Every so often I wish I had named my son Atticus. He says he’s relieved that I didn’t, but I reckon he’d have grown to like the name after a while. I had another bout of name-regret this week as I celebrated the 80th birthday of the woman whose Atticus Finch formed my attachment to the name. It was a small party just me, sitting in the sun, drinking iced tea, eating pound cake and reading out loud to the dogs. It was hard to put together much of a guest list because I can’t believe that there’s anyone who feels about To Kill a Mockingbird the way I do. The fact that the book has been translated into 40 languages and sold 30 million copies worldwide doesn’t sway me one bit.
So Harper Lee is 80 years old. In Monroe-ville, Alabama, where she was born, her friends call her Nelle. She still lives there with her sister, Alice, who is 94 and practices law in the same firm their father joined after he passed the bar exam in 1915. Harper Lee studied law herself but left six months before her final exams to go to New York and become a writer. She even spent a year in England at Oxford, but whatever she thought of the English she’s kept to herself. In fact, since she published her one and only book in 1960, she’s kept just about everything to herself.
To Kill a Mockingbird is set in Maycomb, Alabama, in the 1930s. I grew up in a small southern town called McComb, Mississippi. Between the 1930s and the 1950s not much had changed in these small southern towns that depended mainly on farming and timber. Harper Lee was the same age as her narrator, six-year old Scout Finch, when the first of the Scottsboro trials began.
The crime the alleged gang rape of two white girls by nine black teenagers on the Southern Railroad freight run from Chattanooga to Memphis on March 25, 1931 never occurred, but, in the Deep South of the 1930s, jurors were not willing to accord a black charged with raping a white woman the presumption of innocence. The Scottsboro trials and re-trials would have dominated Harper Lee’s childhood, the innocence or guilt of the Scottsboro boys the main subject talked about by the grown-ups, especially in an educated family like the Lees. And it would have fiercely divided the town of Monroeville. I’m pretty sure of this because when I was Scout’s age and Harper Lee’s I was staying on my grandparent’s farm in a little hamlet called Philipp, Missis-sippi, on the banks of the Tallahatchie River.
The day before I was due to go home to start school, the body of a 14-year-old black boy was found in the river two miles downstream. His name was Emmett Till. His only crime was to whistle at a white woman and say ‘Bye baby’ as he left the country store she and her husband owned, but the trial of the two white men who killed him dominated my childhood. In Mississippi, on a hot September day in 1955, it took the all-white jury just over an hour to return a ‘not guilty’ verdict.
Like Harper Lee, I came to England for a year. Unlike her, I stayed. I miss the wild, unmanaged childhoods that country children had in the 1930s, the 1950s. I miss the slender grey mockingbirds who know 200 songs, sing their hearts out at a full moon, swoop down and chase cats and dogs for fun, and mate for life. And I miss the sharp sense of justice instilled in us by growing up in families that stuck out because of their belief that, at least in a courtroom, all men are created equal.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on May 11, 2006.