Harper Lee of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and Southern Literature

When the news came that Harper Lee, the author of the enduring American classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” had died in an assisted living home in Monroeville,  Alabama, it excited talk and discussion about all sorts of things,  including such topics as the impact of one-hit literary wonders, Southern culture and literature, the importance of the lives of authors and the fate and future of books and particularly novels themselves. Lee’s death on Feb. 19 came not too long after the somewhat mysterious and controversial publication of what was probably an unpolished and ultimately unwanted sequel to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” in which the heroic, gentle figure of the gentlemanly small town Southern lawyer Atticus Finch, who stood up to defend a wrongly accused black man in a segregation-seared Jim Crow South, is seen years later as a somewhat embittered segregationist. There's little doubt that this development in the oddly-titled book “Go Set a Watchman” disappointed the huge multi-generational number of fans who saw in Finch a role model, an affirmation of American hopes and values such as fairness, moral courage, even in the face of ultimate failure, the good, strong, brave man as an example to others, as seen through the coming-of-age eyes of his young daughter Scout. The mixed reviews and even expressions of outrage did not prevent “Go Set a Watchman” from becoming a best-seller, just as its predecessor had been, although without the impact and the enduring print runs that have made “To Kill a Mockingbird” a literary phenomena. That book, published in 1960, at the raw and powerful beginnings of the civil right movement in the south (Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream" speech was only three years away).  The novel, written with a gentle style that had its poetic elements, begat a film starring a glasses-wearing, slow-speaking Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch — and you could not have asked for a more embodying actor to play the part.  Peck’s sometimes awkward manner made  him a heroic figure on the screen, and in his white jacket, glasses and carefully worded speaking, he pinned the liberal and human values of the book to the screen. Both the book and the film—the book continued and continues to be a requirement in schools ever since and the film won an Oscar for Peck—had an impact on public acceptance of the rightness of many aspects of the civil rights struggles at that time. Whether this came from reading Lee’s words or seeing the film is hard to measure. As there are millions of people who insist they were at Woodstock, so there are probably millions of people who believe they read “To Kill a Mockingbird” — when they “only” saw the movie. The success of the book and film excited a good deal of interest in Lee herself, a woman who was born in the same little Alabama town in which she died.  She had a literary bent and interest and literary friends — most notably Truman Capote, who advised her and whom, in turn, she helped research his best-selling “In Cold Blood.” Lee gained a reputation for reclusiveness because any conversations with her in print were rare, and she gave few interviews. Indeed, after “Mockingbird”, which won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, she produced nothing much in terms of a follow-up to the influential book. “Mockingbird” is one of those books that seems like a solitary flame that burned and at the same time destroyed the gift from which it came. There are plenty of those in the annals of literature, both high-brow and pop.  It is also an example of a product of Southern culture , certainly in literature, which is so haunted by its past. Because the book became something beyond its own reputation in terms of its impact  in schools and culture,  it still has something to say about race, about books themselves and the lives of its authors. Lots of writers have been one-book wonders. Critics point to the Bronte sisters, Emily and Charlotte, and their forever feverish novels of obsessive love “Wuthering Heights” and “Jane Eyre,” respectively, but in fact, they did write other books, which were not successful. (Emily died at age 30.) J.D. Salinger bears a resemblance to Lee in the sense that “The Catcher in the Rye” was and probably remains a favorite of disaffected adolescents. Salinger himself was a thorough recluse around whom intense curiosity never abated, even though he continued to write slim volumes about the Glass family. “Catch 22” was such a popular war novel (actually anti-war) that the title itself became a description of bureaucratic cruelty (that’s some catch, that catch 22) for its author Joseph Heller, who wrote other, very fine novels, but none that had such an impact.  The same was true for Mario Puzo, an aspiring writer of failed literary novels, who wrote “The Godfather” and was set for life. He wrote more novels, but never anything that matched the success of the mafia book and films that came after.  Margaret Mitchell, a true lady of the South, won a Pulitzer  Prize for “Gone With the Wind,” saw the movie become a legend and never accomplished much of anything else. The great American novel, as always, remains not just a goal but a curse, while James Patterson laughs all the way to all the banks. Lee was a Southerner in the truest sense of the word in the sense that she inhaled small town Southern life, with all its richness and terrible ghosts, much of which found its way into “To Kill a Mockingbird.”  She is also part of a literary Southern tradition that no doubt came from living in a geography, where history is in the DNA — and nothing is black and white, and everything is black and white. Not all Southern literature, or art, or architecture or popular music is about race or injustice or climate, but some part of living in it is. Southern artists have responded to it on some level or another, beginning most foremost with Nobel Prize-winning novelist William Faulkner, whose fiction is a kind of and sometimes difficult-to-decipher blueprint of the geography.  They vary — whether in the art of people like William Christenberry, for instance, or William  R. Dunlap, in the poetry of Allan Tate and his famous (or not) “Ode to the Confederate Dead” or the stories of Alabama native Zora Neale Hurston. Compare and contrast Thomas (not Tom) Wolfe, whose soul burst into his profusive, all engaging-novels (like “Look Homeward Angel), out of Asheville, North Carolina, or novelist William Styron, from Hilton Village, Virginia, two of whose major novels, “Lie Down in Darkness” and the controversial “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” were Southern to their core. Faulkner addressed the larger issues of the book, the novel, fiction itself, which echo mightily in the digital world, where the death of books and literature is often predicted.  In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he said, “Man is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.” It’s fair to say that Lee with her “To Kill a Mockingbird” fulfilled both duty and privilege — and more.      [gallery ids="102251,128873" nav="thumbs"]

