et de prévention des maladies (CDC) fin janvier 2015. Les CDC ont précisé que la plupart des malades n’avaient pas été vaccinés. « Nous sommes très inquiets du nombre croissant de personnes qui pourraient être infectées par le virus de la rougeole et de la possibilité d’une importante épidémie dans le pays », a déclaré ce week-end le directeur des CDC, le Dr Tom Frieden, insistant pour que tous les parents fassent vacciner leurs enfants.
Le retour en force de cette infection aux États-Unis coïncide avec la tendance de certains parents de refuser de faire vacciner leurs enfants car ils craignent que ce triple-vaccin (rougeole, oreillons et rubéole) ne soit responsable de l’augmentation des cas d’autisme. D’autres personnes refusent la vaccination, en général pour des raisons religieuses ou politiques. Cette controverse remonte à la publication d’un article biaisé dans la très sérieuse revue médicale britannique le Lancet en 1998, qui ne s’est rétractée sur le sujet qu’en 2010. Les médias ont également été critiqués pour s’être largement fait l’écho de cette recherche frauduleuse.
TRANSMISSION. La rougeole est très contagieuse car elle se transmet par voie aérienne. Elle provoque des accès de fièvre et des éruptions cutanées. Les cas les plus graves peuvent entraîner une pneumonie ou une encéphalite et être mortels. Les États-Unis ont enregistré 644 cas de rougeole dans le pays en 2014, un nombre sans précédent depuis 2000. Il y avait eu 173 cas en 2013, et une petite soixantaine par an dans les années précédentes.
Des croyances infondées
DÉMENTI. Pourtant de nombreuses études scientifiques très sérieuses ont clairement démenti tout lien avec l’autisme ou tout autre risque sanitaire. Selon le Dr Anne Schuchat, responsable de la vaccination aux CDC en 2014, les parents de 79 % des enfants non-vaccinés avaient demandé aux autorités de leur État d’être exemptés de la vaccination sur la base de leurs convictions. Cette situation explique que le taux de vaccination contre la rougeole aux États-Unis ne dépasse pas 92 %.
Le président Barack Obama a fait peser toute son autorité dimanche 31 janvier 2015 pour convaincre les parents sceptiques d’ignorer ces croyances infondées. « Je sais qu’il y a des familles qui sont parfois inquiètes des effets de la vaccination mais vous devez savoir que la science est vraiment indiscutable », a-t-il déclaré sur la chaîne de télévision NBC. « Nous avons examiné cela de nombreuses fois et il n’y a aucune raison de ne pas se faire vacciner », a insisté M. Obama. La question de la vaccination contre la rougeole a agité la sphère politique, surtout parmi les candidats républicains potentiels à la présidentielle de 2016. Pour ces prétendants, l’exercice est délicat car ils ne veulent pas s’aliéner la frange de leur électorat ultra-conservateur qui pour des raisons religieuses ou par pure conviction politique rejettent l’obligation de la vaccination.
Lise Loumé avec afp