I Am Scout, page 1
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Chapter 1. “Ellen” Spelled Backward
Chapter 2. “Apart People”
Chapter 3. First Hints of To Kill a Mockingbird
Chapter 4. Rammer Jammer
Chapter 5. “Willing to Be Lucky”
Chapter 6. “See NL’s Notes”
Chapter 7. Mockingbird Takes Off
Chapter 8. “Oh, Mr. Peck!”
Chapter 9. The Second Novel
Chapter 10. Quiet Time
To my wife, Guadalupe
“Ellen” Spelled Backward
“Get offa him!” Nelle Roared. “Get off now!”
Though she was only seven years old in 1933, Nelle Harper Lee peeled the older boys away from her friend and next-door neighbor Truman Streckfus Persons. He was lying on his back, red-faced and tearful, in the sandpit of the Monroe County Elementary School playground in Monroeville, Alabama. The bigger boys had been playing a game called Hot Grease in the Kitchen, Go Around! With their arms crossed, they dared anyone to try to get past them and into the sandpit.
But Truman, who adored attention, couldn’t resist. He had marched directly toward the older boys and forced his way through. What he didn’t expect was how furiously they would attack him. Shouts and flailing fists assaulted him, until Nelle barged into the circle and pulled him to his feet. Then she shoved past the angry boys and escorted her injured friend away, glancing over her shoulder to make sure she and Truman weren’t being followed.1
But most boys knew better than to try that. Nelle had a reputation as a fearsome stomach-puncher, foot-stomper, and hair-puller, who “could talk mean like a boy.”2 Three boys had tried challenging her once. They came at her, one at a time, bravely galloping toward a dragon. Within moments, each had landed facedown, spitting gravel and crying “Uncle!”
She was “a sawed-off but solid tomboy with an all-hell-let-loose wrestling technique,” wrote Truman of a short story character he later based on Nelle.3 Girls tended to be wary around her, too. During a game of softball, Nelle slammed into the girl playing first base, bowling her over and ripping her dress. “I was not fond of Nelle,” said the former ballplayer, thinking back on that collision years later. “She was a bully, thought she knew so much more than anybody else, and probably did.”4
Bully was a word often used to describe Nelle, but it can also be seen as an envious compliment. She was a fighter on the playground and frightened those who wouldn’t stand up for themselves. She relied on herself and was independent, giving the impression at times that she was snobbish. And because she didn’t try to conceal how smart and curious she was, she defied rules of good behavior for children. A fourth-grade classmate watched “in awe when Nelle would ‘talk back’ to the teachers. She was strong-willed and outspoken.”5 When she called her teacher, Mrs. McNeil, by her first name “Leighton,” Mrs. McNeil was shocked. But why? Nelle wanted to know. She called her father by his first name! It was typical of how Nelle went her own way most of the time. Her eldest sister, Alice, 15 years older, later admitted that her little sister, the youngest of four children, “isn’t much of a conformist.”6
* * *
It was true she was tough and independent. She preferred wearing a scruffy pair of overalls to a dress and hanging upside down from the chinaberry tree in her yard to sitting quietly in a church. But actually, her folks were upper-middle class. Her home life was the product of several generations of southern Alabama farmers raising themselves up from hardship.
The Lees had long been Deep South Southerners. Nelle’s father was the son of a Civil War veteran, Cader Alexander Lee, a private who fought in 22 battles with the 15th Alabama Regiment. (Her family is not related to Confederate general Robert E. Lee, as encyclopedias claim.)7 After the South surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia in April 1865, Cader Lee, 26, did his best to steer his life back on course. On September 6, 1866, he married 22-year-old Theodocia Eufrassa Windham, a sister of a distant cousin killed during the war. Less than two years later, the first of their nine children was born. In the middle of the brood, Amasa Coleman Lee, Harper Lee’s father, was born July 19, 1880, in Georgiana, a village in Butler County, Alabama, 60 miles south of Montgomery. His family nicknamed him “Coley.” Within a few years, they moved to northern Florida.
