|Gregory Peck and Harper Lee|
Before she wrote her southern gothic and Pulizer-worthy novel, To Kill a Mockingbird (published in 1960), she went to Huntington College in Montgomery before attending the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. (My grandfather later coached basketball at Huntington and went on to earn his doctorate from Alabama.) She became close friends with fellow author Truman Capote. Both fashioned a fictional character after the other. She also befriended actor Gregory Peck who won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Atticus Finch in the film adaptation of Mockingbird. Peck’s grandson was admittedly named after her and his son tells the story of how Peck wore a pocket watch that belonged to Lee’s father and was later gifted to him by the author the night he won the Academy Award. (Many scholars hold that Lee’s father, a lawyer, was the inspiration behind Atticus Finch.)After Mockingbird’s success, Lee widely withdrew from public life and didn’t publish another novel until the recent sequel Go Set the Watchman in 2015, though she did write several articles and essays in between. In 2007, she was awarded the highest civilian award in the United States, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2010, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts. In a letter to Oprah Winfrey in 2006, Lee wrote, “Now, 75 years later in an abundant society where people have laptops, cellphones, iPods and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books.” If the literary world could coin its own patron saint, this lady would be on the short list.
I often wonder if I ever sat down to dinner in a restaurant with my family in Monroeville and Harper Lee was only a few tables away. Or if I ever accompanied my mother to the grocery store where Harper Lee, too, was shopping. It seems likely. To this day, Monroeville maintains more of a small town than a city feel. When I read To Kill a Mockingbird in 8th grade, Lee quickly became one of the many authors I admired. Knowing she, too, started life in Monroeville helped encourage me to one day pursue my dreams of publication. If Harper could do it, why couldn’t I? Although I never knew or met her, her death in February felt personal.Last month, the news of Pat Conroy’s death also came as a blow. A poignant, leading voice in southern literature, he had a turbulent childhood, developed an early love of sports, and became a teacher, much like Tom Wingo, the lead character of his fifth novel, The Prince of Tides (published in 1986). In 1998, he married author Cassandra King, his third wife, who he lived alongside in Beaufort, South Carolina until his passing at the age of 70.
After hearing of Conroy’s death, I consulted my dog-eared copy of The Prince of Tides, much as I had turned to my To Kill a Mockingbird paperback the month before. While I remembered Mockingbird and vividly how I felt about it, The Prince of Tides was another story. I tried to understand why I had no real memory of what its pages held or whether they had impacted me positively or negatively so I decided to give it another go.At first, The Prince of Tides somewhat mirrors another favorite book, Boy’s Life by Robert R. McCammon. Both take place in the south. Both tell of turbulent events in the small town life of young boys. Both are written in beautiful hands. Conroy's writing in particular took my breath away for the second time. The first chapter of The Prince of Tides flowed through me and I was easily gripped by the story. However, gripping quickly became heart-wrenching. I couldn’t stop reading, but I remembered why I had forgotten it—or chosen to forget it. It’s painful—a deeply, deeply painful rendering my former adolescent self was clearly not ready to endure. Hence, the blocking out process that followed....
It occurred to me after finishing The Prince of Tides that most of the books I read in high school were along the same vein. I ruminated over this with my sister as we counted up the novels and plays that had come to us via our state education. For starters, as freshmen, we read ill-fated Romeo and Juliet. Then we progressed onto The Crucible, Our Town, Death of a Salesman, Les Misérables, The Count of Monte Cristo, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, All the King’s Men, The Scarlet Letter…. We noted there were a few light-hearted romps in between. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, for instance. But as early as jr. high, my reading list included heavy subject matter the likes of The Diary of Anne Frank, Number the Stars, The Hatchet, and Farewell to Manzanar. While I enjoyed a great many of these books, looking back, it’s really no wonder that I lavished Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility when I encountered them in 12th Grade Literature 0r that I turned to the lovely escape of romance novels in my free time.However, while my friends and I very often grumbled about how little our public school educations were preparing us for the reality that was set to befall us after graduation, I realize now in light of all this that perhaps we were wrong. While, yes, the art of balancing a checkbook has become somewhat archaic and the painful Algebra III and Pre-Cal courses I endured (with tutors) have done me little good thus far, the literary requirements are another story. By large, these tales of misfortune and woe were a subtle training ground for the more hard-hitting realities of life as well as a glimpse into the complexities of human nature.
