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"American Masters" on PBS: Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee

By Bluestalking @Bluestalking


I hope you were able to - or will be able, 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 -  great intros to these two writers.


Watching them made me realize how little I really knew about these two grande dames of Southern Literature, how much less I knew about Margaret Mitchell than Harper Lee, especially. I never thought about Mitchell any further than Gone With the Wind, never knew how driven she was and her support 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, their disappointment with what she became immeasurable.

Then, Harper Lee, a writer I prefer because I believe her To Kill a Mockingbird was a more pivotal work than Mitchell's own sole novel. Also, 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 throughout their lives, due, at least in part, to Capote's reported jealousy of the Pulitzer she won for Mockingbird, a prize he'd expected to win for In Cold Blood. What a shame, considering they grew up as neighbors in Monroeville, AL. As the program mentioned, what are the odds two literary giants would grow up living next to each other in a small Alabama town?

Sales of both books were unprecedented, especially GWTW, which sold thousands (at $ 3 each, which was then big money) during the height of the Depression. Astounding.


I gained much more respect for Mitchell from watching the program. I've read GWTW, and seen the movie several times. When I was young it made me believe the South was so romantic, and that I was fortunate to have been a product of it, my southern bloodline going back many generations.

As I matured I learned what lay beneath that gracious veneer, the myth of the gentle folk rocking on front porches and drinking mint juleps. I became angry, militantly so when I saw the Confederate flag flying, or stuck to the back of a pickup truck, generally one with a gun rack. Next to the swastika it's one of the most vile symbols of oppression and cruelty, and I feel a visceral hatred seeing it, and the Civil War, glorified. That includes historical re-enactments of the battles. What other country puts such a bloody, divisive war on a pedestal?

But there's no denying these two southern ladies are icons of American literature. And maybe, just maybe, after Harper Lee passes away she'll leave us with another literary legacy to help soften our sorrow. It's certainly difficult competing with her first book but it's one of my literary dreams she'll surprise us all with the follow-up she's been working on all these many years since withdrawing from public view. Hopefully we'll all have to wait a very long time to find out.

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