Coley Lee’s upbringing took place in a “staunch Methodist home,” he recalled, meaning his parents frowned on drinking, card playing, and other time-wasting behavior. On Sundays, his father hitched up the horses for a three-and-a-half-mile trip from their farm in Chipley, Florida, to services at the local Methodist church. The message of those sermons became the central philosophy of his life: salvation through believing in the gospel of Jesus was only the first step in fulfilling a responsibility to help reform humanity. Years later, as a civic leader in Monroeville and an Alabama state legislator, Nelle’s father was a strong believer in the need to uplift people. “Progress,” he argued, “might be defined as any activity which brings the greatest possible number of benefits to the greatest possible number of people.”8
Even after Coley reached the age for regular schooling, chores on the farm took precedence over schoolwork. Some winter evenings he ran out of daylight before he could finish his lessons. But he was a steady reader, and at 16 he passed the examination to teach. For three years he taught school near Marianna, Florida.
Then, eager for better wages, he shook the dust of Florida from his heels. In southern Alabama, big sawmills were eating deep into the piney woods—one appearing every five miles or so along railroad tracks, filling the air with the scream of buzz saws and the vinegary smell of fresh lumber. Mills employed 50 to 80 men, about one third of them black, and there was plenty of work for laborers. But Coley—introducing himself as “A. C. Lee” now—was a whiz at numbers and landed a job as a bookkeeper. Over the next several years, a series of better-paying positions followed. Finally, he found work at the Flat Creek Mill in Finchburg, Alabama, a tiny town named after the postmaster, James Finch. Then one day at church, A.C. met Finch’s 19-year-old daughter, Frances Cunningham Finch.
* * *
Frances’s father was a farmer and part-time postmaster. Her mother, Ellen C. Finch (her maiden name was Williams), came from money: her family owned a plantation in southwest Alabama. The land was excellent, bordered as it was by the Alabama River, then rising into high fields above the floodplains. Steamboats arrived to off-load goods and take on the Williamses’ cotton, raised and picked by slaves. It was one of many real-life places and people that Nelle later drew on when she came to write To Kill a Mockinghird. “Finch’s Landing,” as she renamed the Williamses’ plantation in the novel, “produced everything required to sustain life except ice, wheat flour, and articles of clothing, supplied by river-boats from Mobile.”9 Although James Finch and his wife were not as well-off as their in-laws, they gave their children the best education they could afford.
When their daughters Frances and Alice each reached 15, the Finches enrolled them in the new Alabama Girls’ Industrial School in Montevallo, a progressive institution for white girls. In today’s terms, it resembled a private college prep school. The students studied English, Latin, history, and mathematics. In addition, they could choose from vocatio
To keep the focus on academics, the girls wore uniforms: a navy blue dress and cap trimmed with white cord and a tassel. Trips off campus required a chaperone because, as the school catalog warned, “pupils are not here to enter society, but to be educated”; furthermore, “they are not allowed to correspond with gentlemen, and visits from them is positively prohibited under penalty of expulsion.”11
The Finches were wholeheartedly in favor of this no-nonsense curriculum for cultivating young women. And so when A. C. Lee entered the picture—a self-made, self-educated young man who was preparing himself for bigger things—they recognized a good match for their daughter. And Frances—an artistic, some might say pampered young woman—had every reason to expect the kind of genteel life she had been educated for.
The couple married on June 22, 1910. A.C. was 30 years old, and Frances, 19. During the ensuing years, the Lees would have four children: Alice (1911); Frances Louise (1916); and Edwin (1920). When their youngest child, Nelle, was born on April 28, 1926, her parents gave her the first name of her maternal grandmother, Ellen Finch, spelled backward.
