A Gathering of Words
The One Book/One Community program has readers
across the country following Scout, Jem and Atticus
in small town Alabama. The classic was published for the first time in
a trade edition this year, which offers a slightly oversized paperback with
larger type (Perennial Classic, $11.95). To Kill a Mockingbird has an
estimated 30 million copies in print worldwide in more than 40 languages.
This month, The Alabama Humanities Foundation honored author Nelle Harper Lee with the 2002 Humanities Award.
The Alabama Humanities Foundation hosted the thirteenth annual Humanities Award Luncheon on October 3rd at the Wynfrey hotel in Birmingham. Approximately 600 people attended the event.
The following is the text of the 2002 Humanitarian Award presentation speech by AHF board of directors member and Alabama author Wayne Greenhaw:
Tribute to Nelle Harper Lee
I am very proud to be here today to honor my friend Nelle Harper Lee.
We have known each other so long neither of us remember the first meeting -- probably when we had coffee at the old Whitley Hotel in Montgomery with our mutual friend, Vic Levine, proprietor of Capitol Book & News.
Through the years Nelle and I have met on a number of occasions. Each of these was reason to celebrate. Once we spent hours in the Russian Tea Room in New York, sipping and talking, talking and sipping, until it was two o’clock in the morning and we were the only people left -- other than the waiter -- who said he’d stay as long as we wanted to talk.
We never talk about our work. We talk about our state. We gossip about friends. We discuss the world.
Nelle Lee has never done a whole lot of talking about her work. She is a very private person. Or, perhaps, she takes Miss Maudie Atkinson at her word when she said of Atticus: “People in their right minds never take pride in their talents.”
For a minute I will talk about her wonderful work.
Her book started: “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”
A simple, unassuming, straight-forward sentence.
From this sentence came the history of a state and its people -- a time of tragic circumstances -- mirrored through the eyes of innocence. Because of this piece of work, the world was allowed to peer into their lives -- just as Scout and Jem and Dill tried to peek into the house next door.
Having grown up in Monroeville in south Alabama, she knew well ‘the tired old town’ about which she wrote.
Nelle long ago learned the simple trick from her wise and courageous character, Atticus Finch: to climb into another person’s skin and walk around in it. Because she learned that trick and put it to work in her writing, we all have been able to live with Scout and Atticus, Jem and Dill, Calpurnia and Boo Radley, and even the Haverfords -- whose name in Maycomb County was synonymous with jackass.
Because her work was so perfect -- because it did indeed peer inside the lives of everyday Alabama people -- the entire world of the humanities has been made richer.
More than thirty million copies of To Kill a Mockingbird have been sold in more than forty languages. Librarians from across the U.S. have chosen To Kill a Mockingbird as the best novel of the 20th century. Today To Kill a Mockingbird continues to resonate with the glory of life.
Once when we were talking about such things, my old friend Federal Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. said of Harper Lee, “That lady writes better about the law and the heart than anybody I ever read.”
On behalf of the Alabama Humanities Foundation -- it is a great personal honor for me to present to my friend Nelle Harper Lee this year’s Humanitarian Award.
As Nelle Harper Lee held the award, she said, "Mr. Greenhaw has robbed me of words, so I'll say thank you from the bottom of my heart." The audience applause filled the room for some time.
Nelle Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1928 in Monroeville, Alabama. The youngest of four children of Amasa Coleman Lee and Frances Finch Lee, Ms. Lee attended Huntingdon College 1944-45, studied law at the University of Alabama 1945-49, and spent a year at Oxford University. In the 1950s, she moved to New York City where, after working briefly as an airline reservation clerk, she decided to focus exclusively on her writing. She moved to a cold-water flat and began writing To Kill a Mockingbird. In 1957, she submitted the manuscript to the J. B. Lippincott Company; two and a half years later, the book was published to widespread acclaim, winning the 1960 Pulitzer Prize.