Katrina at 10: Where Y’at?

On Monday, August 29, 2005, at 6:10 a.m., Hurricane Katrina made landfall at Buras, Louisiana ... But the greatest destruction to New Orleans, and the great loss of life, did not come directly from the storm.” So begins Georgetown University Associate Dean Bernie Cook in his book “Flood of Images: Media, Memory, and Hurricane Katrina.” At the 10th anniversary of America’s costliest natural disaster, Katrina is remembered for leaving more 1,000 dead in the New Orleans area, flooding 80 percent of the City of New Orleans and captivating us with scenes of desperation and desolation. Yet there is even more to it than that: this great deluge would prove a breach of faith. Last week, in his serene and simple office on the main campus of Georgetown University, Cook seemed worlds from the sorrow, damage and death that was Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago this month. “Most remember Katrina from the TV news,” Cook says. “Ninety-nine percent saw it as a media event.” Finger-pointing began as soon as the storm hit — the levees breaking, government disorganization, press misinformation. He dismisses the blame game with a wave: “Everyone is culpable ... at every level, people were squabbling.” Cook sees his book as offering “both analyses and intervention into the remembering and forgetting of Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans.” The event and its stories hit the professor — an associate dean of Georgetown College and its director of film and media studies — on many levels. He is a native of New Orleans, he went to the Jesuit High School of New Orleans and his father is a retired professor at Loyola University. To complete the circle, Cook has a blog and has produced short films on social justice. “Flood of Images” focuses first on CNN, Fox News and NBC News. Cook shows how TV news reporting can be pre-produced, as it were — pro-filmic or pro-televisual — ready for the latest information to be sent through its standard template. The TV crews went to the easiest places 10 years ago, the Business District and the French Quarter, neither of which were seriously flooded. “They followed their playbook at first, and then they saw the Ninth Ward,” he says. Cook cites the work of Martin Savidge, Shepard Smith and Brian Williams — when it worked and when it was hyperbole or just plain wrong. He points out how correspondents might dress as if they were survivors, then simply return to their luxury hotel rooms. He repeats the phrase: “This is not Iraq. This is not Somalia. This is home.” America could not believe how bad things had gotten after the storm left and moved north. The stick-to-it-ness of film and TV documentaries, which Cook calls “another way to see, more detailed, more personable,” is discussed in contrast to the TV news approach of hitting a story then quickly moving on. Examined are Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Broke” and “If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise,” Tia Lessin’s and Carl Deal’s “Trouble the Water” and Dawn Logsdon and Lolis Elie’s “Faubourg Treme.” Cook also looks closely at the HBO drama “Treme.” One of the most fascinating parts of the book is the chapter, “We Were Not on the Map,” which explores “A Village Called Versailles,” about the Vietnamese community of New Orleans East. Ten years ago, Cook was on hand when Georgetown University accepted 55 students from Loyola University and Jesuit High School. His father — still a professor at Loyola in 2005 — was at Georgetown to help orient the transplanted students. “We knew the hurricane was coming,” Cook recalls. “Registration was around Aug. 25. There was no access to records. We took them at their word.” Many students were sent to states far away from their homes, part of what has been called the largest migration in American history. “The very continuance of these institutions [in New Orleans] was in question,” Cook says. A Georgetown student who majored in English — favoring Southern writing and loving film — and went on to get a Ph.D. from U.C.L.A., Cook wrote his dissertation on action-film heroes. Back on the Hilltop as head of film studies, he lists movies involving some of the school’s students: “The East,” “Rebirth,” “Jesus Camp” and “Another Earth.” And his favorite movies? Well, that’s like asking ... but Cook threw out a few: “Taxi Driver,” “Chinatown” and “Thelma and Louise.” In fact, Cook is editor of “Thelma & Louise Live! The Cultural Afterlife of an American Film.” The professor and film lover continues his look at Katrina with a university symposium, “Katrina@10,” on Oct. 22 and 23, with “film screenings, musical performances and thoughtful panels.” However one views the hurricane and its aftermath, it is a journey through images, sounds and intentions, mediated or not. And the engaging and incisive Cook — informed by his Jesuit education to question the meaningfulness of things and seek social justice — is an excellent guide for that journey. [gallery ids="102283,127741" nav="thumbs"]

