Friday, February 19, 2016

R.I.P., Harper Lee, I Wish I Had Known You

"You see, more than a simple matter of putting down words, writing is a process of self–discipline you must learn before you can call yourself a writer."

Harper Lee, 1964 interview with Roy Newquist, Counterpoints

There haven't been many famous people I have really wanted to meet — and, in my career as a journalist and journalism professor, I have met some famous people. Most I have met in the course of my work — and probably wouldn't have wanted to meet otherwise.

If I had to compile a list of the famous people I did want to meet, I guess it shouldn't come as a surprise that they are (or were) writers all. Even if they were famous for doing something else, they wrote about whatever it was that they did.

I would have liked to meet Mark Twain or H.L. Mencken.

You know those conversations people often want to start, the ones in which you're asked to identify the four — or six or eight or however many — people from throughout recorded history you would want to have over for dinner? Many people would probably say Jesus or Mahatma Gandhi, but I would start my list with Twain and Mencken. I know they would have something clever to say, and the conversation — whatever it was about — would be lively.

I guess it would depend on the kind of dinner conversation I wanted to have, though. If I wanted it to be theological, Jesus and Gandhi would be obvious choices, but I have a feeling that would be a rather somber conversation.

But taking dinner out of the equation, nearly all the famous people I would want to meet, as I say, would be writers — and not necessarily the obvious ones, either, like Shakespeare.

I'm a journalist, and I have always wanted to meet Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. In fact, I have achieved half of that goal. When I was teaching journalism at the University of Oklahoma, Bernstein came and delivered a lecture one evening. I attended — with my hardback copy of "The Final Days" — and introduced myself to him when his lecture was done. I even got him to autograph the book.

Well, Woodward is still alive so there is still a chance I could meet him and get him to autograph that book, too, but so many of the writers I would have liked to meet — Ernest Hemingway, James Michener, Theodore H. White, J.R.R. Tolkien, Allen Drury — are gone, and I will never get to meet them.

Add one more to the list. Harper Lee died today. She wrote "To Kill a Mockingbird," which earned her the Pulitzer Prize of 1961. She spent the next half–century largely avoiding the spotlight, rarely giving interviews.

When she died, she apparently died quietly — in her sleep. If we could have our druthers, as Li'l Abner used to say, I expect most of us would like to go that way.

That's how my grandfather died. I assume he went quietly. My grandmother wasn't awakened and had no idea anything was wrong until she tried to rouse Grandpa the next morning.

I always wanted to meet Harper Lee. It would have been great to interview her if I could, but I would have been happy just to sit down and have a conversation with her about writing.

I've kept a copy of "To Kill a Mockingbird" on my desk for years. Last summer I purchased and read her second (and, as it turns out, final) book, "Go Set a Watchman." It, too, rests on my desk; I keep them both handy because there are times when I want to refer to them.

I grew up in a Southern town that, I suspect, was much like the one in which Harper Lee grew up in Alabama — and I found a lot of country wisdom in the pages of her books.

If I substituted some of the names, I probably could have told the story of my hometown in "To Kill a Mockingbird." Not necessarily word for word or event for event but certainly with some relatively minor changes. Perhaps that is why "To Kill a Mockingbird" has always had such a hold on me.

I would have liked to have had a conversation with her about the people and the culture of the South. I'm sure she would have some intriguing insights to share.