One of the most difficult things about writing is self-editing. Not just revising and scrounging for the proper word, but eliminating description, exposition, and even whole scenes that fail to move things along.
As I worked on Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, I had to be merciless about self-editing. There was so much that was colorful about the South in the 1930s, I could have included dozens of anecdotes about Harper Lee’s upbringing in Monroeville, Alabama. Especially when an incident would be otherwise lost to the historical record, I dreaded drawing my pen like a scalpel across a passage and excising it from the narrative.
Below is one such example. It concerns the time Truman Capote’s father, Arch Persons, blew into town with a new scheme for making a fast buck:
“For adults in Monroeville, there were brief diversions to relieve their cares: movies featuring romance and adventure; daily radio programs, local newspapers; and annual religious revivals held outside of town under tents. For some men, however, crushed under the weight of low-paying, 10-hour workdays from Monday through Saturday, these amusements were too tame. They vented their frustration by shouting themselves hoarse during dogfights, cockfights, snake fights, and pigeon and turkey shoots with the birds tied to posts.
“Then in the spring of 1931, Arch Persons returned to Monroeville as the promoter of a bizarre act that promised a combination of intrigue and the risk of human death. For the price of two dollars, anyone could witness a man billed as the Great Pasha remain buried alive for two hours.
“To advertise the event, Arch promised $25 to Ezra Skinner, an acquaintance of Harper Lee’s older brother, Edwin, if he would play jazz on his saxophone from the tailgate of a pickup truck. When knots of listeners gathered, Arch leaped up on the flatbed and began his pitch. The big show featuring the Great Pasha, ‘The World’s Foremost Man of Mystery,’ he announced, would begin at the local theater with a series of mind readings, magic tricks, and hypnotic acts. Then at 11 am, outside the theater, the Pasha (actually Sam Goldberg from the Bronx) would have two quarters placed over his eyes, and a blindfold wrapped 14 times around his head under the supervision of the local sheriff. With the blindfold secure, he would climb into an open convertible and drive leisurely around town, followed by his assistant, Madame Flozelle, who would use mental telepathy to guide him. Later that day, he would voluntarily be buried alive!
“On the morning of the performance, all the major businesses in Monroeville closed for the event. Following his magic routines at the theater, the Great Pasha indeed drove blindfolded into the town square. Nonchalantly, he parked outside a café for lunch. At 2 pm, he arrived at the Monroe County High School football field and, saluting an eager crowd in the grandstands, stepped into a casket placed on the grass beside an expertly dug grave. A doctor came forward to inject him with a drug. While this was going on, Arch somberly informed the crowd that the doctor’s hypodermic contained a formula derived by the ancient Egyptians. It would slow the Pasha’s heart to just four beats per minutes. The injection completed, the Pasha sat down, lay back in the casket, and folded his arms over his chest. The local undertaker closed and screwed down the lid. A pair of gravediggers used ropes to lower the box down to the bottom of the hole. Grimly, they interred the Pasha with shovelfuls of sodden red clay thumping audibly on top of the casket.
“For the next two hours, spectators stared anxiously at a small hump of earth in the middle of the football field. Finally, when the allotted time was up, the diggers exhumed the casket and the undertaker reopened it. The Great Pasha’s assistant, Madame Flozelle, loudly commanded him to break his trance and rise. He did slowly, causing the audience to burst into cheers of relief and admiration. Acknowledging the crowd’s applause with a low Hindu-style bow, Goldberg— his turban slanted a little tipsily to one side— walked groggily back to the car. By 5 pm, he was sufficiently recovered to give psychic readings to any customer who made a major purchase at the local millinery belonging to Truman’s cousin, Jennie Faulk.
“Flush with cash, Arch left town without paying the Skinner boy his $25 for playing the saxophone. The event impressed Truman for years, especially its macabre side. One of his earliest stories is ‘A Tree of Night’ in which a naïve young woman named Kay shares a train compartment with a misshapen woman and a corpselike man. The pair is a traveling show called ‘Lazarus, the Man Who is Buried Alive.’
“Sometime later, Arch had a falling out with Goldberg and they parted company. Then one day, in another city, Madame Flozelle ordered the Pasha to rise, but he remained still. She repeated the command. He was motionless. When she screamed, it dawned on the audience that the Great Pasha was dead.”
To research this scenario required two interviews and culling facts from half a dozen sources. Nevertheless, it fails on two counts. First, the subject of the biography, Harper Lee, is not involved. And second, it’s just diverting, nothing else. I planned to include it in the chapter about Lee’s hometown during the Depression. But other than demonstrating how desperate her neighbors were for entertainment (even if it was vulgar and dangerous), the whole episode stands alone, disconnected, as an isolated, weird incident.
It took me two careful days of writing to resuscitate the Great Pasha from the past. But then I suddenly did him in again with the stroke of the pen and he fell back into the grave, lost to posterity.
Doing it was less painful, however, than eliminating the 9,000-word description of Harper Lee’s grandfather fighting on the Southern side at Gettysburg.
Now that really hurt.