The Legacy of Harper Lee
On 19 February, Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird passed away. The impact of Lee and her novel is not to be underestimated. She whipped the literary world in a frenzy and then retreated, watching wearily as publishers, readers and newspapers grappled and fawned over her small, disarming masterpiece. To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, proceeding to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and going on to sell over 30 million copies. Impressive as these statistics are, they tell you nothing about the beautiful simplicity of the novel, which captured the public’s hearts in the sixties and still has lessons to teach now.
To Kill a Mockingbird is told from the perspective of six year old Scout, a tomboy who adores her middle aged father and is constantly in friendly battle with her brother Jem. Scout and Jem’s picturesque world of porch swings and ice lemonade is disturbed when Tom Robinson, a black man, is accused of raping a white woman and her father Atticus (the best lawyer in town) agrees to defend him. Through Scout’s wide, searching eyes simmering racial and class tensions are revealed in the sleepy town of Maycomb, Alabama.
From the pages of Lee’s novel rose unforgettable characters. Gregory Peck’s performance in the 1962 film cemented Atticus as one of the most beloved, and heroic fictional characters of all time. Atticus was a moral mountain, not swayed by blood thirsty mobs or a thousand years of racist doctrine, sewn through the fabric of American society. He was a perfect role model for Jem and Scout, teaching them that a gun in a shaky hand is no sign of bravery. Jem was the ideal elder brother, who would never tie your plaits to the bed post when you were sleeping (as my brother did to me once) but would rather pick you up when you were falling behind, and reluctantly include you in games thought only fit for boys. Unfortunately, I don’t have the word count to mention in depth Scout’s misunderstood guardian Boo Radley, the gossipy hens clucking away in Maycomb’s parlours, or Dill- Scout’s neighbour who Lee modelled on her friend and author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote. To Kill a Mockingbird is a slight book but these characters capture the spirit and myths of Maycomb, making it seem as if the town has always existed and that by opening the book we have, by chance stumbled across it. So fierce is my attachment to these characters that when the (very) belated prequel Go Set a Watchman was released last year, I raised my fist to the sky in anger at several of the revelations. As readers we want Scout and Jem to remain poised in time, racing back from school, peering into the Radley house and awaiting their father’s return.
Through her words Lee taught many of her readers what it means to be unshakably good, and To Kill a Mockingbird is glazed with the innocence and simplicity of a six year old’s perspective. However, the fate of Tom Robinson showed that Lee was dealing with the reality of the time she was writing and addressing the racism and injustice which clotted America’s veins. Shortly after the novel’s publication students at the University of Mississippi protested against integration at their college and five years prior Rosa Parks made her famous stand on the bus. To Kill a Mockingbird did not show readers a world removed from their own, it held up a mirror and revealed what was happening every day in seemingly nice, respectable towns.
Her celebrity status, bought on by the novel’s immense success led to Lee backing away from public life. She refused to give interviews and only appeared briefly when receiving a literary award. For readers her life is full of gaps and half guesses; the world never truly knew Harper Lee. However we knew Atticus, we knew Scout, Jem, Dill, Boo Radley and Tom Robinson- and for this we must be grateful.