The Unbearable Banishment: Happy birthday, Atticus Finch

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Happy birthday, Atticus Finch

Today is the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird. It is the single most important book in my life.

I didn't read a book until I was 21 years old. It's true! They attempted to force-feed me while attending my below-average schools, but I made it clear that I would only read a book under protest and made every effort to not finish it. I usually succeeded.

Flash to age 21. I'm in the Coast Guard (no university for me, thanks!) and freshly arrived in New York City. I didn't know a soul. I'd not felt so isolated and all alone before or since. At that time, the city was a dirty, overwhelming, scary mess. But I got sick of sitting around and starring at my shoelaces, so I decided to go exploring.

I took the R train from Whitehall up to Central Park. On the way, I passed a street peddler who was selling books. I gave birth to, what I thought was, the most original and exciting idea ever conceived. I was going to sit in the park and read a book. I thought that voluntarily reading a book was a courageous act.

I looked over all the books spread out on the sidewalk (I can still picture it to this day) and saw a tattered, worn paperback of To Kill a Mockingbird. I remembered that some of my friends in school read it, so I thought I'd give it a try. Plus, it was really thin and that appealed to me.

I sat down on a Central Park bench, opened the book and began reading. I was a different man when I got up off that bench. It was a defining moment. That book sucked me in and I haven't stopped reading since. It opened a door for me. I became a reader because of To Kill a Mockingbird. What a gift!

In 2005 I got the notion to write Harper Lee and tell her how much her book meant to me. I wrote that, because of her book, I'm living a better life than someone without a college degree could have expected to live. I wrote that I am a better father to my daughters and honestly don't know what would have become of me if her book hadn't introduced me to reading. I worked hard on the letter and was pleased with the results.

Harper Lee is a recluse who shuns all publicity. All I knew was that she lives in Monroeville, Alabama, so I sent the letter to Harper Lee, c/o Monroeville, AL. I never expected it to arrive, much less be read by her, but I had to get that off my chest.

Just a few short days after I sent my letter, I received the following:

The fact that I moved Harper Lee to write such an elegant thank-you note is meaningful to me. The funny coda is that a few days after that, I received ANOTHER note from Ms. Lee. She couldn't remember whether or not she sent a thank-you note.

"Forgive me if this is a repeat letter; I'm old, my eyesight is failing and I'm FORGETFUL. I may have forgot that I replied to you, but I know one thing:

I'll never forget your letter. In 45 years of receiving fan mail, I never had a letter mean so much to me. Thank you for it.

Happy birthday, Atticus. Thanks for saving me from a boring life.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

OMG! I am knocked over by your response from Harper Lee and I'm impressed that she took the time to let you know how much she valued your words.

Yours must have been the kind of letter that makes a writer feel that they have left the world a better place.

Good for you for going to the trouble to make sure she knew the impact she made on your life even when you thought your letter might never reach her.

Not to try to claim kinship as we say in the south, but since you know me as GOTJ, you may not know that my surname name is Harper.

April 28, 2010 at 1:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I forgot to say ... there's a well worn copy of

Harper Lee's, " To Kill A Mockingbird " on my bookshelf.

It was an easy decision when I was struggling to sort through my books back in the US while trying to decide what I would ship to the UK in my 200 cubic feet of space.

Can you tell I'm a fan?

April 28, 2010 at 2:09 PM  
Anonymous daisyfae said...

pure magic, all the way around.

do you still have a copy of what you sent?

April 28, 2010 at 2:40 PM  
Blogger kyknoord said...

I am suddenly filled with respect for the US Postal Service (Don't worry, I was already filled with respect for you).

April 28, 2010 at 3:46 PM  
Blogger Poindexter said...

Your heart must have been so full of gratitude, I can only imagine how moving it must have been for her to read your letter. That is clearly why she replied to you. I am touched by both your gesture and hers too.

And I also love To Kill A Mockingbird. One of my favorite books. Ever. An absolute American classic.

Yes, happy birthday Atticus.

April 28, 2010 at 4:43 PM  
Blogger Leah said...

Seriously wow. This is a beautiful post.

April 28, 2010 at 4:44 PM  
Blogger SJF said...

Wow, that is a wonderful story. To think that a book could have had such a powerful impact on your life. I'm glad you took the time to write that letter to Harper Lee. Loved the book too (and the movie as well). When I was in 6th grade I played Mrs. Merriweather the teacher (think that was the name) in a school play.

