The Real Harper Lee

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News of Harper Lee’s death last week has made fans of To Kill a Mockingbird both sad and nostalgic about one of the most perfect pieces of literature ever written. In deceptively simple prose, Lee portrays the weighty themes of character, intolerance, compassion, and personal responsibility. Ultimately, the story of a courageous lawyer in the Deep South and his two young children touches upon our universal humanity, and the necessity to “climb into [someone’s] skin and walk around in it.”

Harper Lee has been an enigmatic figure for the past 60 plus years. Her failure to publish another novel after the phenomenal success of To Kill a Mockingbird and her famous reluctance to grant interviews gave her a certain mystique over the years. Last year, however, with the publication of Go Set a Watchman, a supposedly recently discovered manuscript of hers written before TKAM, Lee’s name was once again in the news.

Many speculated that Lee’s new lawyer was taking advantage of an old woman who had had a stroke and possibly suffered from dementia in order to cash in on her fame. Certainly, the book can’t hold a candle to To Kill a Mockingbird and to my mind, was never really meant to be published in its current form. People were also outraged that their beloved character, Atticus Finch, was portrayed as racist in Watchman. 

All this press reawakened my interest in Harper Lee and led me to read her excellent biography Mockingbird by Charles J. Shields. Lee’s life story portrays a young girl who did not fit the mold for females in her time and place, an acerbic wit who struggled to fit in during college but eventually found her niche on the University of Alabama’s satirical paper, The Rammer Jammer. It describes her friendship with the egomaniacal Truman Capote, who hurt Lee badly by failing to give her credit for her invaluable assistance on the ground-breaking book In Cold Blood, which she helped research and write.

As most people assume, the beloved character of Atticus Finch is based on Harper Lee’s father, A.C. Lee. But from Mockingbird,  I learned that the Atticus who so disappointed critics of Go Set a Watchman is much more like A.C. Lee, who held very conservative views on black rights until around 1962, the date To Kill a Mockingbird was published.

Furthermore, both Lee’s father and her sister Alice constantly pulled Nelle (her given name) back to Monroeville and into their insular world even as Lee tried to make a writer’s life for herself in New York City. Although she never wanted to be the center of attention, Lee did make significant friendships and even had a platonic affair with a friend’s husband.

Like most human beings, Harper Lee was a complicated individual with strengths and weaknesses. Yet she gave us the great gift of her masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird. And for that, we can be eternally grateful.

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