Posted: 03/29/2012


American Masters


by Joe Sanders

Premiering on PBS April 2 at 9:00pm (EST)

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The latest installments of PBS’s infamous American Masters series cover two of America’s most remarkable female writers: Margaret Mitchell (Gone With The Wind) and Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird). The two documentaries focus on the women’s lives, their work, and their impact on both the world now and the world in which they achieved prominence. The two episodes don’t even feel like they’re part of the same series, with the obvious exception of the opening title sequence, which looks like it hasn’t changed in the last 30 years. The varied style of each episode is a credit to the series; it makes each installment feel more individualized to its subject.

In the case of these two episodes, the piece on Margaret Mitchell tries to tell the story of her life through dramatization. Occasionally, they’ll have a news article or photograph of the writer, but mostly rely on reenactments of scenes from her life to push the documentary forward. The Harper Lee episode on the other hand is able to use a lot of photographs of the author, as well as radio and TV interviews with Lee and her lifelong friend Truman Capote. And of course, both documentaries include numerous clips from the film adaptations of Gone With The Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird respectively. The purpose of this is to discuss the two novels’ continued impact on American culture through the film medium.

Both of these women are fascinating subjects. The episode about Mitchell begins with a story about how she was playing in front of a fire when she was a child and her dress caught fire, and from that time on she was dressed in pants. This small change apparently did a lot to shape Mitchell’s personality, making her more of a tomboy than a traditional little girl. Of course, Harper Lee is often associated with Scout, the narrator of To Kill a Mockingbird who also challenged traditional gender roles. The ironic part is that now, Harper Lee lives as a recluse in New York City, more closely filling the role of Boo Radley than anyone else in the novel.

The two women have a lot in common, the way they inadvertently commented on racial tensions in America through their writing for one. Also, the fact that each of them only published one book is remarkable. In a radio interview, Harper Lee briefly discussed her follow-up to To Kill a Mockingbird, saying only that she was working on it and the process was going about as slowly as her first novel. So presumably, somewhere in a New York City apartment lies an unfinished (or maybe finished) manuscript for a new novel by Harper Lee. There are many theories as to why she never published again. The most likely would seem to be the reason she was driven into seclusion in the first place: An inability to cope with the fame that comes with writing one of the most important novels ever written. When one achieves that, how can they hope to top it?

Joe Sanders is a playwright and college instructor in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He has a Master’s degree in playwriting and a Bachelor’s degree in creative writing from Western Michigan University, where he currently teaches Thought and Writing.

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