April 28, 2010 at 5:12 PM  
Blogger The Unbearable Banishment said...

GOTJ: The letter was well crafted, if I do say so myself. I couldn't believe I got a response. When I pulled the letter from the mail, I stood there stunned. I love the name Harper.

Daisy: I kept a copy of the letter and have it in a folder with her two responses.

kyknoord: It amazed me, too! I included the zip code, but still. It was a crap shoot.

Point: She's not known for reaching out to her public so it was a complete surprise to me.

Leah: Thank you. I hope nobody thinks I'm just bragging that I have a thank-you note from Harper Lee. That's not my intention

Sharon: I think it was the right book that came along at just the right moment. If it hadn't been that book, would it have been another? Or would I have missed the reading boat entirely? I'll never know for sure.

April 28, 2010 at 5:27 PM  
Blogger Pueblo girl said...

I hope you have a first edition of To Kill A Mockingbird. Also one of my all-time favourite books, first read in school.

April 28, 2010 at 6:27 PM  
Anonymous annie said...

That note is awesome.

To Kill a Mockingbird is the most perfect book ever written. I read it on my own at some point during my early teens. By the time they introduced it in school, I'd read it several times.

I used to teach a single chapter to my seventh graders in total defiance of curriculum. It was the one where Atticus shoots the rabid dog. It's just a perfect chapter that shows, shows shows. Show, don't tell is my bane and that is my shining example.

April 28, 2010 at 6:32 PM  
Blogger The Unbearable Banishment said...

PG: I most certainly do NOT have a first edition! I wish! That book is a landmark of American literature. A nice 1st would set you back anywhere from $10-20,000.

Annie: Beautifully written and, don't take this the wrong way, easy to read. It can be enjoyed on a deep level by the masses. That's the beauty of it.

April 28, 2010 at 6:55 PM  
Blogger mapstew said...

That is wonderfully excellent!

AND you've been to dinner at the BOSS's gaff!! :¬)

April 28, 2010 at 7:56 PM  
Blogger Cat said...

Harper Lee has had all the accolades in the world piled onto her, so the way you told her what her book meant to you, must have been very special indeed.

April 28, 2010 at 9:41 PM  
Blogger Here In Franklin said...

Fuck me running. I am speechless. (And that is rare indeed.)

April 28, 2010 at 9:53 PM  
Anonymous RubyTwoShoes said...

Wow, I love this post. I feel like you just pulled a rabbit, ever so subtly, from your sleeve.
What a great gift you gave Ms Lee, and she you.

I too love To Kill A Mockingbird, but cannot claim to be so greatly affected.

A funny aside is that in reading your post A Catcher In the Rye was firmly in place in my mind - you conjured all the greats!

April 28, 2010 at 11:32 PM  
Anonymous Sid said...

You got a letter from Harper Lee??? No friggin way! Seriously. For some reason I'd always assumed she'd died ages ago.

April 29, 2010 at 1:56 AM  
Anonymous nuttycow said...

How lovely that she took the time to write to you.

I have to confess. I haven't read the book. It's on my bookcase. Unread.

Maybe today I'll take it down and have a bit of a read.

Thank you

April 29, 2010 at 4:20 AM  
Anonymous nursemyra said...

What an amazing response! That really blows me away

April 29, 2010 at 5:08 AM  
Blogger The Unbearable Banishment said...

Map: Yes, all the celebs want to be around me. It's always been like that.

Cat: I hope that's true. Sometimes I wonder if it was her Southern hospitality that drove her to write such a nice note.

HIF: I stood there in my dumb silence when I first read the note. Mrs. Wife thought I was reading bad news!

Ruby: I LOVE Catcher, but it's unlikely you ever would have received a note from J.D.S.

Sid: She has always kept a very low profile so I can see how you would think that. She's OLD but still around.

Nutty: You should give it a go. It's really well written. A real page-turner.

Nurse: You would never expect something like that, right?! She's a nice lady.

April 29, 2010 at 7:14 AM  
Anonymous popomatic.jeff said...

Wow. Her thank you note is amazing. That must have been one hell of a letter you wrote.

April 29, 2010 at 12:51 PM  
Blogger Leah said...

I hope it's okay, but I had to direct people from my blog to this incredible post--the more I think about it, the more I love it. And by the way, my whole family read it and loved it too.