As a child, school taught me my love of books and words. Through these books, I grew to understand more about the world than anything else until I entered into adult life. Thanks to those bright, wordy stars like Harper and Pat's, I began a lifelong love affair with all things literary and this is my toast to them. Cheers!
Amber Leigh Williams is a Harlequin Superromance author who lives on the Gulf Coast. A southern girl at heart, she lives for beach days, the smell of real books, and spending time with her husband and their two young children. When she’s not keeping up with rambunctious little ones (and two large dogs), she can usually be found reading a good book or cooking up something new in her kitchen. Amber is represented by the D4EO Literary Agency. Find out more about Amber and her writing at www.amberleighwilliams.com!
Wow, Amber. You took me for a literary walk down memory lane. I'd forgotten how all of those books we were 'forced' to read during our adolescence really are so important to us in adult life. Thanks for the reminder. As a side note regarding the math, which is important too: when I was in high school - well before you got there - an 'enlightened' guidance counselor looked at the Advanced Calculus and Trig class on my schedule and informed me 'as a girl you really don't need that'. Kudos to those literary voices who taught us so much.
What a lovely tribute to Lee and Conroy, two inspiring authors leaving proud legacies. You listed the books I taught as an English teacher from '67-'89. But there were more in the 70's that curled students' hair...Invisible Man, Soul on Ice, several of Baldwin's books, Brave New World, Catch 22, Vonnegut's books...I could go on. My students complained every year about the darkness of these novels, but I always explained that existentialists had an eye on what humans could be if they considered positive directions in lives...the authors' criticism of people showed these authors understood human potential. Your point about teaching the realities of the world is spot on, as well. Thanks for your thoughts on these fine writers!
What a great post, Amber. My daughter is currently reading To Kill A Mockingbird for her AP English class. I'm not sure if she's appreciating it the way I did, however... The one piece I read in school that really stuck with me was a short story. The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. It's interesting how great literature leaves its mark!
It's early morning and that was pretty deep, but inspiring. Thanks, Amber.
I have several of your titles on my book list from my teen years as well, Amber. Like you, To Kill a Mockingbird had a huge impact on me. I never read Prince of Tides, but I did read The Great Santini and remember it being hard to process what it would have been like to grow up in that environment. Like Jannine, The Lottery stuck with me, as did Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck)--none of them fluff! I'd have to say the one that hit me deepest was The Diary of A Young Girl by Anne Frank, probably because it was her real diary. I was horrified, and cried and cried reading it.
I think those novels are what compelled me to turn to romance and adventure too. To this day I hesitate to read the "important" works. That probably sounds shallow, but I read for run and enjoyment these days. Yay for romance and adventure. :-)
Margo, I had an enlightened guidance counselor, too, who told me I wasn't smart enough to advance to Calculus with all the other senior despite never failing a class. My first year of college I aced Calculus. Probably just to prove her wrong, lol
Rolynn, thank you for your years of teaching! I'm so grateful to my English/Lit teachers who fueled the fire in me for all things literary.
Jannine, I hope your daughter winds up liking it. It's an important book. Everybody should read it.
Leah, I think everyone should read the heavy books AND the happy books. And The Diary of Anne Frank had a profound impact on me. I read the generic copy for school, read it then went out and bought the unabridged version. I poured over it before I bought a biography of Anne Frank. I can't wait until my children are old enough to read it, too.
Lovely tribute to two giants. I still think it's too bad that Harper Lee didn't write more books that we could enjoy and that would inspire us.
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