“American Masters”: Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee



I hope you were able – or will, if it hasn't aired where you are yet – to catch the two episodes of the PBS series "American Masters" featuring authors Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee. They were magnificent programs -  great intros to these two writers if you, like me, really didn't know a whole lot about their lives, aside from the one great book each produced.



Watching theses episodes made me realize how little I really knew about these two grande dames of Southern Literature, and how much less I knew about Margaret Mitchell than Harper Lee. I never thought about Mitchell any further than Gone With the Wind, never knew how driven she was or that she was an early supporter of feminism, to which she was so dedicated it didn't matter to her she became a social pariah because of it.

Born wealthy in a strongly Irish Catholic family, her parents' standards for her were high. Her mother, in particular, was coldly dedicated to duty, insisting her daughter follow the same principle. Young Margaret yearned for her mother's love, to, as the program quoted, "put her head in her mother's lap," but her mother, Maybelle Mitchell, wasn't that sort.  Even on her deathbed, Maybelle's final letter to her daughter was filled with admonitions on how not to act. Never once did she mentioned she loved her daughter.



Then, Harper Lee, a writer I prefer because I believe her To Kill a Mockingbird was a more pivotal work than Mitchell's sole novel. She was raised the daughter of Amasa Lee, an attorney, and Frances Finch. Seeing as she was a tomboy as a young girl, like Scout Finch, the elements for TKAM become more and more obviously autobiographical. Also, the young neighbor boy she played with as a child, and remained friends with a good portion of her life, was the model for the character of Dill. He was a budding writer himself. His name was Truman Capote.

As she grew older, she entertained the idea of following in her father's footsteps and becoming an attorney (the route her older sister took), choosing instead to flee to New York where she hoped to make a name for herself. Ultimately, she and Capote would wind up together there, as well.

I'm intrigued by her friendship with Truman Capote and the part she played helping him research his masterpiece In Cold Blood. Sadly, the two did not remain friends, due, at least in part, to Capote's reported jealousy of the Pulitzer Lee won for Mockingbird, a prize he'd expected to win for In Cold Blood. What a shame, considering they grew up such close friends in tiny Monroeville, AL.

What were the odds two literary giants would grow up living next to each other in a small Alabama town? It's one of those karmic coincidences that almost makes me think there's some degree of order to the Universe. Almost.



Sales of both Mitchell and Lee's books were unprecedented, especially GWTW, which sold thousands (at $ 3 each, which was then big money – don't I wish hardbacks were still that price…) during the height of the Depression. Astounding. And, of course, both became huge hits on the screen- Academy Award-winning classics the both of them.

I gained much more respect for Mitchell from watching the program. I've read GWTW twice, and seen the movie several times. When I was young it made me believe the South was so romantic, that I was fortunate to have been a product of it, my southern bloodline going back so many generations I couldn't even count. My ancestors fought as Confederates, naturally, at least one becoming a decorated soldier, one other dying at Andersonville as a prisoner of war.

As I matured I learned what lay beneath that thin, gracious veneer, the myth of the gentle folk rocking on front porches, drinking mint juleps. Once the truth became clear I felt anger seeing the Confederate flag flying, or stuck to the back of a pickup truck. Next to the swastika it's one of the most vile symbols of oppression and cruelty, and my former, misguided feelings of pride became shame and anger at my own delusions.

Despite the double shames of slavery and the bloodbath of war, I can still feel pride at the strong literary heritage of the South. And there's no denying these two southern ladies are icons of American literature, at least one of whom produced a work laying out the great injustice of racial prejudice.

And maybe, just maybe, after Harper Lee passes away she'll leave us with another literary legacy to soften our sorrow. Maybe she'll surprise us with the follow-up she's been working on all these many years, since withdrawing from public view and refusing to speak more about TKAM. Maybe she didn't destroy the work she started following TKAM, then reportedly abandoned. But hopefully we'll all have to wait a very long time to find out, and she'll stay on this earth for many more years.



2 thoughts on ““American Masters”: Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee

  1. I have this program on the DVR but I probably won’t see it until next week. It sounds interesting.
    Ellen Brown wrote a book about Margaret Mitchell and the phenomenon that was GWTW and she will be at Oxford’s Booktopia in June.


  2. Oh, both were excellent! I ordered the American Masters episode about Louisa May Alcott via interlibrary loan, since the other two were so good. I may watch them again before someone deletes them to make room for Glee episodes or something…
    Can’t wait for Oxford!! Just hope the weather’s not stinking hot. But it WILL be stinking hot. Sigh. My hair will be in rare form.


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