April 29, 2010 at 1:25 PM  
Blogger Brian Miller said...

how cool is that...i fell in love with reading at an early age...i remember one day fumbling my way out of the house screaming for my mother that i had been struck blind...i had read so long my eyes became tired and after rest i could once again see but the memory has stayed with me. very cool about harper lee and the note back to you...

April 29, 2010 at 2:08 PM  
Blogger Everyday Goddess said...

That's amazing! So well told too. :)

April 29, 2010 at 2:08 PM  
Blogger Ronda Laveen said...

This is a beautiful story. Just like a happy ending in a movie or a book.

April 29, 2010 at 6:24 PM  
Blogger Tracey said...

Hi, there. Leah sent me. What a truly amazing story. I also have a book that introduced and adult-me to reading, but as it is not nearly so good or meaningful as "To Kill a Mockingbird," I shall decline to mention it by name. (My pride)

Now, I make a point of writing to authors if their work has moved me. Whether they are big names or unknowns. If I were them, I would want to know.

I'll have to thank Leah for her recommendation.

April 29, 2010 at 6:28 PM  
Blogger Pat said...

I'm so glad I followed Leah's instructions to visit.
As a reader I can't think of anything nicer than a letter from a writer I admire and as a writer I can't think of anything nicer than a letter such as yours, from a reader.

April 29, 2010 at 6:43 PM  
Blogger Alan Burnett said...

Excellent post. I too only read "To Kill" relatively late in life and am forever grateful that I didn't miss out on it.

April 30, 2010 at 4:51 AM  
Blogger The Unbearable Banishment said...

Pop: Yes, I wrote and re-wrote that letter over and over before finally sending it.

Leah: Is is okay? Are you kidding me? You know what a glutton for attention I am. THANKS!

Brian: It was an unexpected surprise, to say the least. I'm reading to my daughters every night so they don't have to wait until they're 21 to enjoy reading.

EG: Thanks for the props! If I was a cat, I'd be purring.

Ronda: It really WAS a happy ending! What if I had never learned to love books? What would have become of me?

Tracey: I thanked Leah, as well. I love her Brooklyn virtual home and actually use to live in that neighborhood! What are the odds of THAT happening?!

Pat: Thank you. I wrote what was in my heart and Ms. Lee responded in kind. What a lovey exchange.

Alan: The funny thing is that you can read a book later in life and enjoy it on a completely different level. Catcher in the Rye reads much differently as an adult than it did as a raging teen.

April 30, 2010 at 7:23 AM  
Anonymous Nana Jo said...

I followed this link through 'The Weather on the Streets;, and I am so glad I did. I am so moved. I'm sitting here with tears in my eyes, my coffee cold. You see, that book had a huge impact on my life, too. You write about it with such eloquent simplicity.

How wonderful that you sent your heart-song to Harper Lee and she answered, and now you have shared it with all who read you ... such beauty-filled notes.

Thank you.

April 30, 2010 at 10:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A great story about a great book! I'm more of a movie guy (probably something to do with my attention span), and don't have a great memory for books. But this one touched me, and I still remember large parts of it.

Being from a different country, and somehow having had the impression that it was a ham-fisted "message" book, I didn't expect to like it, or be able to relate to it, when I picked it up. But I suppose bigotry, courage, and a portrait of the ultimate parent, can strike a chord with virtually anyone...

April 30, 2010 at 2:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

put it on ebay

April 30, 2010 at 3:50 PM  
Blogger Merely Me said...

...linked through Leah...not sure who to thank more?

This was totally awesome. What a treasure.

April 30, 2010 at 9:10 PM  
Blogger Moxymama said...

Harper Lee is my favorite author and TKAM is by far my favorite book! I taught it every year when I was teaching high school English, regardless of what age level I was teaching. I am stunned and impressed that she wrote such a wonderful thank you letter, considering how much mail she would have gotten over the years. Your letter must have really touched her!
BTW, I linked over from Here in Franklin.

April 30, 2010 at 9:13 PM  
Blogger JZ said...

Great story man...A couple of thoughts:

This is a tale that reminds us that the great creators are just people too. To share with them how we are truly and deeply affected by their art has an impact greater than any review or award. I genuinely believe everyone hopes to leave behind a work of such transformative power...but rarely can ever know. You have guaranteed your entrance into heaven for affirming the worthiness of her creative struggle.

