A fair sized audience of us involved in the "Big Read" were treated to a lecture on Alabama in the 1930s from former University of Alabama English professor Claudia Johnson Saturday afternoon. After speaking with teens at four Topeka Schools last Friday, Johnson appeared at the Library for an adult discussion of "To Kill A Mockingbird." She's a close friend of Harper Lee, who wrote this classic and released it in 1960. Johnson had just talked with Ms. Lee Friday. (In between classes, I suppose.) Harper Lee said "You're going to Kansas!" when she heard about the Topeka history lesson we were treated to.
A lot of were really interested in Claudia telling us some secrets about Harper Lee!
The "Mockingbird" author rolled into Topeka on a train during the time her friend Truman Capote was busy in Western Kansas researching his masterpiece, "In Cold Blood." Lee recalls eating at a "very good restaurant" downtown, but Johnson (or Harper Lee) couldn't remember the name of it. Lee, who's now about 85 years old, has seen the movie "Capote" outlining that time of the "ICB" author's life. She recalled saying the movie, "Capote," is based on a "big lie.. Truman never bribed Kansas law enforcement investigators to get information from them on the Clutter murders."
But she thought Philip Seymour Hoffman did a wonderful job portraying Capote in the film.. (Hoffman won an Oscar for his role.)
In her book of a lifetime, Harper Lee definitely shaped Atticus Finch after her father, an Alabama attorney and newspaper editor. Jem was based on her older brother, so she is "Scout" of course. Dill is detailed based on the behavior of a very young Truman Capote. But after what Claudia Johnson said was Harper Lee's "disappointment in Truman's behavior, his abuse of alcohol, and the final treatment of his friends.. I'm not sure Dill was Truman Capote at all."
Wow, it was great hearing her thoughts on life.. a life that changed with her authorship of ONE BOOK. Harper Lee never wrote another novel, saying "I have nowhere to go but down after Mockingbird.." Claudia Johnson has tried repeatedly to bring her tape recorder to document Harper Lee's recollections for a biography of her life. While Ms. Lee agreed to the project, she has now changed her mind.
I asked Ms. Johnson if she could help me in getting a very short"Big Read" interview with Harper Lee for our 4:00 program, and was told that was impossible. She does not grant interviews with anyone, and that includes Oprah Winfrey. (Sure would be nice, though.)
Let me know your thoughts as we're all finishing "To Kill A Mockingbird." What Topeka restaurant from the early 60s do you think she visited? What are your reactions to her book? We look forward to hearing from you, after learning a little bit more about this classic lady. RH