Sunday, July 26, 2015

What's In a Name?

"I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide!"

(Nelle) Harper Lee

Recently I read in the NYT about Canada's Prime Minister — Stephen Harper — on the same day the air waves were filled with the new news of Harper Lee.

I wondered: Is there ever any connection between people who bear the same name?

Lee — to most Americans — means Robert E. Lee. ( My Tennessee born mother named my brother Robert, after the famous American.)

And many of us connect the name Harper to Harper's Ferry.

The name of Angela Merkel is in the news, daily — vast numbers of Americans (of a certain age) connect that name with Angela Lansbury of Cabot's Cove, Maine.

And many think — Jimmy Carter — when they see Ashton Carter on the news — and Ashton is a far cry from a peanut farmer!

The British Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, connects in my mind to Prince Philip and Hammond organs!

Elvira Nabiullina — the Governor of Russia's Central Bank — I can't imagine a Russian woman having the name Elvira!

And the name Brokaw will always be that famous nightly news anchor!

A quick glance at just one page of the daily Times shows a bunch of names with no hint as to their origin - Lebo, Kilgo, Morey, Capote, Nabel, Finch, Gettleman, Randle, Delzell — to name a few.

And who among us would name their kid… Tiger?

So, you ask, what does this have to do with crime writing?

Just ask any sober writer… "Where do you find the names for your characters?"

Not always an easy task… sometimes a writer takes days… or months… to come up with the perfect name…

And then has another problem… when you have the name in your head… can you find a story to use it in?

Today we are fascinated by the names Harper Lee used. And this interest brought me to her own life…

She accompanied Truman Capote to Holcomb, Kansas, to assist him in the research of what became In Cold Blood.

She also wrote part of a novel — The Long Goodbye — and of a factual book about an Alabama serial murderer.

She also researched a true-crime book — The Reverend. (Now that tickles my interest — was the guy the criminal?)

Speaking of names — Gregory Peck's own grandson is named for her — Harper Peck Voll!

In 2007, Lee told the audience of the Alabama Academy of Honor — "Well, it's better to be silent than to be a fool!"

In 2007 President G.W. Bush presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the highest civilian award in the USA!

In 2010 President Obama awarded her the National Medal of Arts.

In 2015 Harper Lee issued a statement: "I'm alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions to "Watchman"!

Way to go, Nelle… my kinda writer!

T. J. Straw

P.S. If you have followed news on the current publication of the Harper Lee book, you will find a piece by James Scott Bell of great interest.

Go to the blog — Jungle Red — for 7/18… to Lucy Burdette's referral to James Scott Bell's post on Kill Zone for 7/16. Then read Bell's post on Kill Zone.

Both Bell's ideas and his reader comments are excellent! This is the best I've seen anywhere.

I'd love to read your own comments on this topic! Hope you will share with us here at CWC! tjs


  1. I cannot read Go Set a Watchman because I do not want to think differently about Atticus. For me, he will always represent the legions of citizens of the South who were brave and progressive, yet gentle with their fellow citizens who were unable to be. I will hold that dear. There is a reason the book didn't see the light of day till now. For me, there are questions about its provenance. Not that I doubt Harper Lee wrote it (or most of it), but I have too many questions about the behavior of others of those involved. I urge people to read Adam Gopnik's "Sweet Home Alabama" review in The New Yorker (July 27).

  2. Dear Sheila, Thanks for your astute comment. This topic is very complex and because of the great age of Lee we will probably never know all the facts. Having spent most of my youth in the south and much of my adult life with professors of great universities such as the University of the South - known as the Princeton of the South, and men like Andrew Lytle, the great editor of the Sewanee Review, and having taught his daughters and the children of many erudite Sewanee families, I believe all sides of the Atticus tale and the way of a man of that time in Alabama and his thinking. It is quite possible more works by Harper Lee will come to light, as her father was a lawyer and meant a great deal to her. Thelma

  3. P.S. From what little I know of Harper Lee as a person - I believe if she were to read all the comments about this new object of discussion in print - she would think it was a hoot! And would never tell us what she really thought at the time she wrote Watchman! tjs

  4. Thelma, Thank you for inviting me to leave the world of tabloid TV for a moment and delve into this controversial subject. I prefer to think that a flawed human being, Atticus, is even more admirable for upholding a sense of fair play despite his beliefs. I may well read the book. Barbara Bent

  5. I am boycotting the book. Harper Lee did NOT want it published. It's a money grab. And FRAUD! Read Joe Nocera's article in the Times about it:

  6. Thank you Barbara and Annamaria for your comments. From the first light of dawn when the press announced the "discovery" of Watchman - it was evident to all of us that if this were to be published in 2015 it would be a bed/den of discussion - pro vs con and more! What fun to see my little blog has stirred up some hornets here!!! Thank God we live in such a free country! tjs

  7. Dearest Thelma, Bless you! I just finished the book on Monday and had many thoughts running through my head. I have sent it on to two friends who are reading Watchman. This is a discussion that I would love to be part of - I think it is helpful to be our ages and southern, as we remember the 50s and 60s. I just sent your email to Ann Boon and Liz Oglesby. Fondly, Dot Sutherland Etchison. ( A Classmate of Randolph-Macon, of mine in Lynchburg, Virginia. ) Thelma Straw

  8. Thank you for your thoughtful piece on Lee's Mockingbird and Watchman and for referring us to James Scott Bell's article on the subject. After reading so many disparaging remarks about the publication of Watchman and about Atticus Finch's fall from grace, it's nice to read a reasoned, thoughtful discussion of the books, the time period, and attitudes that change over time. Nancy G. West, Aggie Mundeen Mysteries - Sisters in Crime

  9. Wonderful blog! My late mother-in-law had a half-sister whose name was Elvira and she was known as Vira or Aunt Vira to the family members.... Vera Sullivon of New York's Upper East Side

  10. I'm a little late to the comment party, though I am always so intrigued by the way tjs presents an interesting post. This Harper Lee situation has made me want to read her old Mockingbird novel. I've seen the movie enough times that I've forgotten the author's written word. I'm back to basics these days. I'm a writer not a movie critic.

  11. My first thanks to you, Margaret, vanished! But thank you for stopping by! tjstraw