With the passing of Harper Lee, Loretta Barnard explains the enduring legacy of the Pulitzer prize winner.
Lord knows it’s been on high school reading lists for yonks, so it’s pretty hard to imagine there’s anyone out there who hasn’t read To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s an American masterpiece, all the more extraordinary because it was essentially the only book the author ever wrote. (Yes, yes, we’ll get to Go Set a Watchman later.)
Harper Lee’s outstanding novel was published in 1960 and became an instant bestseller. It’s never been out of print, has been translated into some forty languages and is one of the 50 top-selling novels of all time. Of all time!
The central character and narrator of To Kill a Mockingbird is Jean Louise Finch, “Scout,” a rough-and-tumble tomboy growing up with her widowed father and brother in Maycomb in 1930s Alabama.
Scout, her brother Jem and their friend Dill are fascinated by Boo Radley, a quiet, misunderstood man living as a recluse. That particular story unfolds to great effect and by the end of the book, Scout has learned as much about herself as she has about Boo.
As everyone knows, the book is not just a coming-of-age story, but a moral tale about racial prejudice and the flawed nature of justice.
Scout’s father, a lawyer, defends a black man charged with raping a white woman. He feels so strongly about justice being done that he even stays by the jail to prevent the local white population from lynching the man. The name Atticus Finch – even though it’s fictional – is forever associated with courage and the search for justice.
The novel won Harper Lee the Pulitzer Prize and was adapted into the classic, multi-Academy-Award-winning film in 1962, which included the Best Actor award for Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch.
Nelle Harper Lee (Nelle was her grandmother’s name spelled backwards) put a lot of herself and her history into To Kill a Mockingbird. For example, the character of Scout is based on young Lee, a tomboy herself in the small town of Monroeville, Alabama, where she was born in 1926. Monroeville was the model for the town of Maycomb in the novel.
Finch was Lee’s mother’s maiden name, her father was a newspaper owner who served in the Alabama Legislature and was also, significantly, a lawyer. He once defended two black men accused of murdering a white man. Equally significantly, those men were found guilty.
The character Dill is based on Truman Capote, Lee’s childhood friend. Capote dressed differently from other kids in town and was a bit of an outsider in a number of respects. Lee acted as his protector, her practical ways the perfect foil to his “otherness.”
Lee was a highly intelligent girl and found school a tad boring. Fortunately, one of her teachers encouraged her budding love of literature and she found her passion – writing. She studied law at the University of Alabama, wrote for the university paper and became its editor, but before graduation, Lee moved to New York to chance her arm in the real world. It was 1949.
She held a series of odd jobs in New York while working on the manuscript that eventually became her masterpiece.
Meantime, her old pal Truman Capote was working on a piece for The New Yorker detailing the impact of the disturbing murders of four members of a family in small-town Kansas. He asked Harper Lee to accompany him to interview the family, friends, and acquaintances of the victims. Her down-to-earth personality, such a contrast to Capote’s more flamboyant personal style, was an immense help to Capote’s mission. The pair even interviewed the suspected killers.
Capote’s In Cold Blood was finally published in 1965 to great acclaim. Without Lee, Capote’s book would not be the tour de force that it is. Even though she was one of the book’s dedicatees, Capote did not acknowledge her enormous contribution to the work. Rather shabby of him, I think. (In spite of this slight, they remained friends.)
After the success of Mockingbird, Lee largely removed herself from the public eye, keeping to herself.
The much-vaunted new-old novel Go Set a Watchman, published in 2015, has had more publicity that you can poke a stick at, but actually, it’s a draft of Mockingbird. It’s the work that young Harper Lee submitted to her editor back in the day, the work that was ultimately re-crafted into her magnum opus.
So all this “new” book business is basically publishers capitalising on the fame of Mockingbird. Is that too cynical? Sorry, but them’s the facts. The story may be set 20 years after the events of Mockingbird, but the fact remains that Watchman is the first draft of the 1960 classic.
Lee herself once commented on the fact that she’d only written one book, saying, “When you’re at the top, there’s only one way to go.” She’s a no-nonsense kind of gal.
Over the years, Harper Lee has been awarded honorary doctorates and had a writing award named for her. In 2007, she was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contribution to American literature, and in 2011, was awarded the National Medal of Arts.
A bit of a Boo Radley recluse herself, Harper Lee was an intriguing woman. A literary legend, author of a masterpiece, a woman to mourn and to Google.