‘Gardens of Georgetown’ Book Signing, April 23

On Saturday, April 23, from 1 to 5 p.m., the Georgetown Garden Club will host a book-signing party for “Gardens of Georgetown: Exploring Urban Treasures,” published by the club in 2015. The event, at the Lou Lou boutique at 1304 Wisconsin Ave. NW, will include “sips and sweets.” The 95-page hardcover book, with text by Edith Nalle Schafer, features glossy color photographs by Jenny Gorman. Together, words and images offer an inside look at some of the most beautiful private green spaces in Georgetown, where “the gardens expand the living areas of the houses for six months of the year.” Proceeds from the sale will benefit Georgetown’s parks and public spaces. Tickets for the club’s May 9 Garden Tour will also be available for purchase. For details, visit georgetowngardenclubdc.org.

‘God Is in the Details’ for a Georgetown Mystery Novel

It drove me crazy when I watched the finale of the first season of “Homeland” and the street sign in “Foggy Bottom” read “Obey State Speed Limits.” I mean, c’mon! I couldn’t watch the thing after that—as Mies van der Rohe says, God is in the details, even if he ain’t in Hollywood. Here’s one that will get it right, though. One of my Georgetown neighbors and friends, Mary Louise Kelly, has written a mystery, “Anonymous Sources,” partly set in a not-so-anonymous locale. One of the key scenes is a murder on Dumbarton Street, which the novel’s heroine, Alexandra James, describes as “full of well-kept gardens, gas lanterns, and historical plaques. Through the windows I caught glimpses of antiques and trays of polished silver.” The heroine is clearly not looking in my window, where she’d see piles of mail and footballs, but the reason the details ring true is that the author is a longtime Georgetowner who used to live on Dumbarton. “Anonymous Sources,” which is published by Simon and Schuster, comes out June 18, and is peppered with references that Georgetowners will recognize, ranging from a sheath dress at J. Crew on M Street to lush descriptions of the shiny cars lining the streets. While she was writing the book, Kelly hung out at Saxbys, on her way to write at Georgetown University’s Lauinger Library. She hit Patisserie Poupon to reward herself with a chocolate chip cookie each time she finished a chapter. And as a former national security reporter for National Public Radio, she knows how to get the details right. While “Anonymous Sources” begins at Harvard Square, the story shifts to Cambridge, England, and then to London. The second half of the book is set in Washington. The reporter, Alexandra James, rushes from interviews at the White House to off-the-record trysts at CIA headquarters. “Those were some of the most fun scenes to write,” says Kelly, “because I know first-hand how those conversations unfold, since I covered the spy beat at NPR.” Kelly says several former sources agreed to read her manuscript and offered tips and corrections. And even though, Kelly says, those old sources were notoriously tough to pin down when she was working as a reporter, a few even gave her blurbs for the book, which was far more convenient than trying to pin them down for a sound bite on the daily news. [gallery ids="102441,121369" nav="thumbs"]

Ghostly ‘Capitol Hill’

