To Kill A Mockingbird Truman Capote Rumor, I recently spent a couple of hours perusing “Author Unknown” by Don Foster, a Vassar College English professor and forensic linguist. Foster created an academic stir by attributing “A Funeral Elegy” to Shakespeare. In less highbrow feats, he deduced Joe Klein to be the “Anonymous” author of “Primary Colors,” and profiled the Unabomber for the FBI — before anyone knew the Unabomber was Ted Kaczynski — based on language and idiosyncrasies in the typescript of the bomber’s manifesto.
As a matter of personal taste, these pursuits interested me less than did a chapter on Thomas Pynchon, rumored author of a spate of quirky letters-to-the-editor sent to a northern California alternative newspaper in the 1980s, when he was supposedly in the area penning “Vineland.” (Foster decided Pynchon was not the guy, much to the relief, apparently, of Pynchon.)
Reading Foster’s literary-gumshoe exploits brought back to mind an old regional argument: Did She or Didn’t She? For years I’ve heard the rumor that Harper Lee did not write “To Kill a Mockingbird,” that it was in fact penned by her childhood buddy Truman Capote.
You’re likely to first hear this rumor mongered in the affirmative, something like this: It’s a ridiculous notion that an unknown writer would turn out a single, perfect novel, then cease writing (or at any rate cease publishing), disappear completely from the literary radar, and communicate to the reading world, via a profound silence, that they damn well better not expect anything else from her, either. She’s being silent because she’s keeping a secret, and the secret is that she doesn’t write at all …
Just as, in this region, you must cheer for either Auburn or Alabama, you must also take an absolute side on this issue. Reclusive as she is, “Nell” doesn’t offer much support; at least with the likes of, say, Salinger and Kesey, who make occasional appearances (even if only in the form of salacious biography), there’s hope that they’re still writing, that there’s still something they may yet tell us. Then again, the fastest way to the other side is: Hey, if you’d written “To Kill a Mockingbird,” you might retire from writing, too. I know I would.
And while I am certainly no forensic linguist (I am often surprised to find, once per month when my bank statement arrives, that I myself handwrote a number of questionable checks) I like to think that I am a fairly alert reader — my near spotless driving record attests to the fact that very few stop signs escape my notice. So I decided to read “To Kill a Mockingbird” and a work by Capote back-to-back, and thereby make up my own mind.
It had been two decades since I read Lee’s novel as a high school assignment, so I was essentially approaching it with a fresh view. I found a story efficiently told, a lesson in narrative that establishes itself only to serve the action and the characterizations. Nothing distracts the reader from what happens on the page — no poetic diversions, no artsy intrusions, no verbal pyrotechnics. Just minimal language which perfectly suits the structure — a powerful story is allowed to tell itself.
To follow up, I chose “In Cold Blood,” which was entirely new to me. Given this story’s basis in hard fact, I figured Capote would treat the material in a straightforward manner, as free of literary structure, voice and artifice as he could manufacture. I figured correctly — Capote did his best. But even in matter-of-factly covering the Clutter murders, he’s still Capote — those charming turns of phrase, those imaginative, evocatively precise similes still spice his prose and delicately render characters and events.
I’m no expert on Truman Capote; I’ve read “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “A Christmas Memory” (both of which broke my heart), I’ve had a go at “Answered Prayers,” and I’ve seen the movie “Murder by Death” a couple of times. Nor am I an authority on Harper Lee, and I know absolutely nothing about the friendship that the two enjoyed. I only know just enough to have formed my own opinion in answer to Did She Or Didn’t She? even before I read these two books. The whole thing sounds too much akin to the assertion that the 1969 moon landings were faked in a Nevada television studio — Why? Any possible answers must be constructed from fringe reasoning.
You certainly can’t take anything away from Capote by saying he didn’t write it. And I’d rather give credit where credit is due. I firmly believe, in my amateur forensic linguist view (and also in my heart, where it matters most anyway) that Harper Lee wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird” — just like it says on the cover. Even if you want to insist that she didn’t, I think you’d still have to admit it was written by someone other than Capote. The styles differ too much, according to my reading.
Of course, it’s fun to play parlor games with these ideas. It’s fun to speculate how Capote may have helped Lee in places, telling her how a character should say this rather than that, or a scene might play better if written from a different perspective, that sort of thing. And, it’s equally fun to turn the tables on that game. If Capote and Lee were tight enough for him to edit and shape her drafts, well, how might she have affected his work? Perhaps … hmmm … perhaps it was she who devised “A Christmas Memory,” that fundamentally sentimental tale that is nearly singular among Capote’s writings. Maybe Harper Lee even wrote it, and Capote only did a final polish. Hmmmm …
In 2002, Press-Register reporter Sam Hodges wrote several stories exploring the phenomenon of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and its extraordinary impact.
In the course of his work, Hodges interviewed Jim Gilbert, and heard about an intriguing call that Gilbert received one night shortly after his piece comparing Harper Lee’s and Truman Capote’s styles had appeared in the newspaper a year earlier.
“Lee has had to suffer the ill will of rumors that her friend Capote wrote much or all of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ Capote, who died in 1984, denied it in interviews. Lee partisans not only bristle at the rumor but complain that she has never gotten full credit for her role in helping him with his nonfiction bestseller ‘In Cold Blood.’
“Lee hasn’t violated her no-interviews policy to address the controversy. But Jim Gilbert believes he heard from her about it.
“Last May, the Mobile Register book page published an essay by Gilbert, a Fairhope fiction writer who was identified at the end of the piece as working at the Bay Minette Public Library. Gilbert argued that Capote couldn’t have written ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ The novel’s economical and straightforward approach to storytelling, he maintained, was just too incompatible with Capote’s own digressive and densely metaphorical style as displayed in various works.
“Gilbert’s piece ran on a Sunday, and in the days that followed he got several calls at the library from people saying they admired what he’d written. On that Thursday at 8 p.m., as he and colleagues were locking up, another call came in.
“‘The woman asked if I was the same Jim Gilbert who wrote the article, and I said I was,’ Gilbert recalled. ‘She said, ‘It was very nice,’ and I said, ‘Thanks.’ Then she said, ‘And I want to let you know you’re right. I did write that book.’
“It somehow seems a very Harper Lee-like thing to do, calling the library rather than The New York Times to set the record straight. Unfortunately, Gilbert had never spoken with Lee before and couldn’t verify her voice. Nor did the phone he was on have caller identification.
“So if any reporter is ever lucky enough to interview Lee, he or she will have one more question to ask.”