Reading Note:
Furious Hours
22 May 2019

¶ In her new book, Furious Hours — about which it will be impermissible to talk generally until everyone has had time to read it (think Psycho) — Casey Cep tells us that what drew Harper Lee to the idea of reporting on the sensational trial, involving a serial murderer, that began in the fall of 1977 at Alexander City, Alabama, was at least in part the chance to write the genuinely fact-based “true-crime” book that, as she knew all too well, Truman Capote hadn’t quite delivered with In Cold Blood

What Capote had done with In Cold Blood gave Lee qualms and compromised their friendship, but it also presented her with a challenge: whether she could write the kind of old-fashioned, straitlaced journalism she admired, and whether it could be as successful as the fact-bending accounts of her contemporaries. (214-5)

As we know, however, Lee never wrote a book about the trial. Cep suggests plausible reasons for this blockage, but what occurred to me, and what I think ought to occur to anyone reading Cep’s captivating book, is to ask why Lee never realized that, if she ditched the “challenge,” and forgot about writing straitlaced journalism as well, the business at Alexander City might provide her with tremendously congenial material. Although it might not have centered on the black murderer and his black victims, the sensational background might have sustained book, perhaps a novel, about the white people in the town whom Lee got to know well in the course of her sojourn there.

The second half of Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee is something between a detailed sketch of the writer and a full-dress biography. I came away with the impression that Nelle Harper Lee never really grew up. She remained fifteen or sixteen for life, smart as a tack about things that could be learned, preferably from texts, but obstinately resistant to the lessons of experience. She greatly depended on family and friends to point her in the right direction, and she was not always willing to take their advice. I was horrified to discover something that I had never come across in all the copious annals of the last century’s literary drunks: asked to leave a party because her behavior was out of line, Lee would presently return and beg for another drink.

Everyone who could have told her what to make of the trial — everyone who had guided her to the shaping of To Kill a Mockingbird — was, in 1977, dead. So Casey Cep has walked away with the story, writing a remarkably good book that one nevertheless suspects might have been lifted to the transcendent heights if only Harper Lee… if only what? My short answer: if only Lee had been an adult. 

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