Southern Scribe
    our culture of storytelling

 

A Gathering of Southern Words     

 

 

Into Harper Lee Country

The Alabama Writers Symposium 2002

by Wayne Greenhaw

 

 
 

The early May sun beat down on southeast Alabama with a first-of-the-season brightness that reflected in the mop of unruly silver hair of the lanky, angular man who looked more like a movie star than a visiting New Englander. 

As he hiked alongside Highway 27 south of Monroeville, a town with the distinction of having been named the Literary Capital of Alabama by the State Legislature, the man was easily recognizable as George Plimpton, the venerable author of numerous books, collections and an introduction to Milking the Moon, Katherine Clark’s oral biography of the late Mobile gadfly Eugene Walter, a writer-humorist who lived an exciting and charmed life. 

 

George Plimpton bringing his wit and literary travels to the audience at the Alabama Writers Symposium.  

Plimpton, who several years ago put together an oral biography of one-time Monroeville resident Truman Capote, was visiting as the star attraction of the Fifth Annual Alabama Writers Symposium at Alabama Southern Community College at Monroeville. As such, he was competing with such literary giants as Diane McWhorter, who was still grinning giddily after winning the Pulitzer with her Carry Me Home: The Climatic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution, and Rick Bragg, who won the Pulitzer for All Over but the Shouting and has a new bestseller with Ava’s Man

With the theme “Alabama Double Takes -- A Heritage Explored,” Alabama Southern President John Johnson welcomed an overflowing crowd at the Monroeville Community House, where dinner was served while guests watched a lengthy video of the artist Nall talking about his commissioned portraits of Capote, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Helen Keller, all of whose writings were influenced largely on their Alabama experiences. Plimpton, who seemed to be in another world during the video, stood, leaned into the podium, and began a detailed and witty exploration of “Mr. Nall’s talk.” 
  Left to right: Diane McWhorter, Pulitzer Prize winner of Carry Me Home, and Amilcar Shabazz, scholar.

The next day, when Nall appeared, he grinned, blushed and said in his Capote-esque drawl, “I don’t even want to talk about that video.” An Alabama artist who studied and worked with Dali, Nall today divides his time between southern France and his native state. Particularly awed by literary talent, he took the commission to do four Alabama subjects, including Monroeville native Harper Lee, whose name is associated with the Symposium only in the Harper Lee Award, given to an Alabama writer whose work merits the highest honor. However, Ms. Lee, who shies away from publicity of any kind, said she did not wish for her likeness to appear in one of Mr. Nall’s paintings. Instead, he will do a portrait of her Pulitzer-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird

This year, the Harper Lee Award went to Mary Ward Brown, author of two collections of short stories, Tongues of Flame and It Wasn’t All Dancing.  A resident of rural Brown, Alabama, in the heart of the Black Belt, Ms. Brown’s writing is as exquisite as the finest Irish linen. Like Capote’s best, her writing wrings every emotion from every syllable. Like Harper Lee, whose only novel is a masterpiece, Ms. Brown personifies perfection. Even her acceptance speech was short but perfect. 

Receiving the Eugene Current-Garcia Award for work as a literary scholar was Trudier Harris-Lopez, a native of Alabama who presently teaches in North Carolina. Among other work, she has written extensively on African-American literature. 

As a member of the opening panel, I read part of my essay from The Remembered Gate: Memoirs of Alabama Writers with the editors, Jay Lamar and Jeanie Thompson, and fellow writers William Cobb, James Haskins and Judith Hillman Paterson, all talking about how growing up in Alabama affected their writing. 

In other sessions, poet Janet McAdams read from her The Island of Lost Luggage and talked about her work; Mobile Register book editor John Sledge introduced Plimpton again with Katherine Clark, and they talked about “The Art of Oral Biography,” and Plimpton told stories about being with Hemingway, Faulkner and Eugene Walter; bestselling suspense author Mike Stewart read and talked about his work, and Marlin Barton read from his prize-winning collection of short fiction, The Dry Well

That evening at the Literary Coffee House in the Alabama Southern library, the center-piece of the campus with a life-size replica of the Monroe County courthouse’s clock tower, a silhouette that hovers like the spirit of Atticus and Scout Finch always in the air, I talked with several fellow writers about exploring the territory. 

This is Harper Lee country. It’s Truman Capote country. It’s our country. I never go to Monroeville without stopping at Burnt Corn, not even a wide place on County Road Five that was once, two centuries ago, the Federal Road that brought European settlers into the frontier. If you stand on the side of the road with the cemetery behind you and the white church in front, look both ways and read from Capote’s story, “Children on their Birthdays.” There is no doubt that this is Deadman’s Curve from that story. Years ago, when I came down here to explore for a magazine article, I found Capote kinfolks in Monroeville: cousins of varying description, and they brought me to Burnt Corn and introduced me to Mr. Sam Lowrey, who ran the post office and general store and who told about Ms. Lee and Mr. Capote spending time with him, drinking cold Cokes and eating hoop cheese. It’s a place that begs relaxation and listening. 