* * *
In 1912, two years after their marriage, the Lees moved with one-year-old Alice to Nelle’s future birthplace, Monroeville, 15 miles southeast of Finchburg where the couple had met. For 80 years, since its founding as the county seat of Monroe County in 1832, Monroeville had been snoozing in the muggy breezes from the Gulf of Mexico, a pretty sad spectacle.
The reason Monroeville had failed to flourish was that it was a poor choice for the county seat in the first place. Everything and everybody had to rattle into town overland because there were no rivers or railroads nearby. By 1860, the population of Monroeville teetered at about 300—half white and half black. A Confederate soldier passing through town in the mid-1860s, during the Civil War, described it as “the most boring place in the world.”12 Forty years later, in 1900, there were still no paved streets or sidewalks and no street lights. Houses and other buildings were unpainted; and churches and schools looked dilapidated.
But in 1912, when the Lees arrived in Monroeville, the town was finally ready to prosper. A sign of progress rumbled and whistled its way into town that year, when the first locomotive of the Manistee & Repton Railroad arrived on freshly laid tracks. In fact, the new railroad was the reason the Lees had moved to Monroeville. Mr. Lee had been newly hired as financial manager with the law firm of Barnett, Bugg & Jones, handling their interests in the Manistee & Repton. The M&R, as local people called it, began hauling freight and passengers east from Monroeville to Manistee Junction, where it joined the mighty Louisville & Nashville Railroad.
The benefits to Monroeville of the railroad’s arrival were staggering. After 1912, brick structures began replacing old weather-beaten wooden buildings, giving the town the appearance of real permanence. Although Monroeville’s economy was based on only a handful of humble but necessary industries—a sawmill, a cotton ginnery, a gristmill, a fertilizer plant, a machine shop, lumberyard, and a waterworks plant—an enormous new high school opened the same year the railroad arrived, indicating that a better future lay ahead for Monroeville’s young people.
A.C.’s career prospered in the offices of Barnett, Bugg & Jones. First, he served as the financial manager; then, by “reading for the law,” as it was called—a kind of home-schooling under the guidance of attorneys—he passed the bar examination in 1915.
Plenty of legal cases would likely come his way, as Monroeville was the county seat. The enormous white-domed courthouse, built in 1903 in the center of the town square, was “one of the handsomest and most conveniently appointed in the state,” boasted the Monroe Journal, “and one that would do credit to a county far exceeding Monroe in wealth and population.”13 From the corridors of the courthouse, all the administrators and servants of county government spent every weekday issuing a paper stream of court orders, motions, certificates, writs, deeds, wills, plats, bills of sale, affidavits, and depositions. As Scout says about Maycomb, the fictional town based on Monroeville, in To Kill a Mockingbird, “Because its primary reason for existence was government, Maycomb was spared the grubbiness that distinguished most Alabama towns its size.”14
As a young attorney, A. C. Lee was appointed in 1919 to defend two blacks accused of murdering a white man. He lost; they both were hanged. (History of Alabama and Her People, 1927; photographer unidentified)
Steadily A. C. Lee was ascending the rungs of respectability: from teacher in a country school, to bookkeeper, to financial manager, to attorney.
* * *
Despite outward signs that the Lees were doing well, many people thought there was something a little odd about them. Mr. and Mrs. Lee were educated people, and their children—Alice, Louise, Edwin, and Nelle—were known to be bright and friendly. What seemed peculiar about the Lees were signs that the family was coping with problems at home.
To begin with, any thoughtful person could see that A. C. Lee tended to keep himself in check. He stuck to routines and was methodical and reserved. He often gave the impression of having something heavy on his mind.
