harper lee moves to new york -- 5/4/23

Today's encore selection -- from Atticus Finch: The Biography by Joseph Crespino. In the late 1940s, the optimism that stemmed from America's victory in World War II was giving way to the fear of communism and the encroachment of the Soviet Union. Nowhere was this more true than in the South, where a young Nelle Harper Lee, soon to be the world-renowned author of To Kill a Mockingbird, was an increasingly withdrawn student at the University of Alabama. She soon responded to her friend Truman Capote's invitation to join him in New York:

"That summer, when she was home for the wedding of her brother Ed­win, Nelle made it plain to her family that her heart wasn't in the law. Years later she would say that she had pursued it as 'the line of easiest resistance.' She went back to Tuscaloosa in the fall, giving it one final go, but nothing was the same. She stopped hanging around the campus mag­azine crowd that had sustained her in her first two years. At her sorority and in her law school classes she was a spectral presence. Only a handful of young women were enrolled in the law school at Alabama in those days, yet few of them would even be able to recall Nelle Lee years later. Those who did remembered her as defiantly dowdy -- long skirts, baggy blouses, plain flats, no makeup -- and intensely reclusive, saying as little as she possibly could when called upon in class, scurrying out afterward with her head down.

"The political climate on campus had changed as well. The heady days of [progressive] lectures by Ellis Arnall and Claude Pepper had come and gone in a flash. So, too, had the student editorials castigating the Birmingham Klan. All those veterans who had flooded campus as freshmen two or three years prior were now juniors and seniors, crowding campus organizations that during the war had enjoyed ample co-ed participation and leadership. On campus, as in national politics, the optimism of the postwar years had given over to loyalty oaths and subversive investigations. One of the few things that could provoke Nelle enough to crawl out of her shell that year was the red scare showing up in the pages of the Crimson-White.

"In February 1948, student columnist Jim Wood began with a sim­ple question: 'Is there any Communism on the University of Alabama campus?' Without offering any facts as evidence, the answer he came to quickly was yes. Universities were fertile ground for 'communistic conquest,' as everyone knew. 'There are numerous persons on campus who are professed communists,' he wrote, 'either trying to be shocking or by actual belief.'

"Trying to be shocking was Nelle Lee's specialty, if not in class then at least in print. It's almost impossible to find anything she published in college that didn't include at least one four-letter word, which in Baptist­ soaked Alabama in the 1940s still had the power to scandalize. But she provoked readers in other ways as well, such as her line in the Crimson­-White a year and a half earlier that for her 'Utopia is a land with the culture of England and the government of Russia.' The comment was an­other of Nelle's acts of rebelliousness -- of a piece with her refusal to wear shorter skirts and makeup to class -- rather than any sincere admiration for communism. Yet it surely would have marked Nelle as part of what Jim Wood called 'the "intellectual" group,' the ones who are 'aware of the faults in our democratic system, yet overlook the faults of the Communistic system.' Perhaps that is why Nelle was one of the earliest and harshest critics of Wood's column. In a letter addressed 'My Dear Young Man,' she called Wood's article a 'horror,' nothing more than 'fallacious prop­ositions illogically strung together.' She challenged him to name names. 'You do us conservatives no good by propounding such idiotic generali­ties,' she wrote.

"Nelle's critical letter was one of several. A small tempest brewed in the pages of the Crimson-White. Wood, for example, responded that the real horror was Nelle Lee's editions of the Rammer Jammer. Interestingly, one of the questions raised was about the conservatism of Ms. Lee. 'Are you a conservative?' a friend of Wood's wrote in, addressing Nelle directly. 'That is a conservative radical -- or am I too harsh in my interpretation.' A friend of Nelle's responded that Lee was in fact a good conservative, but one who objected to the shabby, indiscriminate smearing of broad swaths of the university. 'Let me assure [you] that far from riding the pink horse, Nellie is hanging onto the extreme tail (right) end of the very black don­key!' her friend wrote. 'In fact, on most any afternoon you may find her gazing with hard eyes toward the White cliffs, sipping her daily tea, and lustily singing, "God Save the King."'

"This was calculated to confound Jim Wood and his friends, which it surely would have. The comment spoke to Lee's Anglophilism, to which she would gesture frequently in interviews in later years, and which she was able to indulge that summer in a study program at Oxford. When she got back from England, she would manage only one more semester in Tus­caloosa before giving up the law for good. Her childhood friend Truman Capote had been urging her to come to New York for years. He had made a name for himself with his short stories, and his debut novel had been pub­lished earlier that year. Nelle decided to take the leap. She came home for Christmas in 1948, worked a few weeks waiting tables at the Monroeville golf club to save money, and in early 1949 headed to New York."

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Joseph Crespino


Atticus Finch: The Biography


Basic Books


Copyright 2018 Joseph Crespino


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