Washington, D.C., is home to many ghost stories. From the bloody steps in the Capitol to a commodore haunt- ing the old Navy Yard, the city is ripe with spirits. A culmination of all these stories can be found in “Capitol Hill Haunts,” a new book by Tim Krepp. Krepp, a licensed tour guide for tours in D.C. and New York, is putting his degree in history from Georgetown University to good use by revealing the stories and places some of the departed call home. Years ago, while giving ghost tours, Krepp realized his interest in ghosts and storytelling. “I really fell in love with the concept of ghost stories as a way of preserving [them] as urban folklore, as legends, as a nexus between history you can put in textbooks, versus oral traditions.” Krepp’s favorite story, which can be found in the book, is of the “Phantom Wheelman.” An 1882 streetcar conductor had fatally col- lided with a cyclist and now would find phantom cyclists darting out behind his streetcar. The interesting fact was how the original cyclist was riding the penny-farthings of the era, yet the cyclists seemed to upgrade their bicycles as the times changed. “It’s a great story, just the imagery of this dark streetcar, after midnight, coming down and seeing this guy on a penny-farthing coming at him,” Krepp said. “But also what it says about today’s conflicts and debates in the city: the use of public space. Who owns the road?” However, the “Phantom Wheelman” doesn’t get the best reaction when told orally, it needs a visual. Like most ghost stories, there must be something there for the audience to see. Despite this, the overall crowd pleaser is the rarely seen “Demon Cat of the Capitol.” The Demon Cat roams the lower levels of the Capitol, including the space built to be George Washington’s crypt. At first sight, it appears to be a normal tabby cat, until it fixes its eyes on its victim and then runs towards them getting larger before it lets out a yelp and jumps over the victim’s head into the darkness. Legend has it the Demon Cat shows up before presidential assas- sinations and times of national crisis. “Capitol Hill Haunts” also shares some less- er-known ghost stories of the nation’s capital. In the section titled “The Watchful Commodore,” the haunting of Captain Thomas Tingey in the Navy Yard is explained. Tingey was in charge of building and developing the yard, and he was the one to give the order to set it on first when the British arrived in D.C. in 1814 during the War of 1812. It is said Tingey still haunts his old home, Quarters A in the Yard. He was first spotted in 1853 by the daughter of the yard commandant. In 1960, when the new commander, Rear Admiral Thomas H. Robbins moved his family in, his dog sensed a presence. The dog would stare at a chair in the drawing room and bark and growl at it, until his owner addressed the captain, telling him they were “glad to be living in [his] house.” Tingey has also been spotted staring out the second floor window of Quarters A and walking around the Navy Yard for inspection with his spyglass and sword. The book also mentions Tingey took offense to the 1886 name change of the Yard to the Naval Gun Foundry by letting out “a banshee cry that could be heard for blocks around” at midnight. Georgetown, of course, is no stranger to ghost stories, one reason, Krepp says, he stayed away when he wrote his book. Now, Krepp has returned and is in the beginning stages of writing his next book on the ghosts of Georgetown. Though still in the preliminary stages of research, Krepp finds the old Forest Hall, now the Gap on Wisconsin Ave, to be a great story. Previous to being a prison during the Civil War, it was a public hall, hosting debutante balls and minuets. “I have an early 20th century, I want to say 1910, 1920 article describing the ghostly balls that continue to this day.” One iconic spot Krepp is eager to research more are the infamous Exorcist Steps. “As far as I know, there are no real ghost stories about the steps themselves,” Krepp said. “I think the site was, as far as I know, picked just because it looks haunted.” Though there may be no ghosts lingering on the steps, it is definitely a spooky destination to visit this Halloween, after watch- ing the classic film, “The Exorcist.” ? [gallery ids="102490,120241" nav="thumbs"]

In Time for Garden Tour: ‘Gardens of Georgetown’

The Georgetown Garden Club has published “Gardens of Georgetown: Exploring Urban Treasures,” profiling 38 neighborhood gardens. The book’s author is well-known town observer Edith Schafer and the photographer is Jenny Gorman. For details, visit GeorgetownGardenClubDC.org, or call 202- 625-1175.

New Novels: Spies in Sarajevo and Paris

Our discriminating thriller-reader reviews the latest from Matthew Palmer and Alan Furst.
Newt Gingrich (right) at the National Book Festival with Rep. Steve Israel and interviewer Colleen Shogan.

Rehm, Woodward and Gingrich Make News at National Book Festival

Three of D.C.'s best-known authors pitched their latest last Saturday at the convention center.

New Novels: Spies in Sarajevo and Paris

Our discriminating thriller-reader reviews the latest from Matthew Palmer and Alan Furst.

Rehm, Woodward and Gingrich Make News at National Book Festival

Three of D.C.'s best-known authors pitched their latest last Saturday at the convention center.