When I first came to Monroeville, I had already met Capote. When Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” was filmed near Montgomery, the director, Frank Perry, and I became friends. In 1967, when Perry returned to do “The Thanksgiving Visitor,” I found locations for that film, in which I played the part of Cousin Wayne. 

Capote arrived with Lee Radziwill. Together, they stayed in the honeymoon suite of the Governor’s House Motel. During a picnic lunch in a pasture south of Montgomery, Capote talked about Monroeville. “All of those people did the craziest, wildest things, and they called it ordinary,” he said, smiling coyly. “In their own way, they’re the quaintest population in the entire world. I love them. I really do. My aunts and cousins, the people that I knew there, all adore each other. I think they’re very fond of me. I don’t think there’s a jealous bone in their bodies.” 

On Friday night in the Nettles Auditorium on the campus, the premiere of Norman McMillan’s one-actor play, “Against a Copper Sky,” about Capote in a motel room before a reading, contemplating his life and his work, brought eerie feelings of deja vu. It did not bring goosebumps. I was not overcome with it. I had seen “Tru” with Robert Morse on Broadway, and it did bring chillbumps. But McMillan’s play is good. In fact, in Monroeville at the Symposium, it was funny, poignant, and very good. 

I can still hear Capote’s wispy, almost shrill, high-pitched cry, as he talked in the pasture, “Oh, they’re such funny little people.” And soon after that conversation, I went down to meet his cousin, John Byron Carter, an ex-policeman who enjoyed riding motorcycles and whose mother, Mrs. Mary Ida Carter, Capote’s aunt, said, “Oh, you should have seen him when he first came home with Lillie Mae. He was all dressed up fit-to-kill. Looked like some kind of doll you can buy at the five-and-dime. Looked kind of funny, to tell the truth, but he was smart as a whip. You could tell that immediately. He was always telling the biggest tales. Even when he was six, seven years old. He’d come home and tell about something happening. It’d scare the living fool out of all of us, but nine times out of ten it’d turn out to be just something he’d made up in his head. Later on, I reckon, it was that kind of thing that made him so great.” 

  Nick Crawford as Truman Capote in Truman Capote: Against a Copper Sky.

When Capote was twelve or thirteen, according to Aunt Mary Ida, he ran off with a girl who lived across the street. They went off, she said, to “some exotic place like Atmore or Frisco City.” Capote had recalled that she was “a girl much older than myself who in later years achieved a certain fame because she murdered a half-dozen people and was electrocuted at Sing Sing. Someone wrote a book about her. They called her the Lonelyhearts Killer. I can’t recall her name, but I was fascinated with her.” But Harper Lee said, “I don’t remember his running away with any girl.” Then she frowned slightly, then grinned. “He must have been about eight. We were having a fuss. He ran away with another little girl. They hitchhiked to Evergreen (about twenty miles to the east, past Burnt Corn) but they were back by supper.” 

Back then, Harper Lee said: “When we were a bit too young to read, Brother, who was a voracious reader, would read many, many stories to us. Then we’d dramatize the stories in our own ways, and Truman would always provide the necessary comic relief to break up the melodrama. Actually, we were the only children on the street of an adult neighborhood. For a while there was the girl across the street, but she didn’t live there long. Of course, being the outsiders made it interesting for us. We were able to watch people better. That was our main interest: people watching.” 

Remembering, it made me wonder how many of those would-be writers attending the Symposium stepped off the campus and walked the downtown streets. I wondered how many rode the backroads and stopped at country stores. I wondered how many listened to the tales of this wonderful, mysterious land. I wondered how many followed Harper Lee and Truman Capote’s past-time: people watching.

Friday Awards Luncheon

Left to right: Robert Stewart, Executive Director of the Alabama Humanities Foundation; Dr. Nancy Anderson, visiting literary scholar; Al Head, Executive Director, Alabama State Council on the Arts; Mary Ward Brown, winner of the Harper Lee Award for Alabama's Most Distinguished Writer 2002; Pete Black, Executive VP General Manager of Alabama River Pulp (representing Mr. George Landegger); Trudier Harris-Lopez, winner of the Eugene Current-Garcia Award for Alabama's Most Distinguished Literary Scholar 2002; Jim Jolly, President of the Association of College English Teachers of Alabama (ACETA); Senator Pat Lindsey; Dr. John A. Johnson, President of Alabama Southern Community College; and Jeanie Thompson, Executive Director of the Alabama Writers' Forum.


Alabama Writers Symposium
A project of the Alabama Center for Literary Arts
http://www.ascc.edu/WritersSymposium/symp1.htm  
 
Alabama Southern Community College
P.O. Box 2000
Monroeville, AL  36461
 
Contact: Donna Reed
dreed@ascc.edu

Note from Wayne Greenhaw:  The early Capote and Harper Lee quotes were used in articles published in Southern Voices magazine and Status magazine, both in 1968.

© 2002, Wayne Greenhaw, All Rights Reserved