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April 29, 2009

The Mockingbird’s Song

Kevin E. Dayhoff

The reclusive and enigmatic childhood friend of Truman Capote, Harper Lee, celebrated a birthday yesterday. She was born Nelle Harper Lee on April 28, 1926, in Monroeville, Alabama.


She is best known for her one and only book, which just happened to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning best-seller, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” published in 1960, when she was 34 years old.


Ms. Lee and “Mockingbird” come to mind for a number of reasons which I thoroughly do not understand; and that’s just fine with me.


I’ve been told artists dream of castles in the clouds, writers live in them and psychologists are the landlords that charge rent.


At my advanced age, I’m comfortable with the concept that my cloud is my castle, and I own it and I’m too tight to pay rent.


Ms. Lee is one of my favorite writers for her famous book as much as how she has lived her life. An account in The Independent on June 4, 2006, explained that after “Mockingbird” was published, Ms. Lee “settled into an extraordinarily quiet, unassuming life, spending most of the year living with her sister in their home town of Monroeville, Alabama


“She refused to have anything to do with commercial spin-offs from ‘Mockingbird’ and seemed unmoved by all the accolades bestowed on her novel…


“I like to write – sometimes too much because when I get into work I don't want to leave it. I'll go for days and days without leaving the house. I'll go out long enough to get papers and pick up food and that's it.”


The birds in my backyard have really turned up the volume recently. Which reminds me that Ms. Lee wrote: “Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.”


The first hot day of late spring in Maryland always brings about a flood of childhood memories.


Early yesterday, as I watched a cable news program, I daydreamed about my childhood days. I kept wondering what Ms. Lee’s character, Charles Baker “Dill” Harris, would think of the caustic commentary about the breaking news momentary meaninglessness of today.


If you will recall “Dill,” who was based on Ms. Lee’s childhood neighbor, Truman Capote, was “Jem” and “Scout’s” summer friend, with an enormous imagination.


For those who have studied “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Dill represents the perspective of childhood innocence.


In recent years, the summer months have almost been just as busy as the rest of year. Gone are the lazy southern Carroll County summers. However, growing up in Carroll County in the 50s and 60s, lazy summer days were the opportunity to sit around and read and write all day.


From those long-gone lazy days, I usually associate “Mockingbird” with short stories like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” “Rain” by W. Somerset Maugham and “Portnoy’s Complaint” by Philip Roth – and why I’m still traumatized by the word spatula – except when Rachel Ray says it on her cooking show.


I think of the film “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” by Robert Altman. I was initially introduced to him when he directed a number of episodes of “Bonanza.”


“McCabe” introduced me to Leonard Cohen – and later his song “Famous Blue Raincoat.” Remember: “It’s four in the morning, the end of December. I’m writing you now just to see if you’re better…”


I think of Carole King’s “It’s too late,” and Carly Simon’s “That’s The Way I Always Heard It Should Be” – “My father sits at night with no lights on. His cigarette glows in the dark…”


It was over 40 years ago in the summer of 1967 that I first heard the song, “Ode to Billy Joe,” by Bobbie Gentry on WCAO on the AM dial of the car radio.


Remember, that was when we first learned from “Mama” that the nice young preacher, Brother Taylor “said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge. And she and Billy Joe was throwing somethin' off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”


It was also then that I became firmly hooked on the existential – “Southern Gothic” genre of storytelling.


Examples of authors of this genre include William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, Truman Capote, and Harper Lee. Tennessee Williams once described it as stories that reflect “an intuition of an underlying dreadfulness in modern experience.”


The stories these writers tell are fascinating, as often they involve aspects of unexplained historical events, enigmatic dialogue, and inexplicable characters.


But it is the other prominent theme of the Southern gothic story that comes to mind these days in the cavalier manner in which people today will often engage in character assassination in the pursuit of a particular agenda.


It is the particularly disturbing dynamic that, much like contemporary commentary, the southern gothic tale peels away the layers of indifference that contemporary society shows toward our fellow human beings – or in the case of “Ode to Billy Joe,” the loss of life.


In the song the family of the narrator nonchalantly mentions the gentleman’s death: “Billy Joe never had a lick of sense/ pass the biscuits, please.”


Of course, the narrator of the story cares: “Mama said to me, Child, what's happened to your appetite? I've been cookin’ all morning and you haven't touched a single bite.”


Other than that, they may as well been having a dinner conversation about the weather.


Some will argue that “Mockingbird” is anachronistic. I suggest that much of Ms. Lee’s commentary about the machinations of our contemporary society is just as relevant today – just different.


Nevertheless, for those who wallow in the loss of innocence five decades later, it is still a sin to kill a mockingbird. Happy birthday Harper Lee.


Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. E-mail him at


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