Harper Lee’s passing this week was sad, but not unexpected. She had been in failing health for some time. After reading all of the interviews, speculations and critiques of Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, I believe Lee was ready to release that novel. She no longer worried that she could not top her own perfection.
But Harper Lee’s death gave me pause for another reason. As a life long reader, and a fledgling writer, I’ve reflected on the books that have influenced me most- To Kill a Mockingbird seems like a safe and obvious choice, but it has tremendous power fifty plus years later. That is story telling at its finest.
I was introduced to the story in high school when Mrs. Susan Peters walked the Modern Novel class through the story of Miss Jean Louise “Scout” Finch and her story of life in the Deep South. I had recently moved to Florida from Maryland where I had seen Jim Crow in action as a young child in our Nation’s Capital and surrounding suburbs. I lived through the riots of ’68 following the death of Martin Luther King and the forced busing of students in ’71.
But the story put a face on racial injustice and I was hooked by her descriptive writing. In the days before the internet and Netflix, I used my imagination to create Atticus, Jem, Scout and the rest in my head.
I fell in love with Scout and when I finally saw the movie a few years later. I had goosebumps and tears during the iconic courthouse scene when Atticus walks out of the courtroom just after Tom Robinson is found guilty by an all white jury, and the blacks in the balcony all stand as the Reverend says, “stand up Miss Jean Louise, your father’s passing.”
Harper Lee began writing short stories and an editor suggested she try a novel. The first draft of what would become Mockingbird read like a series of vignettes- so she brought in the trial. The result is parallel story lines that work on so many levels. Scout and Jem discover that there are many sides to an individual, beginning with their own Father, while the over arching theme of racial injustice provides the anchor.
Whenever someone asked me to name my favorite book it will always be To Kill a Mockingbird. I have so many favorites, but it will always top the list.
Lee told a reporter soon after Mockingbird was published that she felt compelled to record the stories of the South- not in the Southern Gothic style of previous writers, but the everyday stories of small town life and ordinary people. She captured the South in both of her novels. Watchman reminds us that things had not really changed since Tom Robinson.
Lee felt the crush of instant frame. Most people didn’t understand her reclusiveness, but those who create understand the pressure to top something so great can be paralyzing. What if you disappoint? She hinted at something else in those early years, no doubt to get the press off her back. But the question continued to hound her until she stopped giving interviews. I imagine Scout would have done the same.
I don’t expect to write the next Great American Novel, but I do want to write stories with all the love and heart Harper Lee poured into her own. That is her legacy.