On passing time with Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird was, until today, the only novel published by American author Harper Lee. It is the story of Scout, a young girl, confronting the deep-seated racial prejudice that existed in pre-Civil Rights Alabama. Go Set a Watchman, released today but written in the mid-1950s, is set twenty years after the events in To Kill a Mockingbird, with Scout returning home to Alabama as a young woman.

Harper Lee, with Jessica Lacher-Feldman (off camera, left) from the New York Times, January 30, 2006 (Photo credit: Dana Mixer for the New York Times)

Harper Lee and Jessica Lacher-Feldman (off camera, left), from the New York Times, January 30, 2006 (Photo credit: Dana Mixer for the New York Times)

Jessica Lacher-Feldman, head of LSU Libraries Special Collections, had the honor of meeting the reclusive novelist several times during her years at the W.S. Hoole Special Collections Library at the University of Alabama. Lacher-Feldman recently sat down with me to share her experiences with Harper Lee and her work, as well as her thoughts about this important book event.

SK: Before coming to LSU, you spent time in Lee’s home state of Alabama, and were involved in an annual event related to To Kill a Mockingbird. These were some of the rare public events she attended. What was that like?

“She is incredibly down to earth, and believes in speaking her mind, two qualities that I find most appealing in a person.”

JLF: I was at the University of Alabama for 13 years, and not only is Alabama Lee’s home state, the university is her alma mater. She was not a stranger to the university in the way that the myth of her reclusiveness is often expressed. For several years, the University of Alabama held a statewide high school essay contest. The To Kill a Mockingbird essay competition was created in honor of the induction of Harper Lee into the Alabama Academy of Honor. For several years in the early 2000s, Ms. Lee would come to the award ceremony every year, and after a luncheon at the president’s mansion, the library would host a reception, exhibition, and an opportunity for Ms. Lee to sign books for the students and to wish them well. Each year, I curated a small exhibition of the interesting Harper Lee-related material from the Hoole Library, including several foreign editions and various American editions of To Kill a Mockingbird, as well as photographs, articles, and other items from her time as a student at the university. I was the person who served as her “handler,” working with her and keeping the students moving, helping Ms. Lee to understand what the students were saying, as well as telling Ms. Lee bits of information as the afternoon progressed, making sure she was happy and comfortable. One year she even penned me a gracious thank you note, signing it “Best ever, Nelle,” where she joked about the exhibit, saying “your talents as an assembler of ancient things should stand you in great stead should you decide to work for the Cairo Museum.” She is incredibly down to earth, and believes in speaking her mind, two qualities that I find most appealing in a person.

SK: Part of what makes working in Special Collections exciting is the discovery of previously unknown material. What was your reaction when you found out about the discovery and subsequent publication of Go Set a Watchman?

JLF: I think that many of us always believed that there would only be one Harper Lee novel. This book has some very, very big shoes to fill. I have tried not to read much about the book, including reviews or speculation. I think it’s important that we take this book on its own merits, and not obsess on the differences between Mockingbird and the new book.

As an archivist and special collections librarian, one of the greatest experiences to have is working with a researcher who finds materials in the collections that have never been used before beyond their original purpose. The joy and wonder of discovery is truly magical. I’ve been in the reading room with goosebumps, and have teared up with these experiences. And I’ve witnessed more than one person burst into tears at a discovery.  Numerous books and articles have been written based on materials found in Hill Memorial Library. LSU’s special collections have well over ten million items in our collections – miles of materials that further research, scholarship, and creative endeavors in a whole range of disciplines. There are always “discoveries” in archives–from the previously unknown Shakespearean sonnet, to a letter in a collection that disproves a family myth, and everything in between.

The manuscript for Go Set a Watchman was in a safety deposit box, not in an archival collection, as Ms. Lee’s papers are not part of any library yet. I hope that her papers will go to a library in the future; I know that they will be an important tool for scholars of Southern literature and American literature.

SK: To Kill a Mockingbird has remained a beloved bestseller and American classic for more than fifty years, and until now, it was Harper Lee’s only novel. Why is this book as important now as when it was written?

JLF: I think the answer is simple. Mockingbird is important because the story is timeless and beautifully told. It’s important because it is so profoundly human, and that humanity is ageless.

SK: The LSU Libraries Special Collections has a strong collection of material relating to the Civil Rights movement, as well as a first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird, set in the thirties but written during the Civil Rights movement and published in 1960.

JLF: Yes, LSU Libraries Special Collections have many important strengths. I am interested in building upon material relating to the Civil Rights struggles Louisiana has faced, both in the 1950s and 1960s, and today, as well as literary manuscript collections. Additionally, we need to continue to look at the world around us and anticipate where scholarship will go in the future. Looking at the second half of the 20th century and the 21st century is critical in that realm. Hill Memorial Library has some very significant Civil Rights related holdings – of course some related to the university, as well as oral histories, and the papers of some of the local Civil Rights activists, such as Dupuy Anderson. We also hold some organizational records that document citizens’ rights and Civil Rights, like the Common Cause Louisiana papers. I want our collections to continue to grow and to document issues and advocacy relating to human and civil rights. LGBT rights, issues of race and gender, immigration, and other issues in Louisiana and our region need to be documented through the endeavors of those who work so diligently to bring positive change.

SK: We have made great strides in civil rights since Go Set a Watchman was written, and yet we still struggle with equality in our country. What sort of reaction will today’s reader have to Go Set a Watchman, compared to a hypothetical reader of fifty years ago?

watchmanJLF: That’s a great question – and one that is really difficult to answer. I sincerely hope that like To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman will resonate with readers in the same timeless way. I’ve been trying to avoid reviews and articles about Go Set a Watchman, because I want to form my own opinions about the novel without being influenced by others. Book reviews are wonderful and very important, but there is a time and a place for them. I think many of us are just so pleased that another book by Harper Lee exists and we will have the opportunity to read it. I don’t think many people thought that Ms. Lee had another novel that would be published in her lifetime, so it is understandable that this book has created such a buzz.  It’s the story behind the story that everyone seems to be interested in — Ms. Lee’s state of mind, the questions about her willingness to have this published, and the mystery behind her reclusive nature. I can’t say that any of that interests me beyond hoping that she is happy with the book, and knows just how much she is admired and loved. My encounters with her were always such a pleasure, and really an honor. I’ve joked about my beloved Aunt Melanie, who considers my association with Harper Lee to be my greatest accomplishment — forget that I have written a book or two myself!

The simple fact is that I am looking forward to coming home from work today and having my pre-ordered copy waiting for me to read.  I have a feeling I won’t be getting much else done tonight. We have ordered a copy for Special Collections, which will sit alongside the 1960 first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird which is also in our library.  And though I know this will be a runaway best seller, I feel good about preserving a first edition in Hill Memorial Library for the future.

Lacher-Feldman Jessica LSU5474Jessica Lacher-Feldman is the Head of Special Collections at LSU Libraries.

Sigrid Kelsey is the Director of Library Communications and Publications at the LSU Libraries.

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