July 15, 2010
Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.
— Harper Lee, b. 1926
American fiction writer, from To Kill a Mockingbird
I was 13 years old when To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960. I read it for the first time in November of 1962, in a library copy that I took with me in the car as I traveled with my parents and my sister to my cousin’s wedding in Ohio. My tenth-grade English teacher, Sister Mary Kilian, recommended it. A few months later I would see the movie, and fall in love with Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, taking him as my fantasy father.
And I would buy a paperback copy of the book, with Mr. Peck’s picture on it, and paste inside a picture of Harper Lee and a clipping that said she was working on a second novel. She and MacKinlay Kantor became my role models, the writers I wanted to be like. In a 1963 fan letter to Mr. Kantor, I told him I wanted to win the Pulitzer Prize too. In a gracious reply, he praised my “clear and vibrant” voice and said I seemed sensitive and exuberant and resilient enough to undertake the writing life.
Harper Lee’s second novel never materialized. My first one is in a discovery draft that is not yet complete. Its pages lie on the desk in my room at the University of the South, curling at the edges in the humidity that seeps into this modern building despite the central air conditioning, the thick walls well-insulated, and the tight windows. I took today off, leaving this room only to go to meals, and driving back and forth to the dining hall despite a walk of just less than half a mile along a shady lane beside a lake.
Because for the first time I understand that lovely opening of To Kill a Mockingbird, in which Scout Finch describes Maycomb as a tired old town that was hotter then. It’s hot here today, in mountains nearly 400 miles north of the imaginary Maycomb, Alabama. There is nothing imaginary about the heat, and although I don’t have to bathe and powder myself as often as the ladies of Scout Finch’s childhood, I did take a three o’clock nap, and dreamed that I can yet fulfill the yearning to write that the evocation of the odor of sweat and sweet talcum created in me so long ago.
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