TUSCALOOSA, Ala., Jan. 27 — Of all the functions at the president's mansion of the University of Alabama here, none has acquired the mystique surrounding a modest annual luncheon attended by high school students from around the state.via Arts & Letters Daily
They come with cameras dangling on their wrists and dressed, respectfully, as if they were about to issue an insurance policy or anchor the news. An awards ceremony for an essay contest on the subject of "To Kill a Mockingbird," the occasion attracts no actor, politician or music figure. Instead, it draws someone to whom Alabamians collectively attach far more obsession: the author of the book itself, Harper Lee, who lives in the small town of Monroeville, Ala., one of the most reclusive writers in the history of American letters....
The students write with longing for the kind of unmanaged childhood experienced by Jem and Scout Finch in the rural 1930's Alabama of Ms. Lee's rendering. Some tell of the racial tensions they witness in their school cafeterias, others of the regional prejudices they experience at the hands of Northern peers who assume anyone from Alabama must drive a pickup truck or live in a mobile home. In an essay a few years ago one girl likened the trial of the book's Tom Robinson, a black man unjustly accused of raping a white girl, to the 1999 murder of Billy Jack Gaither, a young man living in Sylacauga, killed because he was gay....
Ms. Lee is quick-witted and gregarious. At the ceremony she greeted a server at the mansion whom she remembered from luncheons past. "I went back to my friends and I told everyone that I'd met you," the young woman said. "Nobody believed me. I said, 'Oh, yeah, I did, and she is the nicest, sweetest lady." Ms. Lee looked at her with amused suspicion and started to laugh.
During lunch she reminisced about her old friend Horton Foote, who wrote the screenplay for the acclaimed 1962 film of "To Kill a Mockingbird," starring Gregory Peck. Ms. Lee spent three weeks on the set, she said, and took off when she realized everything would be fine without her.
"I think it is one of the best translations of a book to film ever made," she said. Ms. Lee attended Peck's memorial service in California three years ago. About her friend Mr. Foote, who is 89, she said, "He's become quite amazing looking in old age, like God, but clean-shaven."
When Mr. Carruthers approached and asked why he hadn't received a letter from her in so long — the two have become good friends — she answered that she would get to him "once I finish off all the letters I have to write." Since the release of "Capote," much of her time has been spent writing demurrals to reporters seeking interviews about her life. Someone suggested she come up with a form-letter response to such requests.
What it would say, she joked, "is hell, no."
To my mind, Catherine Keener's Harper Lee character in the film Capote was almost a eulogy to the passing of common sense and the common touch among literary types in our age of celebrity mania.
P.S. I didn't realize Harper Lee was a descendant of Robert E.