It's been since, like Freshman year in H.S., but I have GOT to go get a copy and read it again.....and maybe I'll even use this an a opportunity to use ever wholesome Raleigh Public Library, something that I got away from years ago....seems only right.

April 30, 2010 at 10:13 PM  
Blogger The Unbearable Banishment said...

Nana Jo: That was very heartfelt. Thanks. Although I'm sorry your coffee went cold.

Rohan: Now that you mention it, I suppose it could be a bit ham-fisted, but the quality of the writing rises above it.

Merely Me: I can tell you exactly who to thank: Harper Lee

Moxy: As I mentioned, they taught it in my school as well but at that time, I thought reading was boring. Oh, the wasted years.

JZ: You'll be surprised if you read it again. There's a completely different focus on it as an adult.

April 30, 2010 at 10:37 PM  
Blogger Nimpipi said...

How Lovely! I think I'll read the book again. Immediately though, I'm starring your post and emailing it to my friends.

May 1, 2010 at 9:12 AM  
Anonymous merranie z said...

wow. fantastic post. one of my faves so far ('frailty, thy name is unbearable banishment being a close second').

May 1, 2010 at 8:20 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Another visitor from Leah. What a great post this is. And you know what got me the most? Her penmanship. So rare to see that hand these days.

May 2, 2010 at 1:11 AM  
Blogger mondraussie said...

And a visitor sent here from Here in Franklin... Nothing to say that hasn't been said already, but wow! It's one of my favourite books too...

May 2, 2010 at 6:30 AM  
Blogger Mrsupole said...

Leah sent me here and I am so glad that I came. That is a cool letter and I can remember reading that book in High School. It is a book one never forgets if you read it. It is a classic.

Very cool that you moved her and you are blessed to do this.

God bless.

May 2, 2010 at 8:32 AM  
Blogger muralimanohar said...

Leah sent me here, too. :p What an amazing letter. I've never read To Kill a Mockingbird...I get viscerally, physically affected by traumatic books (racism, injustice, etc, rank right up there for trauma for me), and after watching the movie, I haven't been able to bring myself to read the book. This post and the following comments are giving me second thoughts, but I will have to work myself up to it.

May 2, 2010 at 5:36 PM  
Anonymous Kate said...

That is quite amazing. I read To Kill A Mockingbird for the first time when I was 13, maybe 14. 6 or 7 reads later it was established as my favourite book.

In TY, our English teacher asked for suggestions for what to read and inevitably I suggested it and inevitably overanalysis in a school context killed it. I haven't read it since.

Maybe I'll pick it up in the library again :)

May 23, 2010 at 7:53 AM  
Blogger Blues said...

I'm dumbstruck. Talk about a treasure.

May 30, 2010 at 9:10 AM  
Anonymous writteninwater said...

What a lovely story. And thank god you picked up the right book that day. I can never understand when people tell me they don't read novels - they give life shape, meaning, texture ...

August 12, 2011 at 11:03 AM  
Blogger The Gneech said...

Gah. I'm verklempt now! 100% pure awesome.


August 12, 2011 at 12:32 PM  
Blogger Sparf said...

I always try to write letters to the people who inspire me.

I'm glad this one was able to touch the creator in such a way.

August 12, 2011 at 1:32 PM  
Anonymous looby said...

What a lovely story, equally in your telling her about the effects the book made, and equally from her in her generous acknowldgement of them.

I'd better read it now then!

December 2, 2011 at 6:26 AM  
Anonymous Jeremy Nedumaran said...

You got a letter from Harper Lee??? No friggin way! Seriously. For some reason I'd always assumed she'd died ages ago.

October 24, 2012 at 5:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Holy crap, that's awesome. No, beyond awesome. Phenomenal, even. What an unbelievably wonderful gift you gave her, and what an unbelievably wonderful gift you received in return. And it's a great book. I saw the movie before I read the book, though, so of course I was picturing Gregory Peck and Robert Duvall as Atticus and Boo.

And I laughed out loud at the part where you said you gave birth to the idea of sitting in the park reading a book. GENIUS!!

February 14, 2013 at 5:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amazing! That is so incredible, for both you and Ms.Lee. AND, she wants it to go into her archives!!! Serendipity, at its finest!

Thanks so much, to Madame Weebles!

February 20, 2013 at 1:43 PM  
Anonymous Karl said...

That's fantastic. It's brought the first tears of the day to my eyes. One should always write letters. You never know where they lead. x

March 20, 2013 at 7:42 AM  

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