“Mr. Lee was detached,” Truman’s aunt Marie recalled, “not particularly friendly, especially with children.… He was not the sort of father who came up to his children, ruffled their hair, and made jokes for their amusement.”15 In Mr. Lee’s presence, said an acquaintance, “you didn’t feel comfortable with him. But that he was nice.”16
Part of his standoffishness around children may have been that he was already in his 50s when Nelle was in first grade. (In To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout says about her father, “When Jem and I asked him why he was so old, he said he got started late, which we felt reflected on his abilities and his manliness.”)17
Of course, some of his reserve may also have been rooted in Southern manners, too. Doctors, lawyers, teachers—professional people in general—were expected to behave in a courteous but authoritative way. They were educated, and therefore acknowledged leaders in the community. Said the son of a businessman who golfed with A. C. Lee for years, “I doubt they ever called each other by first names. Those were different times.”18
Seen up close, A. C. Lee was of average height and weight, with a flat, serious face and mild expression. Behind a pair of large, round glasses, his thoughtful gaze looked owlish. Every weekday morning, he would walk down the steps of his wood-frame white one-story bungalow on South Alabama Avenue on his way to his law offices above the bank in the town square. He did not greet passersby on the street with a hearty “good morning.” If the weather was rainy, Mr. Lee drove his black Chevrolet. He was a Chevy man his entire life, not given to flashiness even though he was one of the wealthiest men in town.
He wore a dark three-piece suit that sagged and lost its crease in the Alabama heat during the summertime. He always wore a suit, everywhere, even when golfing and the only time anyone could recall him hunting. That day he trudged around under the trees and shot a few doves—almost as a favor to the friend who had invited him—then he went straight back to the office. He wasn’t much interested in that sort of thing. One of his former golf caddies remembered Mr. Lee as “much more of an intellectual than a physical man. The image of shooting the mad dog or of facing down the crowd of rough necks [as Atticus Finch does] has never quite rung true to me. The strong intellectual stand, though, seems very natural.”19
When he was lost in thought he had a habit of absentmindedly fumbling with things, including his watch, a fountain pen, or his special favorite: a tiny pocketknife. He flipped it up with his thumb and caught it like a coin while he talked. Once, a store clerk waited while Mr. Lee practiced flipping differen
In addition to playing with objects while he spoke, his manner of speaking was slow and careful. He did not make conversation as much as let fall a comment that usually began with “ah-hem!” contained “uh,” and sometimes, for emphasis, ended with “ah-rum!”21 Generally, he preferred listening to talking, while sucking on a piece of hard candy.
Even on social occasions, he was never one to cut loose. He never accepted a drink or offered to pay for one. A. C. Lee, everyone in town knew, was a strict Methodist, and when it came to liquor, he was “dry as an old sun-bleached bone.”22
At the Monroeville Methodist Episcopal Church, where he was a deacon, congregation members noted that he usually sat near the front by himself, preferring to be alone with his thoughts. When it was time to pray, he would rise, face the congregation, and deliver a long improvised prayer, tapping out a rhythm for his rumbling voice on the pew with his penknife.
* * *
Why Mr. Lee seemed so distant only some of the neighbors on South Alabama Avenue and a handful of close friends understood. He was serious by nature, it was true, but he was also preoccupied with worries—mainly about his wife and her mental health. To outsiders, that would have been a surprise, because on the surface at least, Mrs. Lee appeared to be a contented housewife married to a successful attorney.
Most days at about 10:00 a.m., she appeared on the porch of the white bungalow to water her flower boxes. She was a large woman but carried herself gracefully and preferred simple cotton prints. She made the most of her best feature—thick, platinum blond hair—by wearing it braided and coiled on the crown of her head. After pinching off dead flower blossoms or cutting back stems that had become too leggy, she went back inside, letting the screen door bang shut. In a few moments, piano music could be heard drifting from the front room. Her gift as a classical pianist had been one of the centerpieces of the orchestra at the Alabama Girls’ Industrial School. In Monroeville, she was in demand as a performer at weddings, and she played at the wedding of Truman’s parents. If the house remained quiet after she had gone inside, it meant she was probably working a crossword puzzle or reading. She was a “brilliant woman,” Truman said; “she could do a New York Times crossword puzzle as fast as she could move a pencil, that kind of person.”23